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, the term helter-skelter not only has its meanings of "confused" or "confusedly" but is the name of a spiraling amusement park slide. McCartney has used this song as a response to critics who accuse him of only writing 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 the following:
Umm, that came about just 'cuz 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 Beatles recorded the song multiple times during the The White Album sessions. During the 18 July 1968 sessions, a version of the song lasting 27 minutes and 11 seconds was recorded, 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 was edited down to 4:37 for Anthology 3, which was originally twelve minutes long. On 9 September, eighteen takes of approximately five minutes each were recorded, and the last one is featured on the original LP. After the eighteenth take, Ringo Starr flung his sticks across the studio and screamed, "I've got blisters on my fingers!" The Beatles included Starr's shout on the stereo mix of the song (available on CD); the song completely fades out around 3:40, then gradually fades back in, fades back out partially, and quickly fades back in 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 the outburst). The mono version (on LP only) ends on the first fadeout without Ringo'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.
According to Chris Thomas, who was present, the 18 July 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."
* Paul McCartney – lead vocal, bass, lead guitar
* John Lennon – background vocals, rhythm guitar, and sound effects (through brass instruments)
* George Harrison – lead guitar, sound effects, and background vocals
* Ringo Starr – drums
* Mal Evans – saxophone and sound effects (through brass instruments)
The song has been covered by a number of bands (see below) and praised by critics, including Richie Unterberger of Allmusic. Unterberger called it "one of [the] fiercest and most brutal rockers done by anyone" and "extraordinary." Ian MacDonald was critical, calling it "ridiculous, McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing."
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 White Album songs including "Helter Skelter" were the Beatles' coded prophecy of an apocalyptic war in which racist and non-racist whites would be maneuvered into virtually exterminating each other over treatment of blacks. Upon the war's conclusion, after Black Muslims would kill off the few whites they would know to have survived, Manson and his companions, having ridden out the conflict in an underground city, would emerge from hiding and, as the actual remaining whites, rule blacks, who, as the vision went, would be incapable of running things. Manson employed Helter Skelter as the term for this epic sequence of events. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who led the prosecution of Manson and the killers who acted on Manson's instruction, named his best-selling book about the murders Helter Skelter. The book was the basis for two films of the same title.
* In 1975, Aerosmith recorded a cover of "Helter Skelter," but it was not released until 1991, on the Pandora's Box compilation.
* In 1978, Siouxsie & the Banshees included a cover of this song on The Scream.
* In 1980, Dianne Heatherington included a significant rearrangement of the song on her Epic album, "Heatherington Rocks"; the song was also released as a single.
* In 1981, Pat Benatar released a cover of "Helter Skelter" as the final track on Precious Time.
* In 1982, Ian Gillan released a cover of "Helter Skelter" on Magic.
* In 1983, Mötley Crüe recorded their version of this song on their Shout at the Devil album. (It also appeared on their 2006 live album Carnival Of Sins.)
* In 1983, The Bobs released an a cappella version on their eponymous album. It earned them a 1984 Grammy nomination for best new arrangement of an existing song.
* In 1988, U2 released a cover version of "Helter Skelter" as opening track on their Rattle and Hum album.
* In 1989, Vow Wow recorded "Helter Skelter" and named their album after the song.
* In 1997, Dimension Zero included a cover of the song on Penetrations from the Lost World.
* In 2007, the Stereophonics release a cover of the song as a bonus-track on the Japanese release of Pull the Pin.
* Dana Fuchs performs the song in Across the Universe.
* In 2008, Autolux released a cover of the song as a B-side on their single "Audience No. 2."
Live cover performances
* In 1986, Hüsker Dü covered "Helter Skelter" live and issued it on their "Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" EP.
* In 1987, U2 recorded the song in concert for their Rattle and Hum movie and album which was released the following year. Bono's introduction to the song was, "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back." Also noteworthy of this cover is that Bono reworked McCartney's original line "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer" and sung it as (in a kind of double-negative) "you ain't no lover but you ain't no dancer" (this occurs throughout the performance so one assumes that, while he was "stealing it back," Bono's reworking of the lyric was intentional and not simply a live error).
* In 1989 The French rock band Noir Desir covered the song in Élysée Montmartre
* On 31 October 1994, Phish covered the song as part of their "Musical Costume" performance of (almost) the entire White Album. This version contained heavy discords; it concluded with the line "I've got Blisters on my Fingers" sung in four-part harmony. This concert was released as Live Phish Volume 13.
* On 20 November 1996, Urban Dance Squad finished their show in Belgrade with a thundering crossover version of the song, which subsequently appeared on their live album Beograd live.
* In 1996, Pat Benatar released a live version on her "Pat Benatar: Heartbreaker: Sixteen Classic Performances" Album
* In 2000, Oasis covered "Helter Skelter" live, this performance is included on their live album Familiar to Millions.
* In 2008, Thrice covered "Helter Skelter" on their fall tour with Rise Against, Alkaline Trio and The Gaslight Anthem.
* On April 24, 2009, Rooney covered "Helter Skelter" during an encore performance at the annual Muirstock music festival at the University of California, San Diego.
Sampling & References
* From 1990 to 1994, Marilyn Manson used vocal samples of a Charles Manson interview and lifted McCartney's lines "Do you, don't you want me to love you, I'm coming down fast but I'm miles above you, tell me, tell me, tell me, come on tell me the answer", and "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer" on various live and studio versions of their song "My Monkey", along with other various Beatles samples. The partial cover of Helter Skelter was played on their Smells Like Children tour in 1995.
* Skinny Puppy used some of the same Charles Manson vocal samples (tell me, tell me, tell me the answer", and "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer") as well as the opening riff from the Beatles song in Worlock.
* In the Family Guy episode To Love and Die in Dixie, after playing banjo, Stewie Griffin shouts out Ringo's famous 'I've got blisters on my fingers!'
* In the Jim Carrey film Yes Man, The Main caracter stops a man from commiting suicide by playing a song on his guitar and quickly pulling him in, then shouting "I've got blisters on my fingers!"'
Album: The Beatles
Released: 22 November 1968
Recorded: Abbey Road Studios, 9 September 1968
Genre: Hard Rock
Length: 4:30 (Stereo LP), 3:38 (Mono LP)
Label: Apple Records
Producer: George Martin