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What’s Paul McCartney, a Liverpudlian, doing writing about the Soviet Union in 1968? Turns out McCartney was doing a little Chuck Berry, a bit of The Beach Boys, some pastiche and a lot of subversion. Opening “The White Album”, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” raised some eyebrows. And because of The Beatles’ evolving position within the former Eastern Bloc the song has over the years taken on a life of its own, following the trajectory of the West’s often fraught relationship with the region.
“McCartney: A Life in Lyrics” is a co-production between iHeart Media, MPL and Pushkin Industries.
The series was produced by Pejk Malinovski and Sara McCrea; written by Sara McCrea; edited by Dan O’Donnell and Sophie Crane; mastered by Jason Gambrell with sound design by Pejk Malinovski. The series is executive produced by Leital Molad, Justin Richmond, Lee Eastman and Scott Rodger.
Thanks to Lee Eastman, Richard Ewbank, Scott Rodger, Aoife Corbett and Steve Ithell.
Pushkin. Hi, everyone, it’s Paul muldoin. Before we get to this episode, I wanted to let you know that you can binge all twelve episodes of McCartney A Life and Lyrics right now, add free by becoming a Pushkin Plus subscriber. Find Pushkin Plus on the McCartney A Life and Lyrics show page in Apple Podcasts, or at pushkin dot fm slash plus. At the height of the Cold War, with the closing of the border, Soviet divisions in East Germany were on the move, with combat forces brought into strategic positions for the contest over the status of Berlin. At a time when two halves of the world were separated by an iron curtain. On the brink of nuclear war, the Beatles released Well, a strange kind of rock and roll song, luib Me beat Me Away, See I’m formal doing. I’m a poet, a lover of not only the lyric poem, but the song larric. Over the past several years, I’ve got to spend time with one of the greatest songwriters of our era. And will you look at me? It’s happened. I’m going too. I’m actually a performer, that’s sir, Paul McCartney. He and I worked on a book together, looking at the lyrics of more than one hundred and fifty of his songs, and we recorded many hours of our conversations. Why She’m a songwriter? My god? Well let that crypto. This is McCartney a life in lyrics. It’s a master class, a memoir, and an improvised journey with one of the most iconic figures in popular music in this episode. Back in the USSR, mobilization efforts during the last months of nineteen sixty one brought the United States Army to a strength of over a million men, subsequently increasing our troops strength throughout Europe. It’s hard to imagine just how puzzling it would have been in nineteen sixty eight to hear a song about somebody being happy to leave the West and go back to the Soviet Union. Only a few months before, Russian tanks had rolled into Prague to crack down on protests against Soviet control. This nineteen sixty eight report from ABC News highlights the extent of the operation. Russian tanks and infantry, aided by tropes from East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, have occupied Czechoslovakia and have crushed the new and relatively liberal leadership of that small country. The way this song turns the cultural and political world order on its head is what makes it the joke of an era. As was often the case for McCartney, he drew inspiration from what was happening in the wider world as well as from the songs that were playing on his radio. We just sat down on an Indian runway. Chuck Berry wrote a song called Back in the US, which were very familiar with and so I kind of thought it was kind of cool. It was obviously a serviceman returning home, calling back into the UX called back in Trews Home Civilization. Chuck Berry had come back from a trip to Australia, where he had witnessed the dismal living conditions of the indigenous population, and he wrote this song as a kind of anthem to his glorious USA from the California to the shore of the Delaware, be classing over the struggles of the American civil rights movement at the time. Berry’s song is a celebration of capitalism and the economic boom of the nineteen fifties of drive ins and sizzling Hamburgers. Paul McCartney and the Beatles loved Chuck Berry and they loved this upbeat, celebratory anthem. But not a decade had best. The Vietnam War was a total failure, and the world’s love affair with American culture had started to wear off. There’s a little bit two pro us. Because we were in the UK, so I could popephone on it in my own way. And when I saw that US sr was kind of similar, then I realized I could set it back in the US. I could do a little parody on Chuck’s idea of being back, and I would have a Russian guy who’d come from America and was glad to be back in Russia. And it come. It comes from Miami. On BOAC British Overseas Corporation boecs are standing contribution to the second generation of jet airliners. The speaker of the song the protagonist flies back to the Soviet Union with the lammur of modern jet travel, like that showcase in this nineteen sixty four AD four BOAC in the Economy clouds. The standard is so high that fasten music and easily persuade themselves that they’re VIPs traveling first one medium drive vodka marteam mixed. Like you said, So, who is this man? It’s easy to imagine him as a kind of suave jet setter, fluent in many languages, lots of charm, maybe like a James Bond type. The Prime Ministers talk to Moscow. They’re saying it was an accident during a routine training exercise. Government’s change the list, say, except he wouldn’t be reporting to MI I six or dam Judi Dench rather the KGEB. He’s flying home from Miami. He’s just been to sunny Florida, maybe hanging out on the beach, which gets us to the bridge. If the verse is setting up a joke, the punchline is the bridge when our protagonist starts listing the territories of the former Soviet Union and the harmonies of the bridge were inspired by the Beach Boys. In fact, when the Beatles went to India in nineteen sixty eight to meditate Mike love Off, the Beach