Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Never-Ending Song: Helter Skelter

"The Beatles were fundamentally a rock band, not a pop band that just happened to play rock 'n' roll. 'Helter Skelter' in particular was, as Paul said, "the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest" rock song they could conceive of. Although an English person recognized 'helter skelter' as a type of amusement ride, to an American the term signified disorganized chaos. And, indeed, the first time the Beatles recorded the song at Abbey Road, they got so caught up in its heavy, screeching fury that they jammed on for more than ten minutes on one version, over twelve minutes on a second, and an epic, yet still tightly played, twenty-seven minutes on a third. On September 9, the night they taped the version of 'Helter Skelter' heard on the record, they held the length down to four and a half minutes but went just as wild, both on tape and off. Ringo's impassioned scream, 'I've got blisters on my fingers,' was caught on tape, but had the Beatles also been filming a video that night, it would have shown George setting fire to an ashtray and running around the studio, wearing it on his head like a crown of fire."
-Mark Hertsgaard, A Day In The Life

And it is this 27-minute version of "Helter Skelter" that remains one of the most sought-after Beatles recordings. But why have so many never heard this recording? This post is an introduction to the whole "Helter Skelter" myth, and takes an in-depth look at the recording sessions, plus available outtakes.

"Pete Townshend in Melody Maker said the Who had some track that was the loudest, the most racous rock 'n' roll, the dirtiest thing they'd ever done. It made me think, 'Right. Got to do it.' I like that kind of geeking up. And we decided to do the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could. That was 'Helter Skelter.' "
-Paul McCartney, Musician (February 1985)

"The version on the album was out of control. They were completely out of 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 talking, but they were really a law unto themselves in the studio."
-Brian Gibson, technical engineer

McCartney: bass, lead guitar, lead vocal
Harrison: rhythm guitar, backing vocal
Lennon: bass, lead guitar, saxophone, backing vocal
Starr: drums
Mal Evans: trumpet

Convicted murderer Charles Manson took the title as the name for the race war and apocalypse he believed was destined to happen when the Black Panthers would rise up and kill the white "piggies." Manson had his group commit the Tate and LaBianca murders to show blacks how to "rise." In England the term helter skelter applies to an amusement-park slide. Lennon supposedly supported the slide meaning later in court.

"I don't know what I thought when it happened. I just think a lot of the things he says are true, that he is a child of the state, made by us, and he took their children in when nobody else would, is what he did. Of course he's cracked, all right."
-John Lennon, (December 1970)

Lennon found Manson's interpretation of "Helter Skelter" absurd. Manson's zealous reading of lyric sign and symbols was typical of Beatle fans, but - also typical, Lennon said - he came up with a message that simply did not exist in the song.

Mark Lewisohn, author of books such as The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle, had this to say about the 27-minute track, plus it's possible inclusion on Anthology:

"Helter Skelter is perhaps the most legendary Beatles outtake of them all. At the time of the White Album being issued, I think it was Neil Aspinall wrote in the Beatles Monthly magazine, that The Beatles had recorded a 27-minute version of Helter Skelter, which quite obviously, they were not releasing, but they had done it anyway. From that moment on, it became like the holy grail for Beatles fans, they had to hear this song. To this day I know of many people who don't want to die until they've heard the 27-minute Helter Skelter, then they can die.

"I made it clear to George Martin when we doing Anthology 3, that the fans are desperate to hear this and I urged him to listen to it, because I don't think initially he was going to do so. He listened it, and he said 'well, why is this important?'. I said forget the quality of the sound, or forget the fact that it's not quite in tune or whatever, what a producer would normally be looking for, just respect the fact please that it is hailed as the most important outtake of them all, and the fans will go crazy if you don't include this on the Anthology. So he took all that on board, which George always does, and he's very good at that sort of thing, he listens. But, the next time I went in there, they said 'here it is' and it was like 5 minutes, and they'd trimmed it right down. And in fact they didn't use the 27 minute one, there was another one as well that was 12 minutes, which they used, and they'd trimmed it down to 5 minutes. They said 'this is all people will stand, they won't stand the whole thing'. And I said 'well, I think a lot of them will actually...' "

