‘Helter Skelter’ is one of The Beatles filthiest yet most triumphant songs. Breaking down the barriers of known rock and roll, many have pointed to the track as the birth of heavy metal as we know it. Of course, most rock genres can be traced back to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr in some form or another.
While it ranks as one of the band’s wildest songs, it featured on their White Album LP and has been revered ever since as the rawer edge of the Fab Four. But there is an even more ferocious take of the song — a 27-minute take that buzzes across the reels like a killer hornet.
The self-titled double album was famously positioned as the group’s return to rock and roll, “What we’re trying to do is rock ‘n roll,” confirmed Lennon in 1968, “‘with less of your philosorock,’ is what we’re saying to ourselves. And get on with rocking because rockers is what we really are.” If there is one song that reflects that change of pace it’s ‘Helter Skelter’.
The session for laying the song down were held on July 18 1968 and produced some of the group’s longest takes. While this particular rendition, at nearly half an hour-long, is the band’s longest, they also delivered both ten and twelve-minute takes beforehand. The band played for so long they inevitably ended up breaking some of the equipment.
Rather than deter the band, it seemingly galvanised Paul McCartney, the song’s main contributor, who was determined to outdo The Who’s new louder-than-a-jet appeal. “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,'” Macca noted in 1968. “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,” he continued, “and it was very sort of sophisticated. 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.”
It was The Who’s song ‘I Can See For Miles’ which had pushed McCartney to pick up his pen. “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,'” McCartney told Anthology. “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.'”
Taking it into the studio was where the group could really enact their vision. “They recorded the long versions of ‘Helter Skelter’ with live tape echo,” studio engineer Brian Gibson told Lewisohn in The Beatles Recording Sessions. “Echo would normally be added at remix stage, otherwise it can’t be altered, but this time they wanted it live.” It allowed for hiccups to be included in the mammoth take.
“The Beatles were jamming away,” he continues, “completely oblivious to the world and we didn’t know what to do, because they all had fold-back in their headphones so that they could hear the echo. We knew that if we stopped it, they would notice,” Gibson said. “In the end, we decided that the best thing to do was stop the tape echo machine and rewind it. So, at one point the echo suddenly stopped and you could hear ‘bllllrrrrippppp’ as it was spooled back. This prompted Paul to put in some kind of clever vocal improvisation based around the chattering sound!”
Playing through the witching hour, The Beatles would finally nail down ‘Helter Skelter’ and its legendary status would begin. But, cut off from the album version is this mammoth 27-minute take. It provides a clear image of a band in their prime, returning to their essence and letting it all hang out.