Hello there! In this week’s blog we take up the song Back in the USA. We will consider the original by the great Chuck Berry, a cover of that song by Linda Ronstadt, and a clever take-off on that song by the Beatles.
Chuck Berry and Back in the USA:
Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry is currently approaching his 89th birthday. He is so important as a rock ‘n roll pioneer that John Lennon once said, “if you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.”
Chuck grew up in St. Louis and became interested in rhythm and blues, admiring both the guitar style and the flamboyant showmanship of blues guitarist T-Bone Walker. Berry began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. The photo above is a publicity shot of Chuck from the 1950s, while the photo below shows him performing at about the same time, with a combo that includes Johnnie Johnson at the piano.
At the suggestion of blues great Muddy Waters, in 1955 Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was interested in rhythm and blues, although he had patterned his singing style after Nat King Cole, the one African-American who had managed to break through the otherwise rigid color bar in popular music.
Chuck’s audition with Chess Records was not going well. Chess had a terrific stable of blues acts, so after listening to several Berry blues songs, one of the Chess brothers asked for “Anything different. Play your worst song!” At that point Chuck played Ida Red, a song he had adapted from a country tune by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. This was part of Chuck’s repertoire from East St. Louis clubs that he termed “black hillbilly.” He would turn country songs into versions that were half-way between country and rock music.
The Chess brothers loved Chuck’s song, and after a few minor edits this became Chuck Berry’s first hit record Maybellene, which made it to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.
Maybellene established a formula for a string of Chuck Berry hits. They all featured Chuck’s snappy lyrics painting a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature rock guitar riffs, which were later meticulously copied by generations of budding rock guitarists. The early Chess recordings all featured Johnnie Johnson on piano, with blues great Willie Dixon thumping away on his upright bass.
Another trademark feature of Chuck Berry performances was his showmanship. Chuck would throw in splits, move across the floor with nifty dance steps, he would swing and sway back and forth with his guitar, and early on he added his signature move, the duck-walk. For that move he would hunch over with his guitar stretched in front of him. He would then hop across the stage on one leg while kicking the other leg forward, as shown in the photo below.
Over roughly a five-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Chuck also had a keen understanding of the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was writing songs and selling records primarily to an audience of middle-class white teenagers. But regardless of this, Chuck’s lyrics were really terrific, as songs like Sweet Little Sixteen or School Days effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.
In later years, Chuck Berry began touring without a band. This saved him money as he could just hire a local group and pay them a pittance. Apparently it was not unusual for Chuck to show up immediately before a performance and tell the musicians just to follow him. Not surprisingly this led to some really crappy live performances, with considerable unhappiness on the part of the audience.
This is a shame as Chuck was such a born showman, and with a talented backing band he was capable of putting on a dynamite performance. Furthermore, Chuck invented many of the classic stage moves for guitarists, most notably his aforementioned duck-walk. We will see all of this shortly in the clip from the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll.
Chuck Berry wrote Back in the USA in 1959, upon returning from an Australian tour. Following a grueling trip and having seen the depressed living conditions of Australian aboriginals, ole Chuck was delighted to be back on his home soil, so Back in the USA expresses his renewed joy at all aspects of American life.
Did I miss the skyscrapers Did I miss the long freeway
From the coast of California To the shores of the Delaware Bay
You can bet your life I did
Till I got back to the USA
Looking hard for a drive-in
Searching for a corner cafe
Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day
Yeah, the jukebox jumping with records back in the USA
Here is a live performance of Chuck Berry performing Back in the USA on the TV show Shindig on March 31, 1965. It is only a snippet – one minute, 36 seconds of the song – but it is genuine live Chuck Berry, singing and playing his guitar. Also, unlike Berry’s performances with a pick-up band who often weren’t familiar with his songs, the Shindig band and in particular the pianist are clearly familiar with rock music. At the very end, the stage fills up with Shindig dancers shaking their collective booties.
Since you heard only a short segment of the song, here is the audio version of the single Back in the USA. Check out the classic guitar licks, Johnnie Johnson’s rocking piano which is particularly prominent on this song, and Chuck’s trademark rapid-fire lyrics.
Over the years Chuck Berry has received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he “laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.” How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Linda Ronstadt and Back in the USA:
Linda Ronstadt is one of the most successful women artists in rock history. She has a stunning number of albums to her credit and has sold over 100 million records. In the process, she has garnered a slew of awards and honors, culminating with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Ronstadt is an exceptionally versatile singer; she has collaborated with artists in the fields of rock, country, jazz and Hispanic music. Christopher Loudon of Jazz Times describes her as
“Blessed with arguably the most sterling set of pipes of her generation … rarest of rarities – a chameleon who can blend into any background yet remain boldly distinctive … It’s an exceptional gift; one shared by few others.”
