The darkest section of The Beatles’ vast legacy is centred around something that they had nothing to do with but, in truth, was inspired by their music and nearly led to a race war tearing through America. The tale of how their song ‘Helter Skelter’ would become the obsession of Charles Manson is one that nearly tarnished the band’s reputation whilst leaving a black mark on the song forever.
Manson is the most notorious cult leader that the world has ever seen, his presence has left a scar on Hollywood ever since the brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate and her friends. Tate, who was married to Roman Polanski, was the high profile victim of the ‘Manson Family’ who carried out the brutal murder upon his instructions in 1969. However, Manson’s dream wasn’t to solidify his status as a ‘cult leader’ to begin with, he initially wanted to become the next big musician of the sixties before his head was turned to the darker side. Manson always had an obsession with music but it would be bands like The Beatles that would earn their place in the history books for their musical prowess rather than Manson, but fame was something that he was certain he’d achieve in whatever way possible.
The cult leader first heard The Beatles during their debut jaunt to the United States in 1964, a time when Beatlemania swept across America and, even though at the time he was serving a prison sentence for attempting to cash a forged US Treasury check, he still couldn’t escape the hysteria. During this stint, Manson was taught to play the guitar by a fellow inmate and quickly fell in love with The Beatles.
Three years later and Manson was released, leaving prison via an old school bus and, after The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was released in November that year, Manson adopted the name to refer to the Family’s activities in the bus. This is coupled with Manson living his life by the belief of ‘Helter Skelter’ which he understood to be about a race war between white people and black people which, of course, is wide of the mark and the track, in actual fact, is literally about a fairground ride.
“Like, ‘Helter Skelter’ is a nightclub. ‘Helter Skelter’ means confusion,” Manson explained in 1970. “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.”
He added: “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.”
His first known use of the term was at a campfire gathering of the Family on New Year’s Eve 1968, one located at their base at Myers Ranch near California’s Death Valley. By February 1969, Helter Skelter had developed into a scenario in which Manson and the family would create an album which they believed would trigger the conflict and inspire America’s white youths to join their movement. He believed that black men, deprived of white women, would commit violent crimes in frustration, resulting in murderous rampages and a swiftly-escalating conflict between racial groups. He wanted to create as much hatred as possible from white people who he hoped would join the family in their fight against the black community.
“Look at the songs: songs sung all over the world by young love,” Manson once said about The Beatles. “It ain’t nothin’ new… It’s written in… Revelation, all about the four angels programming the holocaust… the four angels looking for the fifth angel to lead the people into the pit of fire… right out to Death Valley. It’s all in black and white, in the White Album – white, so there ain’t no mistakin’ the colour,” Manson added.
His obsession with the band was a source of anguish for Ringo Starr who once said: “It was upsetting. I mean, I knew Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and – God! – it was a rough time. It stopped everyone in their tracks because suddenly all this violence came out in the midst of all this love and peace and psychedelia.
“It was pretty miserable, actually, and everyone got really insecure – not just us, not just the rockers, but everyone in LA felt: ‘Oh, God, it can happen to anybody.’ Thank God they caught the bugger,” he added.
Charles Manson would pass away in 2017 in California State Prison and would spend the rest of his life paying for the sins he committed that would devastate Hollywood, a story which would go on to become the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s incredibly successful film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.