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Music

How The Who inspired one of The Beatles' raunchiest songs

The Beatles’ 1968 song ‘Helter Skelter’ is one of the most iconic and notorious that the ‘Fab Four’ ever released. A staple in early hard-rock and a massive influence of the early development of heavy metal, ‘Helter Skelter’ is The Beatles at their heaviest. Written “completely” by Paul McCartney, it features his wailing vocals, low, droning bass and guitarist George Harrison bringing in some of his most swaggering riffs.

Harrison’s licks on the Beatles’ heaviest romp are undoubtedly some of his best. On ‘Helter Skelter, it isn’t hard to bridge the gap between Harrison in these early days of rock’s development and a more contemporary guitarist such as Josh Homme, given both’s instinctive use of slides for their frills. 

To the majority of you, ‘Helter Skelter’ is best known for another reason. Murderous hippie cult leader, Charles Manson, named his vision of the apocalypse and what he saw as the impending race war in the US after The Beatles track. In 1970, Manson told a court of his take on ‘Helter Skelter’: “‘Helter Skelter’ means confusion. Literally. It doesn’t mean any war with anyone. It doesn’t mean that those people are going to kill other people. It only means what it means. ‘Helter Skelter‘ is confusion. 

Confusion is coming down fast. If you don’t see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It’s not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it 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.”

Manson’s blood-soaked fantasy couldn’t have been further from how McCartney intended it or the original subject matter. In England, The Beatles’ native country, a helter-skelter is a red and white fairground attraction consisting of a tall spiral slide winding around a wooden triangle. Retrospectively, McCartney looked back on the song, its meaning, and the new inferences that Manson’s psychotic family had brought it.

He told Barry Miles for Many Years From Now: “I was using the symbol of a helter-skelter as 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. You could have thought of it as a rather cute title, but it’s since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem, and since then, quite a few punk bands have done it because it is a raunchy rocker.”

It has also transpired in the years since 1968 that Paul McCartney’s main inspiration for the song’s style came from a contemporary group of the ‘British Invasion’. Not the Rolling Stones, not the Kinks nor The Hollies; but The Who. In the 2000 Beatles autobiography, Anthology, McCartney revealed that after hearing the Who guitarist Pete Townshend describe their new single 1967’s ‘I Can See For Miles’.

McCartney recalled: “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’.”

McCartney continued: “You can hear the voices cracking, and we played it so long and so often that by the end of it you can hear Ringo saying, ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers’. We just tried to get it louder: ‘Can’t we make the drums sound louder?’ That was really all I wanted to do – to make a very loud, raunchy rock ‘n’ roll record with The Beatles. And I think it’s a pretty good one.”

In an exclusive 1968 interview with Radio Luxembourg, McCartney opined that The Beatles’ take on ‘I Can See For Miles’ was “just a ridiculous song.” To them, maybe, but it ended up inspiring a lot of the heavier genres of music that were to flourish in later years, an impact that cannot be understated.

Listen to ‘Helter Skelter’, below.