The Beatles song ‘Helter Skelter’ is often attributed as being the beginning of heavy metal, a track released in 1968 and helped The Fab Four flex their muscles like never before. This experimental number, which paid off in incredible fashion, is best exhibited on the frantic isolated guitars on the classic number.
‘Helter Skelter’ is an outlier in The Beatles vast back catalogue and, given though it doesn’t sound like their typical sound, you could easily be mistaken for not realising it was the Liverpudlians in action didn’t know otherwise. That said, the material bizarrely epitomises everything great about the pioneering four-piece.
“‘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. What fell out of the proverbial shaken tree was a vocal unlike any other, for Paul McCartney it was exactly what he wanted. “It sounded nothing like The Beatles,” Starr added in reflection.
The song famously took on a darker life after Charles Manson, the leader of a notorious murderous cult, became obsessed with it. The killer somehow misinterpreted the track as being about an impending race war which, of course, is ridiculous. This put a dampener on the legacy of ‘Helter Skelter’ for a prolonged period of time but, as time has passed, the magnificence of the White Album track has been reclaimed to The Beatles.
The track was born out of McCartney’s refusal to be tied down to one genre or sound, his want to prove to people that The Beatles could step into uncharted territories was what stoked a fire in him to mastermind the ferocious ‘Helter Skelter’.
The Who’s very own Pete Townshend was the main source of inspiration for McCartney, even if he was completely unaware that he had inadvertently led to the creation of 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.
“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.”
On the isolated guitar version that gritty, dirty, raucous sound that McCartney created comes even further to the forefront and is a dose of carnage that will unequivocally brighten up your day. It also serves as a reminder (if somehow we needed one) that there was almost nothing that The Beatles couldn’t make absolute magic out of and in this case, they even helped create a whole new genre of music.