It’s hard to imagine just how chaotic and divided a time the 1960s were. Alongside flower power and peace and love, you had the assassinations of presidents and political figures, riots, terrorism, state killings, war, the threat of nuclear annihilation and booming technological progress that gave so much and suddenly rendered many others redundant. If people think that the times are divided now, then just imagine what it was like back then.
With the Cold War waging music tried to uphold an alternative voice, sometimes this was done with full-on protest anthems like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Ohio’, and other times a more satirical approach was taken. For the opening track of the White Album, Paul McCartney opted for the latter option.
For ‘Back In The USSR’, McCartney decided to turn Chuck Berry’s ‘Back In The USA’ on its head and craft a parody with a prescient political message. As ‘Macca’ told Barry Miles in Many Years From Now: “It’s tongue in cheek. 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.”
Even the delivery of the song itself is a considered ironic take on the times. With doo-wop ‘California Girls’ harmonies in the mix, The Beatles returned to their past in an acerbic fashion. “I remember trying to sing it in my Jerry Lee Lewis voice, to get my mindset on a particular feeling. We added Beach Boys-style harmonies,” McCartney adds.
It was distance from the United States itself that helped McCartney to get into the right frame of mind to tackle the political situation unfurling between the USA and the USSR. He wrote the track when the ‘Fab Four’ had absconded to Rishikesh in India while they were meditating with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Also present there was Mike Love of the aforementioned Beach Boys.
Love has his own tale to tell regarding the track, recalling: “I was sitting at the breakfast table and McCartney came down with his acoustic guitar and he was playing ‘Back In The USSR’, and I told him that what you ought to do is talk about the girls all around Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia,” which, I’m sure we can all agree is the most atypical Beach Boys advice ever given.
Love continues: “He was plenty creative not to need any lyrical help from me but I gave him the idea for that little section… I think it was light-hearted and humorous of them to do a take on the Beach Boys.”
Naturally, the songs finger-pointing ways caused a bit of a backlash in the US. The song was so thrillingly open in its satire that unlike songs like Bob Dylan’s ‘With God on Our Side’ or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’, the irony was removed and some American’s felt the full force of political reflection as an attack. The John Birch Society even charged the group with encouraging communism.
On the other side of the Bering Sea, however, things were rather different. The songs was smuggled across after being etched onto old X-Rays like a primitive Flexi-disc and the song contributed to the underground music revolution. The track illuminated the absurdity of the situation and suddenly the unified message of rock ‘n’ roll made a lot of sense to the youth of the USSR. Not bad for a witty take on an old 1950s classic.