Boys was there too. He is even cleared in several interviews that he gave McCartney the idea for that part of the song where the Beach Boys fit into this well there were big influences around about the time. So this as I’m doing a parody of Chuck and I’m doing it. I’m doing it American, but it’s a it’s a Russian guy having all the sentiments. So I’m using stock from the Beach Boys for the parody. So when I’m going Ukraine, girls really knock me out, I’m thinking California, your girls, and lay out behind Georgia. Always. I think I was very lucky, as I say, when I hit this little humorous vein, it seemed to just sort of flow. So I hear, I know what I’m doing now. I mean, it’s in the middle. So now I’m going to go into detail about the countries and the territories. So we got Ukraine, and we’ve got Moscow, and we’ve got Georgia. Well, if I say Georgia, I think of the old American song Georgia on my mind, which I would be thinking of the Ray Charles Georgia on my mind. Georgia, Georgia. The whole Ray Charles Homestead of Georgia is suddenly transformed into the Soviets sat Light Nation of Georgia. And now the joke is complete, leaving behind the sun and fun of Miami and old sweet Georgia. We break through the wall, eager to get back into the USSR on board our BOAC jet. I don’t think I ever understood at the time that BOAC was in the first line. I’m not sure if I ever quite understood what it was. Yeah, I just like to horrify you. No, not at all. I mean, I’m still finding things in these lyrics, but I do sometimes think, I mean, particularly about this one, how amazingly ancient all the ideas are. Now there isn’t a USSR anymore. There isn’t a BOAC, and I often wonder, like you didn’t get it. I don’t think the kids get it. I’m not sure they know what USSL was. It’s just it’s just a rock and roll song. But I mean, obviously the joke is that I then split it up back in the US. Back in the US, Back in the US were girls. One song has an upbeat, rock and roll energy. The subtext of the lyrics is certainly more bitter sweet. The Soviet Union at the time was a totalitarian state with strong censorship in place. You know, it was always gray. So I mean, when I’m writing this song, it’s very much tongue in cheek. I’m not really thinking there’s anything for this guy to go back to. You know, I remember when we first went to Berlin and to looked over the war, aware of their special responsibilities on this trouble spot between the free and communist worlds. American soldiers of the Berlin garrison are combat ready and alert. To me, I just knew there was like a vast gray expense that was beyond this war and that we were all in technical people in East Germany continue to risk their lives to escape to the free world. Everyone in Russia goes back to the Beatles period remembers having to smuggle records or it was all very you know, little rooms where you could play and you didn’t want people to know. You didn’t want the authorities to know that you were listening to this forbidden group, which really we loved the idea of that that we were getting smuggled along with leave iteenes. This was like true cultural arrival. A little over a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, McCartney really did arrive when he was invited to give a concert on Red Square in Moscow and when he played back in the USSR, he felt the whole crowd rise and join in the song. During his time in Russia, this was two thousand and three, McCartney got to meet a young Vladimir Putin, then serving his first term as president. There’s actually a new slip off the occasion and you see Putton and McCartney sitting across from each other like two statesmen. And then Paul McCartney pops the question you were growing up to do this to the Beatles. No, it was dismissing them. Yes, it was extremely popular. It was like a gulp of freedom. Your music was like an open window to the world. It was it was bound by the ortho future closed who fish It was considered at this time a propaganda of some alien ideology. It would have seemed unimaginable then that twenty years later the same man would order Russian troops to invade Ukraine, an act of war unparalleled in Europe since the end of the Second World War, cracking down on any protest, arresting journalists, assassinating political enemies, jailing young women for singing in churches, once again closing the window to the outside world. My conversation with Paul McCartney took place before the current war in Ukraine, but during our time together we often spoke about the subversive nature of art and how throughout history music has served as a beacon of freedom. Art is dangerous to some people. We always thought that we were on the right side, that if we were dangerous, we were dangerous to the Russian authorities and to us that said they’re not that good. It’s sort of that was how we felt, and I think it was true to a large extent that they were trying to suppress this Western influence and it goes on, you know, I know there was a period really thought oh, it’s all clear enough, but it’s actually the suppression is back big time, you know, with sort of many countries now and it’s sort of been given a free pass and everyone’s gonna stimied and sort of saying no, please don’t do that. But I mean, God knows what the politics and the realities are behind it at any rate. So for me, it’s kind of nice to just escape into a song like this blue by Miami phbuway Seed last night on a way to paper Baggers on my knee. Man, I had a deadfall back. I’m back and being aways on Only New Face, It’s Good to Be Back Home Back in the USSR from the nineteen sixty eight record titled The Beatles also known as the White Album. In the next episode, Paul McCartney tells us about how his late mother visited him in a dream and gave him some words of wisdom. Seeing her beautiful, kind face was very confident. I immediately felt at ease and loved one of the beatles last hits, Let It Be, is an answer to the band’s inner turmoil and to Hamlet’s edge old question to be or not to be? McCartney A Life in Lyrics is a co production between iHeartMedia, NPL and Pushkin Industries