There can be no doubt that when we look back at the golden age of pop music, Paul McCartney’s name will rise to the top as the cream of the crop. A superb songwriting partner to John Lennon within The Beatles, McCartney has continued to dominate the charts with almost every release since. Across decades he has always relied on his wit and wonder to create songs that could leave Mozart blushing. But, perhaps one of his most enjoyable albums of all time is a covers record.
Paul McCartney is an artist who has consistently refused to be pinned down. His solo career has encompassed a wide variety of styles, including Christmas songs, electronica and rock operas. A man seemingly willing to have a go at everything while remaining music’s most affable character, McCartney has given us many classic moments over the years. Whether they be brilliant, hilarious or downright terrible, he has crossed every bridge possible over his long and illustrious career.
After The Beatles disbanded in 1970, McCartney truly moonlighted as a solo artist. Whilst his solo efforts are overshadowed by that of his old songwriting partner John Lennon, his output in the 1970s is, at points, was rather good. He wrote surreal tunes such as ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, the controversial ‘Give Ireland Back To The Irish’ and Wings’ magnum opus Band on the Run. In many ways, Paul McCartney, the solo artist, can very much be regarded as a leader of the 1970s.
This is not to discount his work after the decade where ‘classic rock’ was usurped by punk. In fact, 1980 saw McCartney give us perhaps his most celebrated album, McCartney II. Not only did it contain classics such as ‘Coming Up’, but its experimental style also gave way to some pioneering electronica. The third single, ‘Temporary Secretary’, is without a doubt one of his best pieces of work and is celebrated by musos and internet forums alike. A strange and catchy piece of electronica, McCartney managed to do Hot Chip before Hot Chip.
Then, as if his character as an iconoclast wasn’t already solidified, in 1991, McCartney would release an album that was the true embodiment of his versatile character. If we rewind 34 years, all the way back to July 1987, we will find the perennially optimistic McCartney in a bit of a dilemma. He released his sixth studio album, Press to Play, in August 1986, but it was a largely forgettable body of work, met with a tepid reaction, as the public interest in the rock “gods” of old was at an all-time low. Undeterred, McCartney spent the first half of 1987 plotting a triumphant return to form.
One afternoon, he jammed with some of his favourite musicians from his childhood back in the ’50s, and together, they played some of his favourite songs and rock ‘n’ roll numbers from the time. Absolutely thrilled, McCartney opted to record some of these renditions in the studio.
Over the course of July 20th and 21st, 1987, McCartney recorded 20 songs. Some of which, such as a rendition of The Beatles’ ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, remain unreleased. Being the madcap genius that he is, with no end of zany trick up his sleeve, McCartney originally wanted to release the new album in the United Kingdom outside of regular distribution channels in an attempt to make it appear as if the album had been smuggled in across the Iron Curtain from the Soviet Union. As it was the Cold War and the fact it made no logistical sense whatsoever, McCartney’s label EMI quickly shut down the idea. This was a shame as McCartney’s manager had already had a batch of LP’s pressed with special Russian-language covers. These were intended as an early Christmas present to McCartney, but fear not, they would go above and beyond what was originally expected.
At a loss of what to do with this batch of records, McCartney swiftly conceived the idea that the album should actually be released in the Soviet Union as a token of peace. After all, it was the period of ‘glasnost’ where both the US and USSR had cooled their antithetical tensions. Furthermore, Soviet politician, Mikhail Gorbachev, was embarking on an unprecedented campaign of “openness and transparency”, giving the Soviet people more freedom than they had ever enjoyed before.
An agreement was made with the Soviet government-run record company, Melodiya. It licenced 400,000 copies of the album for release in the Soviet Union, with no exports. The album was to be released solely in the USSR and nowhere else. This was a mammoth step into the post-Cold War future for McCartney and his team.
Entitled Снова в СССР, the album’s title was the direct Russian translation of the 1968 Beatles classic ‘Back in the USSR’. Lapped up by the Russian public, who had become more and more Westernised over the course of the ’80s, the first pressing of 50,000 copies sold out almost overnight. Other pressings were quickly released, and the album, containing 11 covers, was a resounding success.
Although the licence had been signed for there to be no exports out of the USSR, it was the Cold War, and smuggling abounded. In a surreal role reversal, where usually the USSR would be smuggled in records from Western Europe, this time, our Soviet music lovers found themselves at the better end of the deal. Some fetched up to $100 to $250 dollars in the US for the record and others up to £500 in the UK.
Owing to its cult and widely sought after status, the album was eventually released to the rest of the world in 1991. Retrospectively, one would argue that it is actually one of McCartney’s most potent albums ever released.
Featuring covers of Leiber and Stoller’s 1952 classic rocker ‘Kanas City’, Sam Cooke‘s 1962 soul staple ‘Bring It On Home to Me’ and a rendition of the traditional folk song ‘Midnight Special’, Снова в СССР, it is a refreshing break within McCartney’s repertoire.
Personally, the highlight is track six. The stellar cover of Duke Ellington’s 1940 track, ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’. Rocking yet melodic, it’s like listening to a young, zesty McCartney playing at one of the clubs in Liverpool where he first cut his teeth. Furthermore, the end of the track is brilliant, and the guitar solo is pure quality. I just wish it could be longer.
A surreal moment in McCartney’s career, Снова в СССР is always worth a revisit. A breath of fresh air that sees the middle-aged McCartney go back to his roots, and it really pays off. It’s a clear indicator that if you’re stuck in a creative quagmire, it’s always a good bet to return to your roots.
Listen to Снова в СССР in full below.