Many people automatically assume that since a 27-minute version of "Helter Skelter" was recorded, that it is just as wild and fast-paced as the album version. Not so, the version you hear on the album was recorded almost 2 months later, the 27-minute version played at a slow, march-like tempo, much like the track on Anthology 3. A more in-depth look at the recording of "Helter Skelter" is found below:

"I came back from my holiday, and there was a note from George [Martin] on my desk ‘Chris: Hope you had a nice holiday; I’m off on mine now. Make yourself available to the Beatles. Neil and Mal know you’re coming down.’ It took a while for the Beatles to accept me. Paul was the first one to walk in - I was sitting in the corner wearing a suit and tie! - and he said ‘What are you doing here?‘. I felt like such an idiot, but managed to blurt ‘Didn’t George tell you?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, George has suggested I come down and help out.’ Paul’s reply was ‘Well, if you wanna produce us you can produce us. If you don’t, we might just tell you to **** off!’ That was encouragement? I couldn’t speak after that..."
-Chris Thomas, producer for the album version of "Helter Skelter"

Thursday, July 18, 1968
Studio Two - 10:30 pm-3:30 am
Helter Skelter - takes 1-3
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott
Second Engineer: Richard Lush

The remainder of the day/night of July 18 was spent recording three extended versions of ‘Helter Skelter’, a new McCartney song invoking the name of a spiral slide at a British fairground. The version of ‘Helter Skelter’ which appears on The Beatles is entirely different from the versions taped on this day, however. That album recording, a re-make, was begun on September 9th. The July 18 versions are essentially rehearsals. Take one lasted 10:40, take two 12:35 and take three an epic 27:11, the longest ever Beatles recording. All three versions were similar: drums, bass, lead and rhythm guitars played live - positively no overdubs -with a very heavy drum sound, heavy guitars and a magnificent vocal delivery by Paul, with - surprisingly - all but identical lyrics to the re-made version. Each take developed into a tight and concisely played jam with long instrumental passages.

Assigned as technical engineer on the session was Brian Gibson. "They recorded the long versions of ‘Helter Skelter’ with live tape echo. Echo would normally be added at remix stage otherwise it can’t be altered, but this time they wanted it live. One of the versions of ‘Helter Skelter’ developed into a jam which went into and then back out of a somewhat bizarre version of ‘Blue Moon’. The problem was, although we were recording them at 15 ips - which meant that we’d get roughly half an hour of time on the tape - the machine we were running for the tape echo was going at 30 ips, in other words 15 minutes. We were sitting up there in the control room - Ken Scott, the second engineer and myself - looking at this tape echo about to run out. The Beatles were jamming away, completely oblivious to the world and we didn’t know what to do because they all had foldback in their headphones so that they could hear the echo. We knew that if we stopped it they would notice. "In the end we decided that the best thing to do was stop the tape echo machine and rewind it. So at one point the echo suddenly stopped and you could hear bllllrrrrippppp as it was spooled back. This prompted Paul to put in some kind of clever vocal improvisation based around the chattering sound!"

Monday, September 9, 1968
Studio Two - 7:00 pm-2:30 am
Helter Skelter (re-make) - takes 4-21
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott
Second Engineer: John Smith

The July 18 recording of ‘Helter Skelter’ had partly fulfilled Paul’s wish to create a rock music cacophony. The problem was, with that day’s ‘best’ take running to more than 27 minutes, the song was likely to fill one entire side of an album. So on this day the Beatles taped a re-make: 18 takes of an equally cacophonous maelstrom, but at the regular length of three to four minutes. Actually, the length was the only "regular" aspect of the re-make for this was, by all accounts, a mad session. "The version on the album was out of control," says Brian Gibson. "They were completely out of 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."

