Paul McCartney, in the minds of many, is one of the most revolutionary musicians to impact popular culture. With The Beatles, Wings and his solo material, Macca has been able to traverse genres, themes and societal changes to remain relevant in an ever-changing landscape. While continually pushing new sonic boundaries, the former Beatle has also never been afraid to reference his contemporaries as motivation, often wearing inspiration on his sleeve.
Reflecting on the music that has helped shape his creative output, Mccartney once revealed his all-time favourite song to the world. To many people’s surprise, the song he chose wasn’t taken from The Beatles’ extensive back catalogue, but from one of the band’s apparent rivals, The Beach Boys, and their iconic song ‘God Only Knows’.
Given that Paul McCartney and the legendary Brian Wilson often looked across at one another for inspiration, it seems right that their song material should overlap. However, one Beatles track was written as a “Beach Boys parody” by the Liverpudlian musician.
These days, 60 years down the line, the many inspirations that fall into pop music are so vast and varied that it seems a bit pointless to try and figure them all out. But back in 1968, as The Beatles prepared to release their incredible record The White Album, it was still a reasonably straight line to draw from one artist to another.
What’s more, usually, great artists were more than happy to share their inspiration, candid in their appreciation of the art that went before them. That can indeed be said of Paul McCartney when talking about The White Album song, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R’. “Chuck Berry once did a song called ‘Back In The USA,’ which is very American, very Chuck Berry,” said McCartney back in ’68.
“[The song was] very sort of, uhh…you know, you’re serving in the army, and when I get back home I’m gonna kiss the ground. And you know— Can’t wait to get back to the States. And it’s a very American sort of thing, I’ve always thought. So this one is like about…In my mind it’s just about a spy who’s been in America a long long time, you know, and he’s picked up… And he’s very American. But he gets back to the USSR, you know, and he’s sort of saying, ‘Leave it till tomorrow, honey, to disconnect the phone,’ and all that. And ‘Come here honey,’ but with Russian women. It concerns the attributes of Russian women.”
However, that’s not where the inspiration ended. As well as being directly inspired by Chuck Berry, McCartney also confessed in 1984: “I wrote that as a kind of Beach Boys parody. And ‘Back in the USA’ was a Chuck Berry song, so it kinda took off from there. I just liked the idea of Georgia girls and talking about places like the Ukraine as if they were California, you know?”
The song also offered The Beatles a chance to ensure their message was reaching all corners of the globe. “It was also hands across the water, which I’m still conscious of,” said McCartney in the same interview. “‘Cuz they like us out there, even though the bosses in the Kremlin may not. The kids do.”
The song is also beloved by Beatles fans for its curious arrangement. Not that sonically the music is avant-garde, but because the band members all switch up instruments. John Lennon plays six-string bass on the track while McCartney sat in on the drums for Ringo, he remembered, “I’m sure it pissed Ringo off when he couldn’t quite get the drums to ‘Back In The U.S.S.R,’ and I sat in. It’s very weird to know that you can do a thing someone else is having trouble with.”
Ringo, being the affable sort of chap he is, quickly got over the perceived insult and the band delivered a stellar record in The White Album. Often seen as one of their best, the LP wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good without a little bit of direct competition and inspiration from The Beach Boys.