The Beatles, “Helter Skelter” from The White Album (1968): Deep Beatles

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Is “Helter Skelter” the dirtiest, most raucous song the Beatles ever recorded? While that question is still debated, one fact is certain: the White Album headbanger would influence generations of hard rock and punk bands to create similar rockers with uncompromising rawness.

Paul McCartney originally composed “Helter Skelter” in 1968 as a response to the Who. Pete Townshend had granted a Melody Maker interview claiming that his band had just recorded the loudest, rowdiest track to date (the song was later revealed to be “I Can See for Miles”). While in Scotland, Paul McCartney read the article and decided to try his hand at such a composition. What resulted was not only one of the hardest tracks off the White Album, but also one of the most aggressive tracks the Beatles ever recorded.

After reading the Townshend interview, McCartney immediately began composing “Helter Skelter.” “I wrote ‘Helter Skelter’ to be the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums,” he told Barry Miles for the biography Many Years from Now. He borrowed the title from a popular ride found on British fairgrounds, but extended the metaphor to describe “a ride from the top to the bottom — the rise and fall of the Roman Empire — and this was the fall, the demise, the going down.”

According to Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, “Helter Skelter” underwent numerous incarnations. The first recording session occurred July 18, with the Beatles running through several rehearsals of a blues-steeped version. Take one lasted 10 minutes and forty seconds; take two lasted 12 minutes and 35 seconds (an edited down version of this take was finally issued on Anthology 3); and take three lasted an astounding 27 minutes. Lewisohn notes that all three attempts sound similar, as drums, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, and lead vocals were recorded live.

As McCartney recalled, “I went into the studio and said, ‘hey, look, I’ve read this thing. Let’s do it!’ We got the engineers and George Martin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could, and we played it and said, ‘No, it still sounds too safe; it’s got to get louder and dirtier.’” McCartney’s vocals fit the “loud” and “dirty” tone, but the backing track would undergo more revisions. Another outtake features McCartney accelerating the tempo, but playing acoustic guitar and interweaving fragments of another unreleased composition, as well as an early version of “Blackbird.”

About two months later, engineer Chris Thomas returned to the studio after vacation. Placed on his desk was a note from Martin stating that he had just left for his own holiday, and that Thomas would be in charge until his return. On September 9, Thomas nervously approached Paul McCartney and explained the change in personnel; while McCartney and the other Beatles expressed initial skepticism, they gradually accepted Thomas’ new role. During their first session together they revisited the July 18 “Helter Skelter” recordings, and determined that take three was strongest.

One problem: that version was the epic 27-minute jam. Thus, the Beatles decided to remake the track in order to trim it down to three or four minutes. The ensuing 18 takes featured the Beatles, reportedly fueled by various substances, creating a cacophony of sound. The frenetic pace of the session can be heard by Ringo Starr’s infamous cry of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” at the end of the final version. “That wasn’t joke put-on,” McCartney told Miles. “His hands were bleeding at the end of the take; he’d been drumming so ferociously.” To add to the insanity, Thomas later recalled, George Harrison set fire to an ashtray and ran around the studio holding the dish above his head — a nod to Arthur “Fire” Brown.

Two notable players appear on “Helter Skelter” — Lennon plays bass, while go-to Beatles assistant Mal Evans contributes a trumpet part. According to Lewisohn, Lennon even plays “unskilled” saxophone on the track. After completing final overdubs on September 10, mono and stereo mixes were made on September 17 and October 12, respectively. Significant differences exist between the two versions; the mono contains a shorter running time, omits Starr’s final shout, and does not fade the ending in and out as in the stereo mix.

As the driving rhythm guitars crash through the speakers, McCartney’s vocals gradually slide from normal range to screaming rage. The lyrics may refer to an amusement park ride, but McCartney’s growls and yelps suggest something sexual. “But do you, don’t you, want me to love you? / I’m coming down fast, but I’m miles above you,” he yells. Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison harmonize in the background, panting “da da da” to further emphasize the dirty aspects of the song. Harrison performs a solo, later answering McCartney’s line “well do you don’t want me to make you” with a riff of his own. Throughout, Ringo Starr’s thundering drums propel the song forward, serving as the anchor for the chaotic sounds.

After McCartney repeats the refrain and ad-libs, the song devolves into apparent chaos. In the stereo version, the ending jam fades in and out, suggesting a reluctance to conclude the song. When Starr cries out “I’ve got blisters on my fingers,” a guitar stabs through the air and rapidly disappears. This effect suggests that the rollercoaster-like ride of constant motion will loop endlessly. In other words, sonically the Beatles have dramatized the lyrics, “When I get to the bottom / I go back to the top of the slide.” The cycle resumes.

“Helter Skelter” further exemplifies the experimental aspects of the White Album. After the sonic adventures of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles were ready to explore the burgeoning avant-garde movement. Along with tracks such as “Long Long Long” and “Revolution 9,” “Helter Skelter” challenges listeners to reconsider questions such as the following: What is music? What is structure?

The punk movement of the 1970s would further pose these questions, with the confrontational sounds of the Clash, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, the Ramones, and the Sex Pistols forcing listeners to re-evaluate preconceived notions of music. Just when it seems the Beatles could be easily pigeonholed as the spokespeople of the Summer of Love, “Helter Skelter” shatters previous stereotypes of the Beatles and, in turn, reveals the future of rock music.


Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Kit O'Toole
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