Ronstadt was born in Tucson where her grandfather had emigrated from Germany, married a Mexican and became a prosperous rancher and early settler in Arizona. She began her performing career in the mid-60s as the lead singer in a folk-rock-country trio, The Stone Poneys. The photo above shows Linda with the Stone Poneys. However, she became a blockbuster star in the 70s, when she produced a series of best-selling albums, posed for posters that found their way onto the walls of millions of impressionable teenage boys, and filled stadiums on tour with fellow West Coast folk-rockers such as The Eagles, Jackson Browne and The Doors. The photo below shows Linda performing with Jackson Browne, with Eagles guitarist Don Felder on the far right. As a side note, the Eagles performed as Linda’s backup band before striking out on their own!
Ronstadt has produced albums that cover an astonishing range of vocal styles, from Gilbert and Sullivan to rock to opera to Mexican standards. Although most of her hits were covers of standards by classic artists like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, the songs tended to feature great country-rock arrangements and catchy hook-filled production values. Plus, being marketed as a sex symbol certainly didn’t hurt her in a business dominated by male artists, although Ronstadt was suspicious that the cheesecake photos appearing on her albums might make people discount her musical talent.
In recent years Ronstadt had concentrated on albums of traditional Mexican folk songs that she remembered from her youth. However in 2011 Ronstadt announced her retirement from performing, and in 2013 revealed that she had contracted Parkinson’s disease, which prevents her from singing.
In 1986, Chuck Berry performed for two concerts at the Fox Theater in St. Louis. In honor of his 60th birthday, an all-star cast of performers was assembled that included Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Linda Ronstadt. The concerts were filmed and assembled into a documentary by Taylor Hackford. Robert Christgau pretty much nailed the resulting piece:
Taylor Hackford’s film is a wickedly funny and moving rock-doc classic, exposing Berry the money-grubbing control freak without devaluing his genius in the process.
One of the performances at this concert was a duet of Back in the USA featuring Chuck Berry and Linda Ronstadt, who had previously released her own cover of Back in the USA. There is a fascinating back story to this performance.
despite Ronstadt having rehearsed with the band playing in the key of C, Berry’s guitar playing on the actual concert performance of “Back in the USA” necessitated the band performing in the key of G: [production assistant Mark Slocombe related] “Linda Ronstadt’s such a pro, you really don’t hear her strain or muff it. But…she was so pissed off when she walked off that stage she went right through the Green Room, right out the stage door, climbed into her limo and never came back for the second show.” The Ronstadt/Berry performance of “Back in the USA” was featured in the filmation of Berry’s sixtieth birthday concert: … according to Slocombe, “they had a hard time getting [Ronstadt] to sign the release for the [performance] because she was so pissed off.”
Anyway, here are Chuck Berry and Linda Ronstadt singing Back in the USA. Note that one of the backup guitarists is Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who like all of us memorized every Chuck Berry guitar lick when he learned to play. Keith gets in a nice little guitar solo during the song, and I was unable to detect any of the supposed tension between Ronstadt and Berry.
The Beatles and Back in the USSR:
In February 1968 the Beatles traveled to India to study transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The photo below shows the Beatles and their entourage in India. Having left behind all their incredibly busy schedules and commitments, the Beatles found themselves with plenty of time on their hands after the meditation sessions. Not surprisingly, John and Paul (and to some extent, George) filled the available time by writing songs – lots of songs! When they returned to Britain they had something like thirty new songs, enough to fill the double White Album, plus a couple that later surfaced in the album Abbey Road, and even a few additional singles.
Back in the USSR was a composition by Paul and it is a wonderful parody that works on many levels. First of course it is a take-off of Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA; but instead of coming back to the States, the singer is delighted to return to the Soviet Union. Let’s look at some of the song’s lyrics.
Oh, flew in from Miami Beach B.O.A.C.
Didn’t get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man I had a dreadful flight
I’m back in the U.S.S.R.
