Song facts: Helter Skelter

Helter Skelter is credited by many as one of the earliest heavy metal songs; a stark contrast to the types of ballads Paul McCartney was known for writing. Paul wanted to make a song as loud, dirty and audacious as possible.

"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." - Paul McCartney

Recording

The Beatles began working on Helter Skelter on July 18th 1968, at Abbey Road. The recording sessions for which resulted in one take being a whopping 27 minutes in length and one 11 minutes in duration. A cutdown version of the 11 minute take can be found on The Beatles' Anthology 3 album.

Ultimately these sessions would be shelved and The Beatles would not revisit the song until September 9th; when they recorded 18 takes of the newer, faster Helter Skelter; settling on the final take which was used on The White Album.

"We got the engineers and George Martin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and said, 'No, still sounds too safe, it's got to get louder and dirtier.' We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, 'I've got blisters on my fingers!' That wasn't a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of the take, he'd been drumming so ferociously. We did work very hard on that track." - Paul McCartney

After recording take 18 Ringo Starr flung his drumsticks across the studio and shouted I've got blisters on my fingers! This heartfelt outburst was included on the stereo mix of The White Album.

"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." - Ringo Starr
"The version on the album was out of control. They were completely off their heads that night. But, as usual, a blind eye was turned to what the Beatles did in the studio. Everyone knew what substances they were taking but they were really a law unto themselves in the studio. As long as they didn't do anything too outrageous things were tolerated" - Brian Gibson, technical engineer

Charles Manson

As with so many of The Beatles' songs, people took their own meaning from the lyrics. In 1968, Charles Manson infamously told his followers that several songs on The Beatles' White Album, including Helter Skelter contained coded messages of an apocalyptic race war, in which white people would be exterminated by black militants.

"We used to have a laugh about this, that or the other, in a light-hearted way, and some intellectual would read us, some symbolic youth generation wants to see something in it. We also took seriously some parts of the role, but 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." - John Lennon
"I 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, the going down. You could have thought of it as a rather cute title but it's since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem, and since then quite a few punk bands have done it because it is a raunchy rocker." - Paul McCartney
"Charles Manson interpreted that Helter Skelter was something to to with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. I still don't know what all that stuff is; it's from the Bible, Revelation - I haven't read it so I wouldn't know. But he interpreted the whole thing - that we were the four horsemen, Helter Skelter was the song - and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone." - Paul McCartney
"Helter Skelter means confusion. 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. 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." - Charles Manson

 Personnel

  • Paul McCartney – lead vocal, electric guitar, bass, piano
  • John Lennon – backing vocal, six-string bass, electric guitar, sound effects (through brass instruments)
  • George Harrison – backing vocal, electric guitar, electric slide guitar, sound effects
  • Ringo Starr – drums, cowbell
  • Mal Evans – trumpet
Paul McCartney recording the White Album, 1968.

Paul McCartney recording the White Album, 1968.

George Harrison and Paul McCartney recording the White Album, 1968.

George Harrison and Paul McCartney recording the White Album, 1968.