One of The Beatles’ most potent skills was being able to flirt with every aspect of music throughout their storied career. Never sticking to just one theme or a particular style, the band were experts at being able to play ballads, experimental Indian classical and rock ‘n’ roll all at the same time—it was, in part, what turned them into global megastars.
Sometimes though, the Fab Four had to kick it up a notch, turn up the gas and really get cooking. After Paul McCartney – who at the time was the closest thing to a bandleader the group had – saw The Who lay down a raucous rock and roll number, he was determined to put down his own song but make sure it was turned all the way up to eleven. There was no doubt about it, the piece needed to be the “loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could”.
Few songs are tied with as much infamy as The Beatles’ White Album masterclass ‘Helter Skelter’. The track is a bruising and busting number and one which highlighted the band’s ability to jump through a range of musical hoops with consummate ease. Of course, the song soon took on its own iconography thanks to the infamous cult leader Charles Manson.
Manson took the song’s title and applied his own deranged ideas of an all-out race war, with prosecutors calling the theory the ‘Helter Skelter scenario’. It’s a notion which has followed the track ever since.
In 1980, speaking with Playboy, Lennon confirmed the idea: “That’s Paul completely. All that (Charles) Manson stuff was built ’round George’s song about pigs and this one…Paul’s song about an English fairground. It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me.” Lennon was keen to move away from that theory as quickly and sincerely as possible, something which, considering the tragic events that surrounded the Manson family, was of course a smart move.
Despite the infamous connection, the track has never really fallen out of favour with the band’s fanbase, likely because it is such a departure for the group. While The Beatles may have been born from the depths of rock ‘n’ roll, they had certainly started to take their musical leanings in surprising new directions. ‘Helter Skelter’ meant, in many ways, going back to basics.
It wasn’t a song about innovative construction but rather about laying it all on the line. It was a notion propelled by The Who. Speaking in 1968, Paul McCartney, the song’s leading composer, said of the track: “Umm, that came about just ‘cuz I’d read a review of a record which said, ‘And this group really got us wild, there’s echo on everything, they’re screaming their heads off.’ And I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, it’d be great to do one. Pity they’ve done it. Must be great— really screaming record.’ And then I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of sophisticated.”
Macca was disappointed by the band’s perceived lack of power and was determined to create his own special moment, his own swelling rock anthem. He continued: “It wasn’t rough and screaming and tape echo at all. So I thought, ‘Oh well, we’ll do one like that, then.’ And I had this song called ‘Helter Skelter’ which is just a ridiculous song. So we did it like that, ‘cuz I like noise.”
Back in 1968, McCartney was unwilling to give over the name of the band in question, but by 1985 the possible tensions that could’ve arisen had subsided, meaning he could reveal it was Pete Townshend’s group: “The Who had made some track that was the loudest, the most raucous rock ‘n roll, the dirtiest thing they’d ever done. It made me think, ‘Right. Got to do it.’ I like that kind of geeking up. And we decided to do the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could.”
The recording session was a strange one. While McCartney tried to lay down his now-influential vocal take for the song, scratched and scarred as it was, Harrison set fire to an ashtray and begun walking around the studio making a fantastic impression of Arthur Brown, the mercurial man behind ‘Fire’. Ringo Starr recalled: “‘Helter Skelter’ was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams.”
The jams that landed at the roots of this particular tree was pure junk food. ‘Helter Skelter’ is greasy, charred and ready to give you a heart attack and we love it.