You don’t know how lucky you are boy
Back in the U.S.S.R. …
Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia’s always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind
The parody of Chuck Berry is obvious – but both the melody and the stanza about Russian girls are reminiscent of the Beach Boys’ (Wish They All Could Be) California Girls. In fact, Paul has stated that the song’s melody was a take-off on a Beach Boys tune. Mike Love of the Beach Boys also attended the Maharishi’s settlement in India at the same time as the Beatles. Mike Love’s story is that the Beatles, who were great fans of the Beach Boys, were peppering him with questions, trying to perfect the Beach Boys’ sound. So Love claims that he dared the Beatles to write a song about the USSR in the spirit of Surfin’ USA. By the way, the line “Georgia on my mind” is also a sly reference to Hoagy Carmichael’s song.
But Back in the USSR doesn’t have to be appreciated merely as a parody of Chuck Berry or the Beach Boys; it is a terrific, catchy pop tune in its own right. Below is a photo of John, George and Paul taken at the time of recordings for their animated movie Yellow Submarine.
The instrumental parts on this song are rather unique, as the recording took place during a brief interval in August 1968 when Ringo Starr had temporarily quit the band. Furthermore, by this time the Beatles were combining a series of backing tracks on their records, and overdubbing like crazy. Here is a summary of the instrumental parts on Back in the USSR. Paul McCartney played piano and lead guitar. In addition, a “Fender Bass VI” was used for this song, which had the unique capability to be played either as a bass or a guitar.
Five takes were recorded of the backing track, featuring McCartney on drums, Harrison on electric guitar, and Lennon on Fender Bass VI. … McCartney recorded a full drum performance on Track 2, … On Track 3, McCartney played bass while Harrison played the Bass VI, …While … Lennon overdubbed snare on the off-beats for the entire duration of the song without a single deviation or fill. … On Track 4, McCartney contributed a piano performance, while Lennon and Harrison provided more bass and electric guitar. … a reduction was made into Take 6, combining Tracks 1 and 3 into a single track and tracks 3 and 4 into another.
Got it? Take notes, because this will be on the final exam. OK, here the single for Back in the USSR. It starts with audio of a jet engine, then it rips into Paul’s breezy vocals for the song. This is accompanied by video clips of the Beatles from their ‘Beatlemania’ days.
Paul McCartney Live in Red Square:
Hawks like to claim that the Soviet Union collapsed because American defense initiatives such as the “Star Wars” space weapons program bankrupted Russia into trying to match the US defense spending. I think I could make an equally compelling argument that rock ‘n roll and blue jeans caused the demise of the USSR.
My argument would be that the Russians spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to show that the communist way of life was superior to the decadent West, and that Soviet ideals would eventually trump Western ones. In this regard, rock ‘n roll and blue jeans were two of the most easily identifiable symbols of Western decadence. So the Russians tried furiously to deride or ban rock ‘n roll, and particularly focused their attention on the Beatles as symbolic of this culturally vacuous music.
Of course, this effort completely backfired. Trying to ban the music just made it more attractive to Russian youth, who amassed collections of smuggled rock records. Rock ‘n roll demonstrated a commitment to personal freedom that served as a powerful counterpoint to Soviet authoritarianism. And I remember that the most appreciated present you could give a Russian friend was a couple of pairs of Levis. So one could claim that the repressive Soviet system, with its focus on the decadence of rock music and jeans, was sufficiently counterproductive that the system eventually collapsed.
In 1980, Paul McCartney tried to organize a concert in Moscow, but he was refused permission by the Russians. So when he finally got to play in Red Square in 2003, it was a really big deal. After being shunned by the Soviets for decades, Paul was thrilled by the opportunity to perform in Russia, much less a concert in Red Square; however, he was apprehensive about playing Back in the USSR. Even though the song was clearly a parody, Paul was not sure how Russians would react to the line you don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the USSR.
He need not have worried. When he started into the song, the crowd went bananas. Even though the USSR had collapsed more than a decade earlier, and McCartney is 60 at the time of this concert, the excitement over his performance is palpable. This occasion was more than just a concert, it was a celebration of freedom and a release from decades of repression.
You can get a good idea of the power of popular music just by watching this crowd as McCartney performs. The shots across the jam-packed Red Square are simply stunning — OMG, is that Vladimir Putin in the crowd near the beginning? This is one of the great live concert videos. Enjoy!
Wikipedia Back in the U.S.A.
Wikipedia Back in the U.S.S.R.
Wikipedia Chuck Berry
Wikipedia Linda Ronstadt
Wikipedia The Beatles in India
Wikipedia Paul McCartney
Robert Christgau, “Chuck Berry,” in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke (Eds.).