The Beatles, one of the most iconic bands in the history of music, had a profound impact on the world during the 1960s and beyond. While their popularity was undeniable, there was a curious and somewhat clandestine aspect of Russians listening to their “forbidden music.” The Fab Four themselves “loved the idea” that their music was enjoyed by Russians, despite the cultural barriers and political tensions of the time.
Paul McCartney, one of the legendary members of The Beatles, recently shed light on their music’s underground popularity in Russia during a time when Western music, including The Beatles, was strictly forbidden. McCartney shared these insights on the ‘McCartney: A Life In Lyrics’ podcast, specifically while discussing the band’s famous track, ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’
Image Courtesy: Rolling Stone
During the 1960s to the 1980s, The Beatles’ music, along with that of other Western artists, faced a ban in Russia. The state-controlled media heavily censored and regulated the content that the Soviet citizens could consume. Anything from the West, especially rock ‘n’ roll music like that of The Beatles, was considered subversive and forbidden.
Paul McCartney reminisced about this era, stating, “Everyone in Russia goes back to the Beatles period and remembers having to smuggle records or it was all very, you know, little rooms where you could play, and you didn’t want people to know. You didn’t want the authorities to know that you were listening to this forbidden group, which really, we loved the idea of that – that we were getting smuggled along with Levi’s jeans. This was like true cultural arrival.”
Image Courtesy: British GQ
The allure of The Beatles’ catchy melodies and meaningful lyrics went beyond political ideologies and geographical borders. Young Russians, hungry for a taste of Western culture, found creative ways to access and share the music they loved. Bootlegged copies of Beatles albums were a prized possession in the Russian underground music scene. Listeners would go to great lengths to obtain these records, often making copies of used X-ray film, which earned them the nickname ‘bone music’.
McCartney, in his conversation with podcast host poet Paul Muldoon, also touched upon the notion that “art is dangerous.” He reflected, “To some people. We always thought that we were on the right side, that if we were dangerous, we were dangerous to the Russian authorities, and to us, that said they’re not that good. That was how we felt, and I think it was true to a large extent that they were trying to suppress this Western influence and it goes on…I know there was a period really when you thought ‘Oh, it’s all clearing,’ but it’s actually the suppression is back big time…God knows what the politics and the realities are behind it at any rate. So for me, it’s kind of nice to just escape into a song like this.”
Image Courtesy: Hollywood Reporter
McCartney recently launched his ‘A Life In Lyrics’ podcast, offering a deep dive into the creation of iconic Beatles songs. This 12-part series, hosted by poet Paul Muldoon, provides an opportunity for fans to eavesdrop on conversations between McCartney and Muldoon as they explore the lyrical and musical magic behind the songs that shaped a generation.
Fans of The Beatles have even more to look forward to, as Season 2 of the podcast will be released in February 2024, promising more insights into the band’s unparalleled songwriting journey.