Good morning students, and welcome once again to “Beatles Lyrics 101,” an in-depth analysis of the lyrics of various Beatles songs. Just as Shakespeare is replete with linguistic riddles from the 17th century, so, too, does the discography of the four moptops from Liverpool present us with lyrical puzzles from the 20th century.
I have begun grading your papers on the meaning of the lyrics of “Hey Jude” and I expect to have them back to you by next week. Let me just say, though, that I was disappointed that some of you chose to view it as an antisemitic work.
Today we are examining the lyrics to the song “Back in the USSR.” Featured on the Beatles’ White Album, this song is a parody of the surfing songs of their rival group from that era, the Beach Boys.
In order to fully appreciate this work, it is necessary to decipher the many 20th-century references from almost 50 years ago. For example, what does “flew in from Miami Beach BOAC” mean?
It’s not an acronym for “boarded on air carrier” although that’s a good guess, Katie. What’s that, Ralph? “Boring old ass catchers?” That’s just rude. No, BOAC stands for British Overseas Airways Corporation, which was the predecessor to today’s British Airways.
Now the third line of the song is a bit unclear. Some read it as “on the way the paper bag was on my knee,” which could be a reference to the paper airsickness bags once provided by airlines to their passengers. Okay, Ralph, you can stop retching now. We all realize that your name is slang for vomiting.
Others have read the third line as “on the way the paperback was on my knee,” which is a reasonable alternative interpretation. A “paperback” was a softbound print medium or “book” once commonly carried by passengers to read as a diversion on long flights.
The fifth line identifies a place called the USSR, but what exactly is that place? No, Ralph, it’s not the companion ship to the Starship Enterprise. The USSR stands for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a vast federation of communist states that stretched from Europe to the Pacific Ocean. That federation was disbanded in 1991, but some older people still remember its existence.
The chorus is a bit confusing when the singer mysteriously lauds “Ukraine girls.” If he has landed in the USSR, why would he be praising women from elsewhere? Because Putin likes to do it with Ukrainian girls? Very funny, Ralph, but that’s not it. Quite simply, it’s because when the song was written, Ukraine was part of the USSR.
The final line of the chorus says “that Georgia’s always on my mind.” No, Ralph, it’s not a reference to some “hot chick named Georgia.” If you had taken my course last semester entitled “The American South in Popular Music” you would know that this is, at least in part, a reference to the once popular Ray Charles song “Georgia on My Mind.”
However, at the time this Beatles tune was first released, Georgia was also one of the many republics making up the USSR, or Soviet Union. Given the overall soviet theme of the song, this latter interpretation is undoubtedly the more likely one. Yes, Ralph, Georgia is where the Caucasus Mountains are. Yes, that’s almost as funny as Lake Titicaca.
In the fourth line of the second verse, the protagonist sings “honey, disconnect the phone.” To today’s listeners, the meaning is somewhat unclear. Was the singer suggesting that his love interest turn off her cell phone or perhaps unplug the phone’s charger?
It seems unlikely, given that cell phones did not yet exist in 1968 when the song was first released. It is far more likely that the lyricist is referring to what was once known as a “land line,” an ancient wired phone dependent on a nationwide wired network to obtain a connection with another “telephone” user.
The use of the words “let me hear your balalaikas ringing out, come and keep your comrade warm” in the third verse underscores the Russian theme of the song, Russia at that time being one of the Soviet republics. Despite the many iterations of nationhood in the region over the last hundred years, the balalaika remained a consistent symbol of the native peoples. And no, Ralph, a balalaika is not a specialized bicycle used in Russian porn. That’s “comrade,” Ralph, not “come rad.”
Thank God, there’s the bell. Next week we will analyze the Beatles’ songs “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus” from a non-drug perspective.