The Beatles were unafraid to push the boundaries in a spectrum of different directions. Whether it was shifting their sound through fields of psychedelia or taking influence from India, the Fab Four always attempted to redefine popular music.
However, sometimes they pushed things into areas that even the band themselves struggled to comprehend. One experimental effort, which Ringo Starr later referred to as “total madness”, was written by Paul McCartney to bark back at The Who’s Pete Townshend. In an interview with Melody Maker, the guitarist had boasted about making “the loudest, rock ‘n’ roll record” of all time, which made Macca take it upon himself to write an even bolshier anthem.
While speaking as part of the Anthology, McCartney explained: “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.'”
The result was ‘Helter Skelter’, a track often attributed as the first heavy metal song. It is The Beatles at their most untamed, and the recording session was carnage. When McCartney recorded his vocals, George Harrison decided to set fire to an ashtray and ran around the studio with it above his head in a bizarre odd to singer Arthur Brown.
McCartney added, “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”.
Their take of the track which made the White Album was the group’s 21st attempt. It inexplicably featured John Lennon on bass, and even their roadie, Mal Evans, on the trumpet. They may have made ‘Helter Skelter’ under a cloud of mayhem, yet somehow, The Beatles successfully translated the chaos from the EMI Studios onto the anarchic final mix.
Ringo later remembered: “‘Helter Skelter’ was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams, and with that song – Paul’s bass line and my drums – Paul started screaming and shouting and made it up on the spot”.
As a result of Charles Manson’s fixation on ‘Helter Skelter’, many mistook the track for having deep satanic undertones. However, Lennon addressed these misconceptions, and stated: “I don’t know what ‘Helter Skelter’ has to do with knifing someone. I’ve never listened to it properly, it was just a noise”.
There was no hidden meaning of ‘Helter Skelter’, The Beatles just wanted to sound as deranged as humanly possible. Their only end goal was Pete Townshend to eat his words, but the Manson infested lasting legacy has become the stuff of nightmares.