John Lennon was never a bassist, not even by the wildest stretch of one’s imagination. However, Lennon was certainly an artist and, like any artist, he felt he could get an expression out of anything. He, therefore, did take up the four-string mantle for one Beatles song, ‘Helter Skelter’, for a performance so ragged some even believed him to be deliberately intent on sabotaging the track.
The track is famously like nothing else in the group’s vast back catalogue. You could be forgiven for not realising it was the Liverpudlians in action if you didn’t know otherwise — Lennon taking up the bass while Macca plays lead guitar is a crucial reason for the misconception.
The instrument swap gives ‘Helter Skelter’ an unpolished feel to it, which provides the track with a raw finish. While it’s not a virtuoso example of how to play the bass — without it, the song doesn’t have the same beloved girt. It was born out of McCartney’s refusal to be tied down to one genre or sound, his want and desire to prove to people that The Beatles could step into uncharted territories. It was what stoked a fire in him to mastermind the ferocious ‘Helter Skelter’. That, and his desire to get over The Who, of course.
The Who’s loudmouth Pete Townshend was the primary source of inspiration for McCartney, even if he was completely unaware that he had inadvertently led to creating The Beatles’ masterpiece until decades later. Macca, reading an interview with Townshend who described The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’ as “the most raucous rock ‘n’ roll”, lit a fire in him and he decided to do one better by getting even more raucous.
“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,'” said Macca. “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’.”
“Just reading those lines (of the Townshend interview) fired my imagination,” McCartney told Mojo in 2008. “I thought, ‘Right, they’ve done what they think was the loudest and dirtiest; we’ll do what we think’. I went into the studio and told the guys, ‘Look, I’ve got this song but Pete said this and I want to do it even dirtier.’ It was a great brief for the engineers, for everyone- just as fuzzy and as dirty and as loud and as filthy as you can get it is where I want to go. I was happy to have Pete’s quote to get me there.”
“‘Helter Skelter’ was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio,” Ringo Starr once recalled. “Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams”—and they certainly did. “It sounded nothing like The Beatles,” Starr reflected.
It remains unclear exactly why Lennon played bass on the track. Hearing his part of the song isolated confirms exactly why Beatles bass duties were better off under McCartney’s sturdy supervision. Although Lennon makes an ample amount of errors in the track, that all plays beautifully into the raucous charm of ‘Helter Skelter’ — the track was meant to be a dirty beast, and it’s imperfections make it a perfect rock ‘n’ roll masterpiece.