The wonderful Cirque du Soleil Love mashup of the Beatles catalogue wisely segues Revolution B into Back in the USSR and strips it down to its basic hard rock credentials to fit into the show. Giles Martin’s genius work lovingly remastered, remixed and mashed up the Beatles catalogue for Cirque du Soleil into a fluid show soundtrack. John and Paul decided that for the White Album they would concentrate on crossfades to celebrate each song; work they completed together over 24 hours, as they sequenced the White Album along with Ken Scottt and a tanned George Martin starting at 5.00pm Wednesday 16th October 1968. Their first crossfade is from EMI Sound Effects Volume 17 “Jet and Piston Engine Aeroplane” right into Paul’s pounding four square drumming… and the White Album takes-off!
Back in The USSR is Paul and John on drums, George and Paul on bass and John and George on guitars and with vocals, harmonies and overdubs they recorded the whole track in 8 hours from 7pm on Friday 24th August 1968. Reassuringly, at the time, it kicked off the new album with a rocker in the great tradition of I Saw Here Standing There, Taxman and Sgt. Peppers itself. It’s not an overture like Magical Mystery Tour it’s the lead-off track for a quintessential Beatles album, the biggest selling double album of all time, and Paul is still singing it live as a highlight of his 21st century stage show, even in Russia. It’s a rocking and ironic tribute, in a 1968 stylee to Chuck Berry and American Rock n Roll but leavened with those killer Beatles harmonies that create their signature earworms that never, ever leave you; ooh, wooh, ooh…
50 Years Ago Today Ringo wasn’t in the Beatles
For our discussion about the White Album 50 years later Back in the USSR is the perfect track to start with because it acts as a metaphor for the creative “atelier,” or artists studio, work practices of the White Album, and Ringo isn’t even on it. Ringo had finished his songs for the White Album, Don’t Pass Me By and Good Night, on July 22nd and then feeling unloved on August 22nd it was Good Night from him; he quit. Although he did discover his Octupus Garden with Peter Sellers whilst away, no one had told Ringo that they were working in a brand new way; as a studio-based artists collective. I only realised this in hindsight when writing about the Learning Creativity of the Beatles when I mapped out how they had made each album and realised that their work practices kept evolving as they became ever more creative. With Apple artists like Mary Hopkin, Doris Troy, Billy Preston and James Taylor to produce The Beatles were now whoever turned up; a sixties “World Cafe” where they would remake/remodel themselves every day..
On 15 May 1968 on the Johnny Carson Show in NYC John and Paul had launched Apple Corps, their artist-run record label, as “western communism” and Back in The USSR captured this East/West metaphor, lovingly taking the piss out of Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA chauvinism, The Beach Boys harmonies and good old-fashioned American McCarthyism. This infuriated David A. Noebel at the time who said; “the Beatles were an integral part of the revolutionary milieu and received high marks from the Communist press especially for the White Album which contained Back in The USSR.” In fact The Beatles were officially ignored by the USSR as Stalin had formally banned “syncopation” in all music in 1930, when jazz became too popular, and so their songs were not sung at either the popular Soviet folk and song festivals of the time.
Worked up by Paul in discussion with Mr Love, an actual Beach Boy, from an earlier song he’d strummed up in Rishikesh, Back In The USSR is one of the songs that benefitted most from the open collaborative atmosphere at their transcendental meditation camp; Ringo’s mountaintop Butlins. The chorus gloriously flips the Beach Boys California Girls paean to American women into one about Soviet girls. I always loved its joyously cheeky chorus about Moscow and Georgia; its expressive fun hits you and reels you in. I loved it even more a few years later when I was knocked out by a Ukrainian Second Generation Woman who told me that all her Ukrainian girlfriends used to play Back In The USSR constantly and sing “the Ukraine girls really knock me out” at the top of their voices; karaoke 1970s style.
Thanks to her comradely warmth I later wrote a thesis about Ukrainian anarchism (Nestor Makno & the zaporozhe 1917-21) and, apart from much else, I can tell you what is really going on back in the Eastern Ukraine.
But Back In The USSR isn’t just a knock me out soundtrack in my life of love and politics but it also helped Rock The Kremlin, as
Jack mentioned. Leslie Woodhead, who made the deathless film of the Beatles singing Some Other Guy in The Cavern on 22nd August 1962, four days after Ringo joined, documents this story in How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin. And, of course, the first public Beatles place in the USSR was in the Ukraine; Kiev’s Kavern Klub. Woodhead argues that the songs of The Beatles helped bring down the Soviet Union as so many responded to its syncopated joy as “this is the truth.” Back in the USSR did launch a form of musical samizdat that ultimately help changed Russia so that they could hear their balalaika’s ringing out. If this was the effect of The Beatles on the peoples of the USSR when they were operating at just 3/4 strength what might happen once the boys were a Fab Four again and painted their masterpiece? Ringo would rejoin The Beatles on 3rd September 1968 with flowers lovingly placed on his drum kit by George and it was all down to Twickenham Studios for Hey Jude.
In 1968 Back in the USSR, still yet to bring down the evil empire, was just the first track of 30 on the White Album and features a patent John & Paul edited cross-fade into Dear Prudence; track two. Dear Prudence however, was recorded earlier on the eight-track at Trident Studios at a cost of £436 for a day’s work. The new manager at EMI Studios (only later renamed Abbey Road studios after The Beatles 1969 album) was determined to show the Beatles that they were employees of EMI and wouldn’t get away with the selfishly slow practices used on Sgt. Pepper; still in the album charts 15 months later.
50 Years Ago Today the Beatles had to steal an 8-track. They had to physically liberate the new 3M 8-track recorder locked away in the EMI Studios office of tech expert Francis Thompson. At the instigation of The Beatles, as George Martin was away on holiday throughout September 1968, tech engineer David Harries actually stole and installed the recorder so that Beatles could record on an 8-track at their base studio. Hacking their own work place! The British class system still operated with exquisite idiocy; Chaos and creation in their backyard even in 1968…
Fred Garnett 2nd September 2018