Notes on "Back In The USSR (BITU)
KEY A Major
FORM Intro -> Verse -> Refrain
Verse -> Refrain -> Bridge ->
Verse (Guitar solo) -> Refrain -> Bridge ->
Verse -> Refrain -> Outro
GENERAL POINTS OF INTEREST
Style and Form
- 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: bute, rhythmically tricky, full of
not-so-vague tribute-cum-parodistic references, and still, not least
Right-on, Hard-edged Rock-n-Roll Music, just the same; thank you.
- 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
"Halleleujah 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 quotatation for confirmation; and don't tell me
that Paul didn't know about this.
- 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.
- Phrasing-wise, this song is intruigingly neither 12-bar nor four-
square in its stucture.
Melody and Harmony
- The tune is very bluesy, with the heavy emphasis on the flattened
melodic 3rd making for a frequent dissonant cross relation with
the underlying A Major chord structure.
- By the same token, the melodic 7th 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
- The harmonic budget consists primarily of the blues triumverate
of I-IV-V, though flat-III plays a conspicuous supporting role,
and there's even a brief cameo for V-of-V.
- We've seen flat-III used by the Beatles a long time ago, way
"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.
- The bassline recurrently incorporates chromatic scale fills as
- 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
- Verse 1, add pounding piano in relentness eighthnote chords
- Refrain 1, add hand claps and guitar hook
- Verse 2 and Refrain 2 repeat their pattern
- Bridge 1 is a "tutti;" and adds the backing vocals
- Guitar solo verse has studio chat in the background
- The final Verse/Refrain pair feature the handclapping mixed
more foreward. 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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 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
- The refain is an unnusual 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 |
|D |- |
1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
|A |- D D#E - |
I IV V
#endif /* VERSE_TO_FOLLOW
bass |A |A B C C# |
chords: |A |- |
#endif /* REFRAIN_TO_FOLLOW
- The harmonic rhythm of the final measure is heavily syncopated in
all cases with the bassline sliding from D up to E via D#.
- The second phrase of Refrain #2 is curiously extended by an unusual
measure and a half, creating an effect not unlike a "broken record."
- 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:
|D |- |
bass |A B C C# |
|A |- |
bass |D C# |C-nat. B |
|D | |
|E |D |
1 & 2 & 3 4
|A |- D D#E - |
I IV V
- 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.
- 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
- The White Album provides a perspective from which to consider how
the Beatles opened their albums over the course of time. For the
first 6 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 clearcut, sometimes startling
Album Song Opening
------------------ ------------------------ ---------------
_Please Please Me_ I Saw Her Standing There count-in pickup
_With The Beatles_ It Won't Be Long sung pickup
_Krinkst Die Nacht_ A Hard Day's Night downbeat
_Beatles For Sale_ No Reply sung pickup
_Ouch!_ Help! downbeat
_Rubber Soul_ Drive My Car .. downbeat
Then, in 3 out of the next four albums you find, while the music
itself still has a clearcut 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 USSR.. jet plane noise, ad-lib guitar
Yet, 'in the end,' you find them, again, opting for the clearcut 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 LIB, 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 clearcut 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.
"...We just touched ground on an international runway,
Jet propelled back home from overseas to the USA." 052797#130
Copyright (c) 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.