The tanks kept-a-rollin’ all night long. It was August 20, 1968, around 11:00 P.M. Central European Time. U.S.S.R. paratroopers had just seized control of Prague airport. The Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was on. Hitting 20 crossing points of Czechoslovakia’s border, 4,600 tanks rolled into Prague, with 165,000 Soviet-led troops working for the clampdown. So much for the reform movement which would make the Soviets less imposing to nearly 15,000,000 Czechoslovakians. Alexander Dubcek, appointed Communist Party Chairman of Czechoslovakia some eight months earlier, had promised reforms, or as he put it, “socialism with a human face.” The U.S.S.R. put an end to Dubcek’s western-styled liberal policies. Soviet domination had returned to Czechoslovakia. The human face gives way to the hammer and sickle.
The tapes kept-a-rollin’ all night long. It’s Thursday, August 22, 1968 at Abbey Road Studios in the City of Westminster, London, England. From 7:00 P.M. until 4:45 the next morning, The Beatles recorded the first five takes of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” It will be the opening track of their next album, simply entitled The Beatles, but widely known as “The White Album.” It’s also arguably the best track on The Beatles, although “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” also makes a strong case for being the best of the album’s 29 songs. On Friday afternoon, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison return to Abbey Road to complete the track. Beatles drummer Ringo Starr had quit the group the day before and would remain a former-Beatle for the better part of the next two weeks. McCartney handled most of the drumming for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” with John and George also banging away on the skins. Amazingly enough, without their great drummer, The Beatles recorded one of the finest straight-ahead rockers in their history. The song takes flight — quite literally — with the sound of a Viscount aeroplane revving up and then taking off. The guitars take flight as well. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is a forceful song, perhaps the greatest opening cut of any rock album ever recorded. It’s The Beatles reminding the world of who they are and how they do things.
McCartney is in great voice as he sings of a Russian citizen flying home to Moscow from Miami Beach. Never mind the political scene, the guy is glad to be going home. He may return to a shabby, cold apartment but he knows of ways his wife can keep him warm. It’s a universal story and it’s a universal feeling. McCartney had the idea for “Back in the U.S.S.R.” earlier in the year when he and the other Beatles were in Rishikesh, India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Also in Rishikesh was Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love, rarely the hero of any story, but at least this time a good listener as McCartney told him the idea for his song. It would be a tribute of sorts to the Chuck Berry hit, “Back in the U.S.A.” Another musical inspiration was The Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” Love suggested that McCartney extol the girls of Russia just like The Beach Boys praised American girls, particularly those in their native California. Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote that America’s “northern girls, with the way they kiss, they keep their boyfriends warm at night.” McCartney’s “Moscow girl” greets her “comrade” back from Miami Beach by disconnecting the phone and making him sing and shout. Gee, it’s good to be back home.
Soviet troops weren’t going home to Ukraine girls or snow-peaked mountains. Not anytime soon. Eventually over 500,000 of them would occupy Czechoslovakia, putting an end to “Prague Spring,” when the people celebrated a free press and other liberties too often taken for granted in the West. The more than 500,000 Soviet troops nearly equaled the number of soldiers the United States would have in the Vietnam War several months later, just as Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was ending. Johnson and other leaders of the free world called on the Soviets to leave Czechoslovakia just as the United Nations and a majority of Americans implored the United States to pull its troops from Vietnam. The United States and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, cold warriors with nuclear missiles aimed at each other, couldn’t be bothered with the consequences of putting humanity at risk. Hubris was at play. While Soviet troops killed more than 80 Czechoslovakians protesting the invasion, U.S. Army forces, some five months before the Soviet tanks rolled, turned a hamlet in South Vietnam (allied with the U.S.) into a shooting gallery with women, elderly men, children and babies the targets. The hamlets known as My Lai and My Khe were suspected of harboring enemy snipers intent on taking down American soldiers. 100 men from a rifle company of the Americal Division led by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley got their marching — or shooting — orders. Medina told them to “kill everything.” One soldier asked if he meant even women and children. Medina replied, “I mean everything.” Most of the soldiers followed orders and 500 innocents went down. In a scene as cold-hearted and murderous Joe Pesci could play, one soldier with a .45 caliber pistol took two shots at a baby on the ground. Chided by his comrades for missing such an easy target, the soldier pulled the trigger once more, ending the baby’s life.
It wasn’t until November ’69, some 19 months later, that the world learned of the My Lai Massacre. Stars and Stripes magazine had previously reported it as a “fierce fire fight” in which 128 communists were killed, along with 22 civilians in “a bloody day-long fight.” General William Westmoreland congratulated the troops on an “outstanding” job. What’s one more lie in the fog of war? But the tables were turned when Associated Press reporter Seymour Hersh revealed what actually went down. Life magazine ran photos of those about to die and those already dead in the hamlet. Americans were at first shocked by the wanton bloodshed and perverted logic practiced by U.S. troops. Another tragedy of empire, not unlike that conducted by Caesar, Bismarck, Brezhnev, Johnson and too many others taking down those who yearned to be free.
Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.” celebrates the pursuit and feeling of freedom. That’s obvious, as with so many other Berry songs, from the opening riffs. He understood better than his white rock and roll fans about limits to certain simple freedoms. Like victims of empire, he sensed what it was like to long for liberty and go as one pleased. Having just witnessed the hardships of the Aborigines in Australia in 1959, Berry obviously gave thought to differences around the globe, so he celebrated life in the United States of America. In “Back in the U.S.A.” He calls out such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge and his hometown of Saint Louis as places he yearns to see again. He’s ready to hop in his car and cruise to a cafe where “hamburgers sizzle on an open grill.” Scenes from American Graffiti come to mind with those California teenagers cruising the streets of their town, looking for kicks, love, and the sizzling hamburgers at the drive-in grill. But Berry in 1959 America would have to be careful as to where he ordered that burger. Less than a year and a half after the release of “Back in the U.S.A.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was denied service at a restaurant inside Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta. King refused to leave until he could order his burger, chicken salad or whatever. The authorities at Rich’s called the cops and they hauled King to jail for violating an anti-trespassing law — just another ordinance to keep black people in line in the land of the free. The mindset behind such attacks on the human spirit continues to surface in ways subtle and crude. The paranoid, ignorant and plain silly surfaced when a magazine published by the John Birch Society took issue with “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Such declarations as “You don’t know how lucky you are, boy, Back in the U.S.S.R.” went way over the heads of the humorless and clueless.
Years later Paul McCartney remarked how the song was tongue-in-cheek. No worries, The Beatles were not advocating a sojourn to Moscow. After all, Soviet officials had declared The Beatles “the belch of Western culture.” In a grim time, the suppressors of freedom on both sides found fault with The Beatles. Intelligent and energetic rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.” made such times seem less grim. Let’s hear those balalaikas ring out.