“Helter Skelter” is a Beatles’ song which is on their 1968 “White Album”. However, the track is also on a few other Fab Four albums.
Publisher: Northern Songs
Release Date: 22nd November, 1968
Recorded: 18th July, 9th & 10th September, 1968
Studio: EMI Studios, London
Genre: Hard rock, heavy metal, proto-punk
Track Duration: 4:29 (stereo LP), 3:40 (mono LP)
Record Label: Apple
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott
Paul McCartney: lead vocal, rhythm and lead guitar, piano
John Lennon: backing vocal, six-string bass, electric guitar, sound effects (through brass instruments)
George Harrison: backing vocal, lead guitar, electric slide guitar, sound effects
Ringo Starr: drums, vocal shout
Mal Evans: trumpet
Written by Paul McCartney, “Helter Skelter”, is a song which may be instrumental in the development of heavy metal which was soon to take off big style.
The inspiration for the song came from when McCartney read a Pete Townshend interview. The Who’s guitarist was boasting about their new single, “I Can See for Miles”, as being the loudest, rawest and dirtiest song in their repertoire. In response to that, Paul McCartney then wanted to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible.
“I was in Scotland and I read in Melody Maker that Pete Townshend had said: ‘We’ve just made the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever heard.’ I never actually found out what track it was that The Who had made, but that got me going; just hearing him talk about it. So I said to the guys, ‘I think we should do a song like that; something really wild.’ And I wrote Helter Skelter.
Charles Manson Connection
In the late 1960s, Charles Manson became a cult leader whose followers, aka the Manson Family, misinterpreted songs from the “White Album” as a reason to start apocalyptic race war. Around the same time, the rise of the Black Power movement in America poured more fuel on the fire.
Manson believed that by attacking the white bourgeoisie this would stir up trouble. As a result, a race war would occur. Then after the conflict was over, the Manson Family rule America on counterculture principles. The “family” murdered some prominent people but the authorities acted swiftly and brought the cult down.
“Charles Manson interpreted that Helter Skelter was something to to with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. I still don’t know what all that stuff is; it’s from the Bible, Revelation – I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know. But he interpreted the whole thing – that we were the four horsemen, Helter Skelter was the song – and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone.”
Other songs on the White Album which Manson misinterpreted are “Blackbird“, “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” and in particular, “Piggies“. However, Manson saw messages in many other Beatles’ songs from other albums too. But, it was mainly the “White Album” where he took most inspiration.
Meanwhile at Manson’s murder trial in 1970:
“I hear what it [Helter Skelter] relates. It says, ‘Rise!’ It says ‘Kill!’ Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.”
Anthology 3 Version
The Beatles began to record “Helter Skelter” on the 18th July, 1968, in Studio Two of the EMI Studios, London, during the 2.30pm-3.30am session. They recorded 3 takes with each one being over 10 minutes in length. Indeed, the 3rd take was over 27 minutes long!
Their 2nd take was over 12 minutes long and an edited version of that is on their “Anthology 3” album from 1996. They recorded the song with and echo which is impossible to change during the final mix and this version is much slower.
The band returned back to the song on the 9th September and recorded takes 4-21 during the 7.00pm-2.30am session. This time, most takes were about 5 minutes long. Ringo Starr threw his drum sticks away at the end of take 18 screaming, “I got blisters on my fingers!”
“We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers!’ That wasn’t a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of the take, he’d been drumming so ferociously. We did work very hard on that track.”
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
“Helter Skelter was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams, and with that song – Paul’s bass line and my drums – Paul started screaming and shouting and made it up on the spot.”
Take 21 became the master suitable for overdubbing and further tweaks the next day. The song fades completely around the 3 minute 40 second mark, then fades back in. It fades out and in yet again before we hear three cymbal crashes and Starr’s scream.
During the recording session on the 9th, George Harrison set an ashtray alight while mimicking the actions of “The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown” and their song, “Fire”.
“They were completely out of their heads that night. But, as usual, a blind eye was turned to what The Beatles did in the studio. Everyone knew what substances they were taking but they were really a law unto themselves in the studio. As long as they didn’t do anything too outrageous things were tolerated.”
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
In 2006, The Beatles’ album “Love” was a remix compilation which has the medley, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!/I Want You (She’s So Heavy)/Helter Skelter”. However, this only includes the heavily delayed vocals from the track in question. Be that as it may, we include it here as a reference.