More than 50 years ago now, as the Cold War was ever at risk of turning nuclearly hot, the Beatles released one of their more controversial songs: “Back in the USSR.”
What inspired the Beatles to write the song? And what do the lyrics tell us about its original meaning?
Were the Beatles making a pro-Soviet political statement, or were they just poking innocent fun at the western idealism expressed by the prevailing culture and their musical peers at the time?
Now that the Russian head of state has emerged as a clear villain on the world stage, does “Back in the USSR” take on a different meaning?
These questions and more are answered below in this edition of Behind The Song.
The writing, lyrics, and original meaning of “Back in the USSR.”
Talk about an international conception—Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote the lyrics to the titularly Russian song in India, to riff off Chuck Berry’s pro-America song “Back in the USA,” after being originally inspired by Britain’s industrially provincial “I’m Backing Britain” campaign.
Yes, to escape fame and learn transcendental meditation in 1968, the band traveled to Rishikesh, a trip that was uniquely productive for McCartney in particular, who later claimed to have penned fifteen songs during his five-week stay.
One of those songs was “Back in the USSR,” which comes from the perspective of a Russian spy, who after an extended stay in America, returns home to the Soviet Union and indulges in those most Russian of pleasantries: the icily beautiful landscape, and the warmth and favors of Russian women.
Oh, show me ’round your snow-peaked mountains way down south
Take me to your daddy’s farm
Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out
Come and keep your comrade warm
Been away so long, I hardly knew the place
Gee, it’s good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey, disconnect the phone
Those lyrics are a spoof on how Americans often miss their conveniences while traveling out of the country, craving things like fast food and a Howard Johnson hotel. McCartney wondered, what would happen if a Russian spy thought the same after being away from his own country?
Oh, let me tell you, honey
Hey, I’m back
I’m back In the USSR (Woo, ooh, ooh)
Hey, it’s so good to be home (Woo, ooh, ooh)
Yeah, back in the USSR
How the culture interpreted the sarcastic song at the time.
“Back in the USSR” peaked at just No. 19 on the UK Single Chart, a modest ranking relative to some of the Beatles’ other galactically popular songs. And later, Rolling Stone would slot it in as only the 85th best of the Beatles songs.
Critical response was mixed as well. While some saw it as screaming with excitement and ingenious, others saw it as half-hearted and limp.
But the strongest rebuke of the track came from the political sphere, where many across the left-right spectrum accused it as being sympathetic to socialism, and further evidence of the Beatles’ pro-soviet sentiment.
While many of those critiques are drably serious for what is obviously a sarcastic song, it can not be disputed that the song struck a certain chord.
As the monstrosities of Vietnam were televised, the public’s belief in the notion of Americanism began to wane for the first time. In search of a geopolitical alternative, it was natural that the culture’s gaze fix upon the Soviet Union, a perfect foil to the West.
That is why “Back in the USSR” elicited such strong reactions back then.
What does “Back in the USSR” mean to us today?
Obviously, the title of the track has now been made provocative as the Russian head of state embraces expansionism, and literally attempts to return Russian borders back to something resembling what they were in the time of the USSR.
But outside of that, current events do little to change the meaning of the song. The song was not pro-Soviet. And there really is no nuanced political meaning woven into the lyrics.
Oftentimes the songs we perceive as being rich with complexity started off as little more than a musician’s desire to experiment and do something different.
That was the case when the Eagles wrote the hazy lyrics to “Hotel California,” when Don McLean wrote the broadly allegorical “American Pie,” and when the Beatles wrote the provocative, if only at surface level, lyrics to “Back to the USSR .”
Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images