Back in the USSR

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Clifford Thies provides his top-ten list of Cold War songs, and it is a treat. But it is more than delightful. It’s a knockout.

When I discovered the list, I eagerly looked to see where Thies put the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR.” He put it at #2, behind Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

Paul McCartney said that the 1968 song’s BOAC airline passenger from Miami Beach to the USSR is a Russian spy returning home after an extended mission in the United States. As evidenced on the song’s Wikipedia page, interpretations vary. A shiftiness allows for seeing it as a parody of the songs it imitates. Alternatively, it can be seen as a homage to those songs and thankfulness for Western freedom and its culture and, correspondingly, a criticism of unfreedom.

McCartney howls: “Back in the US, back in the US, back in the USSR.”

When the lyrics tell of things USSR and the spy sings, “You don’t know how lucky you are, boy,” does he mean a boy back in the US? I see the song that way. When the spy sings, “Been away so long I hardly knew the place. Gee, it’s good to be back home,” it seems ironic. Why would it be so good to be back home if you now hardly knew the place?

The spy tells of how the Ukraine girls knock him out, and leave the West behind, while the Moscow girls make him sing and shout “That Georgia’s always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind.” Those lyrics recall “Georgia on My Mind,” an old song made newly famous in 1960 by Ray Charles, who was born in Georgia. Maybe it is the US state of Georgia that’s on the spy’s mind—it’s not far from Florida where the airplane departed from. Maybe the once-lucky boy should have defected while he had the chance.

McCartney said he sung the verses with his Jerry Lee Lewis voice. The bridge, telling of girls by country region, harmonizes and is gloriously Beach Boys, after the classic “California Girls,” also using “warm” and “south.” The underlying tunefulness of “Back in the USSR” celebrates the songs that it draws from, while certain sounds give it all an ironic feeling.

As far as the lyrics go, the main referent is Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.” Both “Back in the USA” and “Back in the USSR” start with the narrator returning home by touching down on an international runway. Chuck Berry’s song is a simple expression of love. He doesn’t tell of girls, but like McCartney and like the Beach Boys, Chuck gets around:

New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you
Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge
Let alone just to be at my home back in ol’ St. Lou.

Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway?
From the coast of California to the shores of the Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U. S. A.

Berry’s song says simply: “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA.” The Beatles song, however, begins with a dreadful flight, the vomit bag on his knee, and feels a little queasy throughout.

“Back in the USSR” was released six months after the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. My interpretation seems to agree with the Soviets’. The Wikipedia page says:

Although the Beatles were never allowed to perform in the USSR, Elton John was permitted to visit the country in 1979 in a historic concert tour… He sang “Back in the U.S.S.R.” as his closing song throughout the tour, ignoring an official request after his opening show that he not do so… In the 1980s McCartney was refused permission to perform in the USSR.

Meanwhile, Stateside, on July 4, 1984, the Beach Boys performed “Back in the USSR” in Washington, DC and were joined by Ringo Starr. Ringo told a reporter: “Happy Birthday [America] … Sorry we lost.”

In his 2016 autobiography, Good Vibrations, Beach Boy Mike Love said: “‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ was a helluva song, and it’s lasted longer than the country.”

But, joking aside, Thies’s list is worth an hour of contemplation. The set of ten is a noble effort against tyranny. Take a listen. Lord knows where things are headed.

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