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"Helter Skelter"

Categories: Beatles songs

"Helter Skelter" Beatles/Charles Manson artwork by Ant

From the top to the bottom and then back to the top, this track represents the blackest segment of The White — if not the band's entire catalogue.

Along with George's "Piggies", it's the song most directly linked to the atrocities of The Manson Family, the title itself being adopted by their inglorious leader as the codename for his proposed race-war. The ensuing slaughter spree — twenty-seven brutal murders — took place in the summer of 1969: madman Manson, "the epitome of evil", believing the Fabs (being the Four Riders of the Apocalypse), had instructed him to initiate God's Final Judgement via the double album. The misspelt scrawling of 'Healter Skelter' in the first victims' blood was one of the main clues which led to his eventual capture.

By the time he was sent down, in January '71, The Beatles as a band were history. Nevertheless, they were unanimous in their reaction: horror, disbelief, repulsion, outrage... "You can't associate yourself with a thing like that!" spluttered composer McCartney; while Lennon — as well as deftly distancing himself from the whole thing ("nothing to do with me...") — summed it up perfectly: 'What's "Helter Skelter" got to do with knifing somebody?!!'

Absolutely nothing at all, of course.

Savage though the track may be, Paul's primary objective with it was nothing more than to 'out-do The Who'. Having read an interview, in which Pete Townshend was bragging about having recorded "the loudest, rawest, dirtiest rock 'n' roll record imaginable"; his response (quite probably influenced by a little cocaine-boosted arrogance) was: "Oh yeah? We'll see about that!"

There's a bit of a timescale problem here: dodgy Beatle memories recall the words being made up on the spot during a jam session: but the slow, grungy, though equally unnerving 'Take Two' on Anthology 3 seems to have been recorded almost two months before the "look out" album version, and the lyric is practically the same. I'm guessing (but only guessing) that Macca read the interview somewhere in the interim, then decided that this was the song to do it with.

The Who track — which Macca claims to have forgotten — was probably "I Can See For Miles": a very, very fine record, to be sure — but nowhere near as "loud, raw or dirty" as "Skelter"!

The Beatles' renowned ballad-monger himself shoots it off on stroboscopic lead guitar, the commencement of his equally manic vocal being shadowed by Ringo's upfading drums, before exploding into its enormous entirety as Lennon throws in the ballistic six-string bass — with Harrison backing it all on similarly unhinged rhythm guitar. Mal Evans added a little warped trumpet; and distorted brass-based effects were added, just for good measure.

There are also tales of crazed ongoings in the studio as the four locked into the frenzy. Paul's rather unsettled/unsettling "here she comes" chuckle and Ringo's finger blisters were recorded for posterity, but George is reported to have been seen racing round the studio with a burning ashtray above his head during the session (a novel variation on 'the flaming pie'). John was probably too spaced out by the enormity of his hypno-riff to be party to such pranks.

Well, you may be a lover,
But you ain't no dancer!

George Martin must've had the whole lot dangerously into the red as they recorded: and, trying desperately to

don't let me break you,

he whacked everything up just a bit higher when he mixed it. And just when you think it's all slid away; back it comes, just to kick you in the head a little longer.

Tell me: exactly what did The Beatles invent here? Hard/heavy rock? Punk?! Thrash/death metal?!!

Coming down fast,
But I'm miles above you!

There is actually a possible referential challenge to the Townshend tune there — but, whatever the case — exponents of practically every musical genre have attempted to emulate the song's intensity and insanity — though none has succeeded to date, despite its bloody legacy.
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