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How a meditative retreat inspired a controversial song by The Beatles

@SamWKemp

When it was released in November 1968, The Beatles song ‘Back In The USSR’ became the target of an intense conservative backlash in America. 

The attack on The Beatles, who had just returned from a meditative sojourn in India, was led by the John Birch Society, which charged the group with encouraging communism. In Russia, however, the song became a fan favourite after tapes were secretly smuggled into the country. 

Looking back, the reaction that greeted the release of ‘Back In The USSR’ perfectly encapsulates that divisive moment of The Beatles’ career. The group were going through a period of tension and transition, with both their return from India and the release of ‘Back In The USSR’ acting as pivotal moments in the relationship between East and West. Arguably, The Beatles’ relationship with India was instrumental to the popularisation of yoga and meditation in western cultures, both practices that have since become mainstays of the mindfulness movement.

‘Back In The USSR’ was written in Rishikesh, India, while The Beatles were meditating with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Struggling under the pressure of fame, the Fab Four withdrew from western society and retreated to an ashram to study transcendental meditation. The period of mindfulness influenced The Beatles in an array of subtle ways. Not only did it help to steer their songcraft towards the more experimental and meditative territory, but it also helped to temporarily heal the inter-band conflicts that had been plaguing John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr for some time.

It also catalysed a period of creative energy. As Paul Saltzman, the photographer who captured The Beatles stay in India, recalled: “There were no fans, no press, no rushing around with busy schedules. And in this freedom, they created more great music than in any similar period in their illustrious careers.” 

Being so detached from the music world of the US and UK, The Beatles were able to treat their songwriting with a lack of pretence. ‘Back In The USSR’, for example, seems to laugh at the seriousness of the world they had left behind. McCartney would go on to describe the song as “tongue in cheek” before detailing further: “This is a travelling Russkie who has just flown in from Miami Beach; he’s come the other way. He can’t wait to get back to the Georgian mountains: ‘Georgia’s always on my mind’; there’s all sorts of little jokes in it… I remember trying to sing it in my Jerry Lee Lewis voice, to get my mind set on a particular feeling. We added Beach Boys-style harmonies.”

The reference to The Beach Boys was in part inspired by the presence of one of the group’s founding members, Mike Love. Love once recalled how he’d encouraged Paul McCartney to treat ‘Back In The USSR’ with a degree of playfulness: “I was sitting at the breakfast table and McCartney came down with his acoustic guitar and he was playing ‘Back In The USSR’,” Love began.

“And I told him that ‘what you ought to do is talk about the girls all around Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia’. He was plenty creative not to need any lyrical help from me but I gave him the idea for that little section,” he added . “I think it was light-hearted and humorous of them to do a take on the Beach Boys.” 

The Beatles’ return from India, however, marked the beginning of the end. Rather than returning together, each member boarded a separate flight and returned to England on their own, foreshadowing the isolation and strident individualism that would spell the group’s demise just two years later.

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