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Helter Skelter is a song written by Paul McCartney, credited to Lennon/McCartney, and recorded for The Beatles' eponymous LP The Beatles, better known as The White Album. A product of McCartney's deliberate effort to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible, the clangorous piece has been noted for both its "proto-metal roar" and "unique textures." In fact, it has been described as the first song of the heavy metal music genre. The song was ranked #52 on the Rolling Stone Magazine's "The Beatles 100 Greatest songs" list.
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 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 '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 Beatles recorded the song multiple times during sessions for The White Album. During the 18 July 1968 sessions, a version of the song lasting, lasting nearly half an hour: 27 minutes and 11 seconds, to be specific, 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, 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 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 because in the video he can be seen screaming at the end; in fact, Lennon can be heard asking "How's that?" before the outburst). The mono version (originally 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. 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 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 Vocals and Lead Guitar (1964 Fender Esquire)
- John Lennon – Backing Vocals,Rhythm Guitar (1965 Epiphone 230TD Casino),Six-String Bass Guitar (1968 Fender Bass VI) and Sound Effects (through brass instruments)
- George Harrison –Backing Vocals,Rhythm and Slide Guitar (1964 Gibson SG Standard) and Sound Effects
- Ringo Starr – Drums and Cowbell
- Mal Evans –Trumpet
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." Alan W. Pollack said the song will "scare and unsettle" listeners, citing "Helter Skelter"'s "obsessive nature" and "undercurrent of violence", and noted "Paul'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.
- 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. (It also appeared on their 2006 live album Carnival Of Sins Live and on their 1999 live album Live: Entertainment or Death.)
- 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 her Blue Revolution album.
- In 1988, U2 released a live cover version of "Helter Skelter" as the opening track on their Rattle and Hum album (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, 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 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 "Go Let It Out" and "Who Feels Love?".
- 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 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.