When was it recorded? Jul. 18 and Sept. 9 & 10, 1968
When was it first released, and on which album? Nov. 22, 1968 on “The Beatles”
Who wrote it? McCartney
Have I heard this song before? HELL YEAH
What my research dug up:
(I love this song and have been waiting to write about it for like forever. Fortunately, there’s a lot to talk about.)
A 1967 Guitar Player interview with The Who’s Pete Townshend inspired Paul to write “Helter Skelter.”
“I was in Scotland and I read… that Pete Townshend had said: ‘We’ve just made the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever heard.’ I never actually found out what track it was that The Who had made, but that got me going; just hearing him talk about it. So I said to the guys, ‘I think we should do a song like that; something really wild.’ And I wrote ‘Helter Skelter’.” — Paul McCartney (Anthology)
(If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Pete was discussing “I Can See for Miles.”)
Because I am an unenlightened American, I had to research helter skelters for context. According to Wikipedia, “A helter skelter is a funfair or amusement park ride with a slide built in a spiral around a high tower. Users climb up inside the tower and slide down the outside, usually on a mat or hessian sack. Typically the ride will be of wooden construction and, in the case of fairground versions, designed to be disassembled to facilitate transportation between sites.” The first recorded use of a “helter-skelter” was in 1906 at the Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The fifth link under my list of sources is a gallery of helter skelter photographs for anyone like me who needs a visual.
According to Paul, “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” (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now). Sounds like kind of a reach, but OK, Paul, if you say so. The rock number was also an excuse for Paul to shoot down critics who claimed he only wrote ballads and love songs.
“Helter Skelter” was recorded three times on Jul. 18, 1968. Lest you think the Beatles were slacking off, these three takes lasted
- 10 minutes, 40 seconds
- 12 minutes, 35 seconds
- 27 minutes, 11 seconds (the longest take of anything the Beatles recorded in their career)
An edit of the second take appears on “Anthology 3.” Originally bluesier, Wikipedia describes the demo as “rather slow and hypnotic, differing greatly from the volume and rawness of the album version.” The lyrics are also subtly different.
The band revisited “Helter Skelter” on Sept. 9, recording 18 takes (tightened up so each was about five minutes long). After the final take, John asked, “How was that?” to which Ringo threw his drumsticks across the studio and screamed a now infamous phrase.
“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.” — Paul McCartney (Barry Miles, Many Years From Now)
Again, the mono and stereo mixes of “Helter Skelter” differ. The mono mix ends with the fake fade-out (lasting around 3:40); the stereo mix fades out then comes back with the real ending, including Ringo’s closing shout (lasting around 4:30).
Looking at critics’ reviews “Helter Skelter” seems to be a love it or hate it listening experience. Nevertheless, it’s had enduring popularity and influence – according to Wikipedia, “Helter Skelter” “is considered by music historians as a key influence in the early development of heavy metal.”
Paul has performed the song live on every tour he’s done since 2004. One live recording of “Helter Skelter” featured on Paul’s 2009 album “Good Evening New York City” even won Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance at the 53rd Grammy Awards. Here’s the video of said version.
[Most of the “extended” takes I’ve seen are just cobbled + edited loops of the final song, so I’m going to avoid posting anything I can’t verify as 100% authentic. I’m also omitting discussion of the effect this song had on Charles Manson – important as it was, that sort of story doesn’t have a place on my blog.]
“Helter Skelter” has long been one of my favorite songs, and it’s hard to articulate why. I remember getting a good jump-scare the first time I listened to it and the song came blaring back to life after the fade-out. The ending hasn’t lost any of its novelty now that I anticipate it. I bet if I ever get to ride a real helter skelter I will be tempted to compare it to the thrill I get listening to this song (and be sorely disappointed as a result).