1. Back in the U.S.S.R.
Primary Songwriter: McCartney
Recorded: August 22-23, 1968 at Abbey Road
It’s hard to think of any better way to start The Beatles than with jet engines, social commentary, and a portrayal of the band’s American influence with a hard edge. Had “Back in the U.S.S.R.” been written stateside during this period, it couldn’t have been taken as parody, but Britain had blood-red communists roaming its everyday streets, and this was Paul McCartney’s brilliant political commentary and quite possibly one of the best songs he ever contributed to the Fab Four.
A perfect case of tragedy meets comedy in the popular music realm, “Back in the U.S.S.R” is almost a contradiction of sorts. It was obvious the U.S. had a conflict with the Soviets during this period, and it’s rather interesting that McCartney arranged the song to share Beach Boys surf-guitar kicks and vocal harmonies circa 1965. Let’s also not forget that the title is a play on Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”, and its hook carries the same punch that Berry’s compositions often did. It seemed like the entire band was having fun in a time of personal turmoil—everyone except for Ringo Starr, who stormed off mid-session after arguing with McCartney over the drum part. McCartney, being the perfectionist he is, laid down a fiery drum performance that was just what the doctor ordered.
John Lennon and George Harrison played two of the better guitar performances, sharing the lead spot and chugging along with fast-driven chord breaks. It’s hard to judge Lennon’s character at this time during the Beatles, considering he wrote some of his most controversial tunes for the band during the “White Album” sessions—but as he seemed largely to show little interest in McCartney’s pop compositions during this period, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was right up his alley. Lennon even found himself playing solid rock ‘n’ roll tunes with the Plastic Ono Band, and whether he would come to admit it or not, this is one of the last truly great Lennon-McCartney partnerships.
There are many people that claim there is no place for satire in rock music, and although McCartney’s image has been somewhat tarnished by the media in recent years, he still remains one of the masters at tackling serious issues in a comedic fashion. As the rest of the Westernized world worried about Nuclear power subsiding in the Soviet Union, here’s McCartney claiming things such as “Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia’s always on my my-my-my-my-my-my-my-my mind!” A Beach Boys-style anthem just went from surfing to skiing and furry hats are now all the rage. Nuclear bombs? No way. Nuclear women? You got it, boys. There had to be some Lennon input here subconsciously, because McCartney tuned in one of the best hard rock vocal delivered from below the belt.
“Back in the U.S.S.R.” is not only a political and social commentary, but it’s also a step forward for the Beatles during a period of turmoil in their career. Starr aside, they all put their troubles away and delivered one of the most fierce and joyful performances of their career. Forty years later, it sounds as fresh and fun as it did at the time of release. It may be time to pull this one out again during a time of conflict in the same region, and help people realize again exactly what the Beatles’ made people see during the height of their career: that music truly can change the world.
2. Dear Prudence
Primary Songwriter: Lennon
Recorded: August 28-30, 1968 at Abbey Road
“Dear Prudence” is a sunrise of a song, a description of the perfect day that sets the Beatles experience to a specific place and time. Like much of The Beatles, “Dear Prudence” was born in India and of the Beatles’ 1968 visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Lennon’s distinctive guitar finger-picking is widely believed to have been taught to him by Donovan, who was also in India to meditate with the Maharishi. Prudence is Prudence Farrow, sister of Mia and such a fanatical devotee to the Maharishi that she spent much of the retreat locked away in her room. At the tail end of a demo version of “Dear Prudence”, Lennon cheekily explains, “All the people around her were very worried about the girl because she was going insane. So we sang to her.”
During the recording of The Beatles, a gap began to open between Lennon and McCartney, both personally and in their musical styles. Although most of the Beatles’ catalog is credited to the pair, they didn’t always write that way. Often one would write a piece of a song and the other would help to finish it. By the time they recorded The Beatles, however, the relationships between the Beatles had changed and the collaboration between Lennon and McCartney had eroded.
Lennon was falling in love with Yoko Ono, who suddenly appeared inside the recording booth. As Harrison explains in the Anthology, “there was a lot of ego in the band”. Instead of making decisions within the group, the writer of each song determined how it would sound. Like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, the drumming on “Dear Prudence” is widely credited not to Starr, but to McCartney.
The record opens with “Back in the U.S.S.R”, a high-concept rave-up that sets the tone for McCartney’s other contributions to the record. “Dear Prudence” follows, and does the same for Lennon. Some of his contributions to the The Beatles are in stark contrast with the optimism of “Dear Prudence”. But all of the songs share a raw intimacy.
“Dear Prudence” exudes a vulnerability that Lennon doesn’t bother to hide behind musical embellishments. He is more direct here than in any other song on The Beatles—including “Julia”, which clearly has a more personal subject. The lyrics are simple and sweet and it’s more than a little ironic that, besides the Beatles, the group most identified with “Dear Prudence” is Siouxsie & the Banshees. The punk band’s 1983 cover version of the song was their biggest hit.
On “Dear Prudence”, Lennon’s request builds from a quiet entreaty to a full-blown petition. In the song’s final minute, as Lennon’s voice breaks on the refrain, he is, for all intents and purposes, Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, holding a boombox under a window. It’s hard to imagine how Prudence could resist coming out to play.