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Notes on "Back In The USSR"

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This article is from Alan W. Pollack's groundbreaking series "Notes on the Beatles". Links in the orginal article is written in this colour: index to the series, while links I have added appears as standard links. Go here for more information on my site about the song

Notes on "Back In The USSR"

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 of all:

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 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.

The bassline recurrently incorporates chromatic scale fills as a leitmotif.


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.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough


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! - 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  |
  I    flat-III

 |D  |-  |

#ifdef VERSE_TO_FO"Long, Long, Long"OW

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


bass    |A  |A  B  C   C# |
chords: |A  |-  |
  I   (V-of-IV)

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  |  |
  IV                     (V-of-V)

 |E  |D  |
  V   IV

    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 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 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 U"Sexy Sadie"..  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.


Alan (

"...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.

These articles were originally posted in the News Group The content from this newsgroup is archived at, and Alan W. Pollacks "Notes On" series can be found at

. I used to link to the versions published in Soundscapes before I decided to include them on my own site.

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Artist: Dominic Pedler

Arranged by The Beatles

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More than thirty years after The Beatles split up, the music of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison lives on. What exactly were the magical ingredients of those legendary songs? why are they still so influential for today's bands? This groundbreaking book sets out to exlore The Beatles' songwriting techniques in a clear and readable style. It is aimed not only at musicians but anyone who has ever enjoyed the work of one of the most productive and successful songwriting partnerships of the 20th century. Author Dominic Pedler explains the chord sequences, melodies and harmonies that made up The Beatles' self penned songs and how they uncannily complemented the lyrical themes. He also assesses the contributions that rhythm, form and arrangement made to the Beatles unique sound. Throughout the book the printed music of the Beatles' songs appears alongside the text, illustrating the authors explanations. The Songwriting Secrets of The Beatles is an essential addition to Beatles literature - a new and perceptive analysis of the music itself itself as performed by what Paul McCartney still calls 'a really good, tight little band'.

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