Helter Skelter (song)
1976 US promotional single
|Song by the Beatles from the album The Beatles|
|Released||22 November 1968|
|Recorded||9–10 September 1968,
EMI Studios, London
|Length||4:30 (stereo LP)
3:40 (mono LP)
"Helter Skelter" is a song written by Paul McCartney, credited to Lennon–McCartney, and recorded by the Beatles on their eponymous LP The Beatles, often known as "the White Album". A product of McCartney's deliberate effort to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible, the song has been noted for both its "proto-metal roar" and "unique textures" and is considered by music historians as a key influence in the early development of heavy metal. In a special stand-alone issue, Rolling Stone ranked "Helter Skelter" 52nd on its "100 Greatest Beatles songs" list.
Writing and inspiration
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 meaning of "in disorderly haste or confusion" but is the name of a spiralling amusement park slide. McCartney has used 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 White Album. 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 almost fades out, then 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 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 White Album 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 Media 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.
- In 1975, Aerosmith recorded a cover of "Helter Skelter", but it was not released until 1991, on the Pandora's Box compilation. The cover charted at #21 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.
- In 1978, Siouxsie and the Banshees included a cover of this song on The Scream. A live version of the song appears on their 1983 album Nocturne.
- 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 1983, Mötley Crüe recorded their version of this song on their Shout at the Devil album (1983). It has also appeared on their 1999 and 2006 live albums, Live: Entertainment or Death and Carnival Of Sins Live, respectively, and again on their 2005 compilation album, Red, White & Crüe.
- 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 1985, Mari Hamada released a cover of this song on the album Blue Revolution.
- In 1985, Ukrainian university student Oleg Skripka recorded an eight-minute version of the song with TISM's Humphrey B. Flaubert on drums. That version, and 5 other songs from the session, were released as the album Salzburg in 1996.
- In 1988, U2 released a live cover version of "Helter Skelter" as the opening track on their album Rattle and Hum (see below).
- In 1989, Skinny Puppy released the song "Worlock", which includes a movement where samples of Charles Manson singing the first verse of "Helter Skelter" are played on top of samples from The Beatles' song. A music video exists and features short clips of Lennon, Manson and McCartney.
- In 1989, Gillan released a cover of "Helter Skelter" as a bonus track on the reissue of Magic.
- In 1989, Negativland released the album Helter Stupid which was based on a media hoax that they started. The album included an 18-minute title track with a sample of "Helter Skelter" included in it.
- In 1989, Vow Wow recorded "Helter Skelter", released it as a single and named their album after the song.
- In 1997, Dimension Zero included a cover of the song on Penetrations from the Lost World.
- In 1997, Skrew included a cover of the song on Angel Seed XXIII.
- In 1999, Joe Lynn Turner release a cover of the song on his fifth solo album, Under Cover 2.
- In 2000, Oasis released a studio version which was released as B-sides to "Who Feels Love?" and on the Japanese edition of "Go Let It Out".
- In 2004, Paul Chiten arranged, produced & performed it as the main title track for television film "Helter Skelter," which aired as a CBS 2-part Movie-of-the-Week.
- In 2007, the Stereophonics release a cover of the song as a bonus-track on the Japanese release of Pull the Pin.
- In 2007, Dana Fuchs performs the song in Across the Universe.
- In 2007, Beatallica recorded a parody called "Helvester of Skelter", which also was a parody of the Metallica song "Harvester of Sorrow".
- In 2008, Autolux released a cover of the song as a B-side on their single "Audience No. 2".
- In 2009, Thrice released a cover of the song as a bonus track on their album Beggars.
- In 2011, Thrice's cover version of the song was used with the Red Faction: Armageddon trailer.
- In 2011, German metalcore band Caliban covered the song for their EP entitled Coverfield EP.
- In 2012, Boom Boom Satellites recorded a cover for their 15th anniversary album and 2013 tour Embrace and released it as a promotional single.
- In 2014, The Dead Daisies covered it on their Face I Love EP.
- In 2014, Roger Daltrey covered the song on The Art of McCartney.
