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Music

The five best covers of The Beatles song 'Helter Skelter'

‘Helter Skelter’ is a tune by The Beatles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great tune by The Beatles. Some would even argue that it’s not even that good and that it only made its way onto The White Album because it showed a new side to the band. Well, it was at least better than ‘Revolution 9’. 

Designed for the live stage, the tune was built around the band’s performance abilities, which makes you question why they didn’t include it during the 1969 rooftop performance that featured at the end of Let It Be and Get Back. Positioned on the roof, the band could have delivered a rendition that was heavy on guts and high on atmosphere, but opted to produce the banal ‘One After 909’ instead.

McCartney has performed the tune in his solo set, and delivers a commendable vocal, considering his age, but it never truly suited The Beatles. But what it offered was a chance for bands seated in the world of hard rock the chance to reproduce the tune to fit their truth. 

Because it is a truthful song, which might explain why Charles Manson used it for his own political means. But while he used the tune to highlight destruction, the bands on this list did it to reclaim the anthem as something destined for a more tranquil audience. 

Violence makes for a riveting listening experience, and this might explain why these rollicking covers pack a mighty punch that sends you spinning across the room. From the top of the helter-skelter and back, let’s go.

The five best covers of ‘Helter Skelter’:

5. Stereophonics (2007)

Much like Oasis, it’s not only possible to recognise McCartney’s influence on the Welsh band, but record in a way that openly reveres the band McCartney is best known for. This rendition of ‘Helter Skelter’ seems to follow The White Album slavishly, although vocalist Kelley Jones acquits himself quite nicely to the backdrop, letting out a disembodied yelp that recalls the rock gods of the 1970s. 

The drums are ferocious, cutting in and out of the track, demonstrating a kinship to the instrument that not only embodies the raucous nature of the 1968 original it also transcends it. The tune ends with a mass of reverb that shows the band have walked from the recording studio. 

It’s designed for the live stage, which might explain why the band sound so hurried and fiery. It featured on the flipside to ‘It Means Nothing’, matching the explosive energy of the A-side. 

4. U2 (1988)

“This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles,” vocalist Bono begins. “We’re stealing it back”. As openers go, this is one of the more bullish in 1980s rock, but Bono, who wrote additional lyrics to Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’, was unconcerned about stepping on people’s feelings. He was committed to his band. 

This cover is one of the band’s more refined, cut live from the stages in America. It’s possible to discern the shrieks and hoots of the audience members watching their favourite cover the greatest group that has ever walked this earth, but the screams are well earned, not least because Adam Clayton’s frenzied bass-work is among his best. 

U2 was designed for the stage, and although they rarely got the energy right in the studio during the 1980s, they were the finest live act of their generation. Records served as adverts for their live spectacles, which only grew grander and flashier as the years went on. 

3. Siouxsie and The Banshees (1978)

This one is interesting: It treats the recording as a form of mantra, opening the recording upon a blinding collection of choppy riffs and yelps. And then the melody kicks in, and audiences return to the familiar territory of the tune they have known and loved for decades. 

It’s as if the band are eager to salute The Beatles for fuelling the punk movement, concocting a rendition that’s even more disconcerting than the version McCartney committed to tape. 

Producer Steve Lillywhite worked with the band on the track, and the cover is notable for two reasons. It has a fiery “fuck” thrown in for good measure, and just as the drums begin to crash with greater fury, they stop. Then there’s silence. Just silence. 

2. Dana Fuchs (2008)

Although it’s no classic by any definition of the word, Across the Universe nonetheless boast a number of scintillatingly produced covers that showcase The Fab Four in a different, more textured light. 

There’s a hypnotic version of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, written to the backdrop of the Vietnam War; there’s a more intimate rendition of ‘Girl’, sung virtually a capella for the first few bars; and then there’s Dana Fuchs punchy delivery of ‘Helter Skelter’, giving the soundtrack ballast when it needed it most. 

Fuchs does a formidable job with the rock number, pushing her larynx to the furthest of its abilities and proclivities. What we hear is something animal, agitated, and immensely exhilarating to sit through. 

1. Mötley Crüe (1983)

I bet you never thought you’d see Paul McCartney and Nikki Sixx in the same piece. As it happens, neither did McCartney when he wrote the song, but Mötley Crüe rose to the occasion by recording a version that’s as punchy as the original but holds a better vocal delivery to the more plodding tune The Beatles issued out. 

The Beatles were not a heavy metal band, but they knew how to write rock tunes that fit their modus operandi. And with ‘Helter Skelter’, The Beatles had a tremendous rock number that begged artists to record it, boosting the tune with their own energy, vigour and passion. 

Vocalist Vince Neil was at the peak of his vocal ability for Shout at the Devil, thrusting into the rock orbit with gusto, braggadocio and general good-wit. He sounds magnificent on this Beatles re-recording, delivering a vocal performance that has jagged textures unheard on The Beatles’ swampier version. This is the definitive version of the track The Beatles wrote, Charles Manson stole and metal honoured.