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Why are three Beatles drumming on 'Back in the U.S.S.R'?


It’s one of the more trivia-friendly facts from The Beatles’ very trivia-friendly career: The Beatles, also known as The White Album, kicks off with a track that only features three Beatles. In fact, Ringo Starr doesn’t actually show up on the album until the third song, ‘Glass Onion’. For an album so synonymous with the band’s fractured relationships, The Beatles doesn’t do a whole lot to hide those cracks when it kicks off in soviet-celebrating style.

Recorded during a brief period when Starr walked out of the frustrating and difficult album sessions, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ sounds like a full-band freak out of the highest order, featuring layers of guitars and harmonies that fill out an otherwise less-than-whole band. Another element that was subject to multiple overdubs was the song’s drum track, which gives credit to all three members who contributed to the song’s arrangement.

As he did with a number of songs on The Beatles, Paul McCartney contributed the main drum part that anchors ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, but on the official album credits, both John Lennon and George Harrison are credited with playing drums as well. How did that work? Did all three play three different kits at the same time? Did the three each take a section of the kit? How can three musicians, none of whom are experienced drummers, all be credited with playing drums on one track?

The answer is a little bit complicated. When McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison recorded the basic track for ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, the lineup was McCartney on drums, Harrison on rhythm guitar, and Lennon on Fender VI Bass. The song then began to be assembled in Frankenstein like fashion, with both McCartney and Harrison adding separate bass overdubs as well as lead guitar lines. McCartney also added piano to the track, while Harrison took the first crack at adding drum overdubs, playing over Lennon’s bass part which was subsequently wiped from the tape.

As the overdubs continued to pile up, Lennon decided that he too wanted a try at drums, or more specifically one drum. According to author John Winn, Lennon overdubbed the entire performance just playing the snare drum on the second and fourth beats of every measure. While the final drum performance is mostly McCartney’s original rhythms, both Lennon and Harrison had some percussion that remained in the final mix.

A week later, Starr still hadn’t returned to the group, so the remaining Beatles continued to forge ahead with one of Lennon’s new compositions, ‘Dear Prudence’. As he did for the backing track of ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’, McCartney once again took a seat behind the drum kit for the initial recording of the song. This time, though, McCartney would be the only drummer to contribute. Starr would return shortly after, but when The Beatles was sequenced with ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and ‘Dear Prudence’ as the first two tracks, Starr had to wait to make his first appearance on the album.