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notes on ...

Notes on "Back In The USSR"


Notes on ... Series #130 (BITU)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: A Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Bridge |
                  | Verse (guitar solo) | Refrain | Bridge |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Outro
        CD: "White Album", Disc 1, Track 1 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 22nd, 23rd August 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note Coming on the heels of what the Beatles had been putting out for the two years previous (i.e. "Revolver" through "Magical Mystery Tour" albums plus all the contemporaneous singles), this track has the fresh impact of a palate-cleansing, eye-catching, and ear-opening album opener, if ever there was one: butte, rhythmically tricky, full of not-so-vague tribute-cum-parodistic references, and still, not least of all:
  Right-on, Hard-edged Rock-n-Roll Music, just the same; thank you.
  Next note You'd have to have been born on another planet, or at least in a different century, to miss the several Beach Boys references. I dare say the Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" reference is a tad more subtle (note Paul's Quarrymen cover of "Hallelujah I Love Her So"). But you need be a real Oldies maven to catch the ultimate allusion here, to Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA"; see our .sig file du jour's quotation for confirmation; and don't tell me that Paul didn't know about this. [**]
  Next note And if you admit the flat-III chord into the otherwise insular Blues family of I-IV-V, you've got to admit how much this particular song goes to reinforce (speaking of the Q-men) the Beatles' long-term, essential longing to be a (Rhythm'n) Blues group in spite of whatever novel fusion of disparate musical elements brought them their epochal success and notoriety.
  Next note Phrasing-wise, this song is intriguingly neither twelve-bar nor four-square in its structure.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The tune is very bluesy, with the heavy emphasis on the flattened melodic third making for a frequent dissonant cross relation with the underlying A Major chord structure.
  Next note By the same token, the melodic seventh is entirely avoided in the tune, though it is given some prominence to the saw-tooth-patterned guitar riff which recurs throughout the song:
    1  &  2  &  3  &  4  &   1
   |A  A'    G     F# B# C# |A

   [Figure 130.1]
  Next note The harmonic budget consists primarily of the blues triumvirate of I, IV and V, though flat-III plays a conspicuous supporting role, and there's even a brief cameo for V-of-V.
  Next note We've seen flat-III used by the Beatles a long time ago, way back in "Please Please Me", where it appears as part of a fast moving chord stream on its way to the V chord. In this song, flat-III appears in contexts where the harmonic rhythm is much slower, so that you get a chance to see it play two kinds of character roles:
  • In the verse, it sits between two vacillating appearances of the IV chord, connoting a gesture of approach-avoidance.
  • In the refrain, it is used as a kind of sub-sub-dominant chord which, goose-like (read: fondling, not fowl species), sneaks up on IV from behind.
  Next note The bassline recurrently incorporates chromatic scale fills as a leitmotif.


  Next note The finished version is a thick patchwork of many elements and overdubs; piano, guitars, multiple drum tracks, hand clapping, and, of course, the ubiquitous jet plane. And, while perhaps more freely thrown together than the typical Beatles' track, you still find some underlying choreography:
  • Intro features jet plane, drums and guitars.
  • First verse adds pounding piano in relentless eighth-note chords.
  • First refrain adds hand claps and guitar hook.
  • Second verse and second refrain repeat their pattern.
  • First bridge is a "tutti;" and adds the backing vocals.
  • Guitar solo verse has studio chat in the background.
  • The final pair of verse and refrain features the hand clapping mixed more forward.
  • The final verse also has that sustained high note in the guitar.
  • The outro uses just the guitar hook, studio chat, and jet plane to cross-fade into the next track.
  Next note In the vocal department, Paul's lead is single tracked for the verses and (automatically?) doubled for the refrains and bridges. The backing vocals appear in the bridges as both a doubling of the chromatic bassline and to provide a falsetto counterpoint to the lead.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The track leads in with a few seconds of jet plane noise and a stray lead guitar lick. We then have four measures of pounding on the V chord with increasing insistence that it be resolved. Contrast this to the laid-back Esher [**] demo of this song whose first four measures are on the I chord with an oscillating "5-6-5" in the upper voice!
  Next note The first two measures have a syncopated whack on the fourth beat. Not repeating this in the final two measures is a nice example of foolish consistency avoided.
  Next note And that vocal exclamation at the very end of the section: yes, it's Paul, but it obviously exists on a different layer of the mix than does lead vocal which kicks off in the next measure.
  [** The so-called Esher demos consist of 26 demos recorded at George Harrison's Esher bungalow, between the return of Lennon and Harrison from Rishikesh, India, in April 1968 and the start of the recordings for the "White Album" on the 30th of May 1968. Some of these were released on "Anthology", Volume 3.]