Live cover performances
- In 1985, Hüsker Dü covered "Helter Skelter" live and issued it on their Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely EP in 1986.
- 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 sang it as (in a kind of double-negative) "you ain't no lover but you ain't no dancer".
- In 1989 Noir Désir played "Helter Skelter" at the end of their concert at the Paléo music festival in Nyon, Switzerland. The recording of the concert has only been released as a pirate version.
- In 1993, White Zombie played the song live while on tour. This version thus far has only been issued as a bootleg called Resurrection Day.
- 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 7 September 1995, Bon Jovi performed the first and second verse of this song live on the streets of Times Square for the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards before going into their own "Something for the Pain".
- On 20 November 1996, Urban Dance Squad finished their show in Belgrade with a crossover version of the song, which subsequently appeared on their live album Beograd live.
- Soundgarden played the song frequently during their West Coast 1996 tour. A live version, played and recorded on 30 November 1996 at Del Mar Fairgrounds in Del Mar, California, released on their first live album Live on I-5, released 22 March 2011.
- In 1996, Pat Benatar released a live version on her Pat Benatar: Heartbreaker: Sixteen Classic Performances album.
- In 1997, Bob Forrest (of Thelonious Monster) and John Frusciante (formerly of Red Hot Chili Peppers) performed the song live at Small's Bar in Hollywood, a year before Frusciante entered rehab and rejoined RHCP.
- In 1999, Bon Jovi released a live version on their Rare Tracks album.
- Australian band Tumbleweed performed their version of "Helter Skelter" live to air on Australian 'youth network' radio station, Triple J in the mid 1990s.
- In 2000, Oasis covered "Helter Skelter" live, this performance is included on their live album Familiar to Millions. A studio version was also recorded for the B-side to the single "Who Feels Love?" and was recorded during the sessions for Be Here Now.
- In 2005, Zoot Woman performed the song at the Benicassim festival, Barcelona.
- The Killers and Louis XIV performed "Helter Skelter" at a concert in Australia in 2007, as part of the "Sam's Town Tour".
- In 2008, Anneke van Giersbergen performed the song at a Jampod session concert in 's-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands on 2 February.
- In 2008, Portugal. The Man incorporated lyrics from "Helter Skelter" into an extended version of their song "Tommy".
- In 2010, Brandon Flowers performed "Helter Skelter" on his Flamingo Road Tour.
- In 2011, Portugal. The Man performed "Helter Skelter" during their U.S. tour.
- In 2013, Soundhog layered vocal track of "Helter Skelter" over an instrumental track of Led Zeppelin's song "Whole Lotta Love".
- In 2014, members of Arcade Fire, performing as "Phi Slamma Jamma", performed "Helter Skelter" in Union Transfer, Philadelphia at an after party for one of their concerts.
- In 2016, The Killers performed "Helter Skelter" with Paul McCartney singing backup vocals at a Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich's New Year's Eve party.
Paul McCartney live performances
Since 2004 McCartney has performed the song with his band on every tour, starting on 24 May 2004, while on the '04 Summer Tour, through The 'US' Tour (2005), the Summer Live '09 (2009), the Good Evening Europe Tour (2009), the Up and Coming Tour (2010/2011), the On the Run Tour (2011/2012) and the Out There Tour, which started on 4 May 2013. In the last tours, the song has been generally inserted on the third encore, which is the last time the band enters the stage. It is usually the last but one song, performed after "Yesterday" and before the final medley including "The End". Paul played the song on his One on One Tour at Fenway Park on 17 July, 2016 accompanied by The Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and New England Patriots football player Rob Gronkowski.
McCartney performed the song live at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards on 8 February 2006 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In 2009, McCartney performed the song live on top of the Ed Sullivan Theater during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
The version of the song from McCartney's live album Good Evening New York City, recorded during the Summer Live '09 tour, was nominated at the 53rd Grammy Awards in the category of Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance. It won, becoming McCartney's first solo Grammy win since he won for arranging "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" in 1972.
- 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, vocal shout
- Mal Evans – trumpet
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