What’s The Secret Behind Back In The USSR By The Beatles?

11 November 2018, 09:00 | Updated: 11 November 2018, 09:01

The Beatles in 1968
The Beatles in 1968. Picture: AP/REX/Shutterstock

It’s the opening track from the legendary White Album… but what angst did the jolly rock ’n’ roll classic hide?

With the release of a spoecial 50th anniversary reissue of the classic "White Album", we’ve been reminded of the classic Beatles song Back In The USSR.

With the sound of squealing aircraft engines and a screech of guitar, this is a pure piece of Beatles rock ’n’ roll that kicked off the Fab Four’s ninth studio album, titled simply The Beatles, but named by everyone “The white Album” after its blank sleeve design. But the song hid a secret - The Beatles had started to split up.

The song is a perfect Paul McCartney pastiche of the Beach Boys’ happy go lucky style: it’s a spoof of the US band’s carefree California Girls, but with a satirical spin. In this version, the narrator is exclaiming how happy he is to be back behind the “Iron Curtain” in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The beatles - Back in the U.S.S.R

The beatles - Back in the U.S.S.R

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Taking his title from rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry’s 1959 hit Back In The USA, McCartney wrote the song when The Beatles were on a retreat in Rishikesh, India studying meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the Spring of 1968. Present at the camp was actual Beach Boy Mike Love and armed with only their acoustic guitars, The Beatles came up with more than 30 songs in the time spent in India.

The Beatles in India, March 1968
The Beatles in India, March 1968. Picture: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On his return McCartney played the song to his friends, including brother Mike and The Beatles’ official biographer Hunter Davies, who was then in the final stages of writing his book on the group. Davies noted that Mike McCartney suggested they get the real Beach Boys in to do the backing vocals - but Paul vetoed that idea.

The song made the final cut for the new album, but it wasn’t to be an ordinary Beatles session. Midway through rehearsing the song at Abbey Road for the first time, the tensions that had been growing between the Beatles came to boiling point - and Ringo Starr quit!

“Ringo was always sitting in the reception area waiting, just sitting there or reading a newspaper,”Abbey Road man Ron Richards later told Beatles writer Mark Lewisohn. He used to sit there for hours waiting for the others to turn up. One night he couldn’t stand it any longer.”

The Beatles, July 1968
The Beatles, July 1968. Picture: Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

Starr recalled that he was feeling “unloved” and returned after a couple of weeks, but this meant that Back In The USSR - one of the greatest Beatles rock ’n’ roll tracks - was recorded without Ringo on drums.

Engineer Ken Scott, who later went on to produce David Bowie, told Lewisohn: “They did [it] with what I seem to recall was a composite drum track of bits and pieces, possibly with all of the other three playing drums.” Certainly, accomplished drummer Paul McCartney seems the most likely candidate to get the credit.

Ringo returned after some time away to find his drum kit festooned with flowers and “Welcome Back” signs and the “White Album” continued. The first thing anyone heard when the album was released on 22 November 1968 was the sound of a jet airliner coming into land, which signalled the start of Side 1, Track 1: Back In The USSR.

McCartney told writer Barry Miles in 1997: “It’s a jokey song, but it’s also become a bit of an anthem now. Probably my single most important reason for going to Russia would be to play it.”

And Macca did play it in Russia, six years after he made those comments, when he played Moscow’s Red Square on 24 May 2003. In fact, he played it twice!

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