All sorts of instruments were being bandied about. The end result - take 21 and additional overdubs recorded the next day, September 10 - was a song in which John played bass guitar and, of all things, a decidedly unskilled saxophone, Mal Evans played an equally amateurish trumpet, there were two lead guitars, heavy drums, a piano, built-in distortion and feedback, backing vocals from John and George, various mutterings and - the icing on the cake - a supremely raucous Paul McCartney lead vocal. If ‘Revolution 9’ was John’s excursion into mayhem on The Beatles, ‘Helter Skelter’ was Paul's. But it was Ringo who added the perfect finishing touch. Having drummed as if his life depended on it, his "I’ve got blisters on my fingers!" scream was preserved as the song’s great climax.

Tuesday, September 10, 1968
Studio Two - 7:00 pm-3:00 am
Helter Skelter - overdub onto take 21
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott
Second Engineer: John Smith

Final overdubbing onto ‘Helter Skelter’. Chris Thomas recalls, "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! All in all, a pretty undisciplined session, you could say!"

Tuesday, September 17, 1968
Studio Two - 7:00 pm-5:00 am
Helter Skelter - mono remix 1, from take 21
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott
Second Engineer: Mike Sheady
Saturday, October 12, 1968
Studio Two - 7:00 pm-5:45 am
Helter Skelter - stereo remixes 1-5, from take 21
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott
Second Engineer: John Smith

The remixing of ‘Helter Skelter’ was a vital ingredient to the song, yet it threw up a major difference between the mono and stereo versions. The mono (done September 17) ends at 3:36, the stereo (October 12) runs on for almost another minute, to 4:29. The latter has a fade down and up within the song, the former doesn’t. The latter has Ringo’s blistery shout, the former does not. There are also other minor differences.

Wednesday, October 9, 1968
Studio Two - 7:00 pm-5:30 am
Helter Skelter - tape copying of take 3
Producer: George Martin
Engineer: Ken Scott
Second Engineer: John Smith

During this session, Paul withdrew from the tape library the original July 18 recordings of 'Helter Skelter' and made a copy of the longest take - the 27:11 version - for his own private collection.

So with all this talk of alternate versions, what is currently available in terms of "Helter Skelter" outtakes? Read on...

June 11, 1968
A month before a studio version of "Helter Skelter" was taped, a short acoustic version was filmed in between rehearsal takes of "Blackbird". It was filmed in colour by Tony Bramwell, and was intended for use as an Apple promo. This acoustic version was aired on Dutch television's "Vara's Puntje" on September 27, 1968.

This outtake is available in most complete form on the bootleg "Gone Tomorrow Here Today" (Midnight Beat 113)

July 18, 1968
An outtake from this first studio session of "Helter Skelter" is available thanks to Anthology 3. Officially released now is take 2, albeit in edited form. The original take 2 runs 12:35, Anthology 3 cut it down to under 5 minutes.

Monday, September 9, 1968
Available from this session is an acetate of the album version of "Helter Skelter" but with a bit of extra guitar at the beginning and a count-in. It's on the bootlegs "Lord Of Madness" (Masterfraction MFCD001) and "Primal Colours" (Masterdisc MDCD009) in different mixes. Don't get fooled by the fake mix on "Off White Vol. 3" (Red Phantom 1138), which contains, among other things, a count-in from "12-Bar Original"!

Hunter Davies. The Beatles.
William J. Dowlding. Beatlesongs.
Mark Hertsgaard. A Day In The Life.
Mark Lewisohn. The Complete Beatles Chronicle.
Steve Turner. A Hard Day's Write.
Jann Wenner. Lennon Remembers.
Allen J. Wiener. The Ultimate Recording Guide.


Anonymous said...

awesome info.

kimur said...

so now what do we do? kidnap paul and force him to give th tape?

pdp said...

Does anyone know which guitars were used to record this song?

Anonymous said...

My God! I wanna the 27 minutes version, And I'll Stand it! The Anthology one is just so great, it's a shame they cutted it, still I hear it everyday ! =)

Pineapples101 said...

Fantastic info. Thanks for posting.

Andrew said...

Great post, thanks