WHEN THE BEACH BOYS RELEASED PET SOUNDS IN 1966, we could see once and for all that they were presenting us with some serious competition. Until then, they’d seemed like a pretty good surf band. They’d already produced some great stuff, some innovative work that had itself come out of the doowop tradition, and we’d already nicked a few of those little things. The harmonies would be a case in point. Of course, they were nicking from us. Everybody was nicking from everybody else. There was a circularity to the whole enterprise.
One way or another, the Russian ‘protagonist’ of this song has certainly been influenced by The Beach Boys, and Chuck Berry’s ‘Back in the U.S.A.’ is in there too. And it’s perfectly in order for him to have been influenced by The Beach Boys. He’s on a plane from Miami, after all, where he’s been listening to ‘California Girls’ in particular, which is why our bridge section refers to how the ‘Ukraine girls really knock me out’. There’s a pretty blatant parody of a Beach Boys chorus in the background.
Photo: Back in the World tour. Red Square, Moscow, 24 May 2003
Then we’ve got the humorous reference to ‘Georgia on My Mind’, as sung by Ray Charles, but referring to Georgia in the Soviet Union rather than the US state. That this character somehow prefers the USSR to the USA is what makes this song funny. And once we start running through the USSR territories, we could go on for hours. It’s almost as if the song is writing itself at this stage. The line ‘show me round your snow-peaked mountains way down south’ has a bit of a naughty schoolboy tinge, not to mention ‘Come and keep your comrade warm’.
At a couple of points, the idea that a Russian guy is saying you don’t know how lucky you are to live in the USSR is a bit undercut. I’m thinking of the reference to disconnecting the phone. Phone tapping was probably part of the back-of-the-mind view of the USSR. The reference to ‘your daddy’s farm’ is a bit complex too, when you consider that collectivisation had been the order of the day in the USSR. So ‘daddy’ might be Stalin or Brezhnev, who was in power at the time.
The Beatles were banned in the USSR, needless to say, which had the usual effect of making us very popular there. When I did eventually sing ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ in Red Square, in 2003, it was a moment to savour.
Photo: Paul’s balalaika, as featured in the lyrics