Why Every Beatle Except Ringo Played Drums on ‘Back in the USSR’

If The Beatles were down one band member, it wasn’t the end of the world. In most cases, Paul McCartney would pick up the slack and the recording would go on. A famous example came in 1969, when John Lennon asked Paul to be his backing band on “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”

That track went all the way to No. 1 on the UK charts. By then, Paul had a lot of practice sitting in for Ringo. During the contentious White Album sessions of ’68, Paul played drums on four tracks, including “Dear Prudence” and “Martha My Dear.”

The band needed a replacement for Ringo because the drummer split down in August after he’d had enough of the bad vibes in the studio. Whether waiting for hours for someone to show up or having Paul criticize his playing, Ringo’d had his fill.

Instead of shutting the White Album sessions down for a while, The Beatles decided to keep going. And the three remaining band members all took a crack at drums on “Back in the USSR.”

Ringo abruptly left the band, leaving the drum part up for grabs

Ringo Starr gets threatened with a shotgun in the 1965 film ‘Help!’| John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Ringo wasn’t the only one who got sick of the scene at Abbey Road during the White Album sessions. Geoff Emerick, the chief engineer who by all accounts crushed it on Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s, quit his post during that ugly summer of ’68.

Ken Scott, who replaced Emerick in the studio, recalled the band improvising with Ringo gone. “I was told that he’d quit the band,” Scott recalled in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “They did ‘Back in the USSR’ with what I seem to recall was a composite drum track of bit and pieces.”

Indeed, Scott recalled all three remaining Beatles on drums at some point. Backing up the claim, author Mark Lewisohn notes that Paul got on drums first before the others stepped in on the next date, most likely while Paul was playing something else.

Paul certainly had his hands full on the track. In addition to vocals, drums, and bass, he also played piano, electric guitar, and additional percussion. But he wasn’t playing bass that first day.

All 3 played bass on ‘Back in the USSR’ as well

The Beatles at the press launch for their new album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ 19 May 1967 | John Downing/Getty Images

The day after Ringo left, John, Paul, and George Harrison fleshed out “Back in the USSR.” That’s when John and George tried to fill a few blanks on the drum kit. According to Lewisohn, John was the first playing bass on the track, but George and Paul also played the instrument that second day.

After that, the three did the vocals, with Paul on lead and George and John doing their take on Beach Boys harmonies. With some handclaps and airplane sound effects thrown in, they had a solid record, even if was a little rough around the edges.

But the gang didn’t love this experience. Within a few days, they sent a telegram to Ringo (somewhere on a yacht near Sardinia) begging him to come home. And Ringo did return to finish the album.

That didn’t stop John and Paul from criticizing his drum work, though. The following year, while recording the Abbey Road medley, John was back on Ringo’s case.

Also see: The No. 1 Beatles Hit John Lennon Believed Paul McCartney Wrote About Yoko