“Helter Skelter” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles that was released in 1968 on their self-titled double album, often known as “the White Album”. It was written by Paul McCartney and credited to Lennon–McCartney. The song was a product of McCartney’s attempt to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible. The Beatles’ recording has been noted for its “proto-metal roar” and is considered by music historians to be a key influence in the early development of heavy metal. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Helter Skelter” 52nd on its list of the “100 Greatest Beatles songs”.
McCartney was inspired to write the song after reading a 1967 Guitar Player magazine interview with the Who’s Pete Townshend where he described their latest single, “I Can See for Miles”, as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song the Who had ever recorded. McCartney then “wrote ‘Helter Skelter’ to be the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums, et cetera” and said he was “using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire – and this was the fall, the demise.” In British English, a helter skelter is an amusement park attraction which features a tall spiral slide winding round a tower. McCartney has cited this song as a response to critics who accuse him of writing only ballads.
On 20 November 1968, two days before the release of The Beatles, McCartney gave Radio Luxembourg an exclusive interview, in which he commented on several of the album’s songs. Speaking of “Helter Skelter”, he said: “Umm, that came about just ’cause 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.’ 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, 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.”
The song was recorded many times during sessions for The Beatles. During the 18 July 1968 sessions, the Beatles recorded a version of the song lasting 27 minutes and 11 seconds, although this version is rather slow and hypnotic, differing greatly from the volume and rawness of the album version. Another recording from the same day, originally 12 minutes long, was edited down to 4:37 for Anthology 3. On 9 September, 18 takes of approximately five minutes each were recorded, and the last one is featured on the original LP. After the 18th take, Ringo Starr flung his drum sticks across the studio and screamed, “I got blisters on my fingers!” Starr’s shout was included on the stereo mix of the song. At around 3:40, the song completely fades out, gradually fades back in, fades back out partially and finally fades back in quickly with three cymbal crashes and Ringo’s scream (some sources erroneously credit the “blisters” line to Lennon; in fact, Lennon can be heard asking “How’s that?” before Ringo’s outburst). The mono version (originally on LP only) ends on the first fadeout without Starr’s outburst. The mono version was not initially available in the US as mono albums had already been phased out there. The mono version was later released in the American version of the Rarities album. In 2009, it was made available on the CD mono re-issue of The Beatles as part of the Beatles in Mono CD box set.
According to Chris Thomas, who was present, the 9 September session was especially spirited: “While Paul was doing his vocal, George Harrison had set fire to an ashtray and was running around the studio with it above his head, doing an Arthur Brown.” Starr’s recollection is less detailed, but agrees in spirit: “‘Helter Skelter’ was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams.”
Among music critics commenting on “Helter Skelter”, Richie Unterberger of AllMusic views it as “one of [the] fiercest and most brutal rockers done by anyone” and “extraordinary”. Writing for MusicHound in 1999, Guitar World editor Christopher Scapelliti identified the track as one of three “fascinating standouts” on the White Album. While admiring the diversity of McCartney’s songwriting on the album, Mark Richardson of Pitchfork cites “Helter Skelter” as one of “the roughest, rawest tunes in his Beatles oeuvre”.
Ian MacDonald was highly critical of the song, however, calling it “ridiculous, McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing”. Rob Sheffield was also unimpressed, writing in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) that, following the double album’s release on CD, “now you can program ‘Sexy Sadie’ and ‘Long, Long, Long’ without having to lift the needle to skip over ‘Helter Skelter.'” Alan W. Pollack said the song will “scare and unsettle” listeners, citing “Helter Skelter”‘s “obsessive nature” and “undercurrent of violence”, and noted McCartney’s “savage vocal delivery” as reinforcing this theme.
In a 1980 interview, Lennon said, “That’s Paul completely … It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me.”
In March 2005, Q magazine ranked “Helter Skelter” number 5 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.
Charles Manson told his followers that several White Album songs including “Helter Skelter” were a part of the Beatles’ coded prophecy of an apocalyptic war in which racist and non-racist whites would be manoeuvred into virtually exterminating each other over the treatment of blacks. Upon the war’s conclusion, after black militants would kill off the few whites they would know to have survived, Manson and his companions would emerge from an underground city in which they would have escaped the conflict. As the only remaining whites, they would rule blacks, who, as the vision went, would be incapable of running America. Manson employed “helter skelter” as the term for this sequence of events.
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who led the prosecution of Manson and four of his followers who acted on Manson’s instruction in the Tate-LaBianca murders, named his best-selling book about the murders Helter Skelter. The book was the basis for two television movies of the same title.
Paul McCartney – lead vocal, electric guitar, piano
John Lennon – backing vocal, six-string bass, electric guitar, sound effects (through brass instruments)
George Harrison – backing vocal, rhythm guitar, electric slide guitar, sound effects
Ringo Starr – drums, vocal shout
Mal Evans – trumpet