  Next note The verse is a four-square eight measures long with two identical phrases, the second of which always leads into a refrain:
       ----------------------- 2X ------------------------
      |A           |D           |C           |D           |
   A:  I            IV           flat-III     IV

   [Figure 130.2]


  Next note The refrain is an unusual six measures long, built out of three short phrases; the last of which appears in two variants depending on whether the following section is a verse of bridge:
           |A              |C              |
            I               flat-III

           |D              |-              |


                            1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
           |A              |- D D#E -      |
            I                 IV  V

   #endif /* VERSE_TO_FOLLOW

     Bass: |A              |A  B  C   C#   |
   Chords: |A              |-              |
            I               (V-of-IV)

   #endif /* REFRAIN_TO_FOLLOW

   [Figure 130.3]
  Next note The harmonic rhythm of the final measure is heavily syncopated in all cases with the bassline sliding from D up to E via D#.
  Next note The second phrase of the second refrain is curiously extended by an unusual measure and a half, creating an effect not unlike a "broken record".


  Next note The break is metrically the most elastic section; four phrases in an ABAC poetry pattern, with the last one followed by a two measure extension in all cases:
 Chords: |D              |-              |
      A:  IV

                   Bass: |A   B   C  C#  |
 Chords: |A              |-              |
      A:  I

   Bass: |D      C#      |C-nat   B      |
 Chords: |D              |               |
      A:  IV                     (V-of-V)

 Chords: |E              |D              |
      A:  V               IV

                          1 & 2 & 3  4
 Chords: |A              |- D D#E -      |
      A:  I                 IV  V

   [Figure 130.4]
  Next note To the extent that both bridges are followed by a verse, it makes perfect sense that the last measure of this section be very similar to the last measure of the VERSE_TO_FOLLOW refrain.


  Next note The outro settles for a whooping, four-fold repeat of the guitar hook over an unchanging I chord. The actual ending is both abrupt and ricocheting. The latter effect bears comparison with the ending of "Birthday"; also in the key of A, and also the lead-off track on its respective disk.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note The "White Album" provides a perspective from which to consider how the Beatles opened their albums over the course of time. For the first six albums, it might be on a downbeat or it might be coming off an anacrustic pickup, but in all cases, the scratchy silence of the run-in groove is broken with a clear-cut, sometimes startling sound:
   Album                 Song                Opening
   ------------------    ---------------     ---------------
   "Please Please Me"    I Saw Her Stan ...  count-in pickup
   "With The Beatles"    It Won't Be Lo ...  sung pickup
   "Krinkst Die Nacht"   A Hard Day's N ...  downbeat
   "Beatles For Sale"    No Reply            sung pickup
   "Ouch!"               Help!               downbeat
   "Rubber Soul"         Baby You Can D ...  downbeat
  Then, in three out of the next four albums you find, while the music itself still has a clear-cut beginning, the recorded track leads in with an indeterminate, chaotic background as a foil against which the music emerges:
   "Revolver"            Taxman              studio noise,
                                             wrong count-in
   "Sgt. Pepper's ..."   Sgt. Pepper's ...   audience noise
   "Magical Mystery ..." Magical Mystery ... downbeat
   "The Beatles"         Back in the USS ... jet plane noise,
                                             ad-lib guitar
  Yet, "in the end", you find them, again, opting for the clear-cut opener:
   "Yellow Submarine"    Yellow Submarine    sung pickup
   "Abbey Road"          Come Together       downbeat
   "Let It Be"           Two of Us           downbeat
  Of course, if you want to be a wiseguy about it, you can argue that the final entry on the list should not be "Let It Be", but rather the following, in which case, the last vote falls into the emergence-from-chaos side of the ledger:
   "Get Back"            One After 909       rooftop noise,
                                             piano glissando
  But, even so, I think it's clear-cut and startling aesthetic that predominates, overall. The mid-cycle run of fade-in examples are, if anything, to be interpreted as an experimental, tongue-in-cheek challenge to the norm.
  Alan (052797#130)
  [** To his original e-mail messages Pollack always adds a quote from a so-called '.sig file'. The quote to this article was: "...We just touched ground on an international runway, Jet propelled back home from overseas to the USA."]
Copyright © 1997 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.