Preparing to record “Blackbird” at Abbey Road Studio Two one evening, Paul McCartney warmed up with an early version of “Helter Skelter.” A light yet funky acoustic piece with a falsetto vocal, this nascent version sat at the opposite end of the spectrum to the screaming rocker that would eventually grace side three of The Beatles’ “White Album”.
“Helter Skelter” went through a number of incarnations as Paul sought to create the heaviest Beatles track yet. In an interview with Radio Luxembourg in November 1968, he talked about the song’s origins: “I’d read a review of a record, which said ‘and this group…’ it was about some group, I can’t even remember, saying, ‘This group really goes wild and they just stuck echo on everything, they’re screaming their heads off,’ and I just remember thinking, Oh, it would be great to do one like that, it’s a pity they’ve done it. It must be great, a really screaming record. And then I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of sophisticated and wasn’t rough and screaming and tape echo at all. So I thought, Ah, 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 ’cause I like noise.”
Hell for leather
The first attempt to record the song properly came on July 18, 1968. The versions The Beatles recorded that night bear little resemblance to the finished track. John is on bass, locked into Ringo’s rigid snare to hold down a tight, slow, bluesy groove over which Paul and George add electric guitars. At this stage, the lyrics weren’t fully realized, with Paul alternating his “Helter Skelter” refrain with “Hell for leather”. A number of versions were captured that night, the longest an epic jam on the song stretching to 27 minutes and 11 seconds.
However, none of these quite captured the volume or energy Paul was after. The Beatles returned to “Helter Skelter” at Abbey Road on September 9 and 10, and turned everything up, pushing their guitars and drums to the limit to create a frenzy of sound, over which Paul’s screaming vocal is supported by John and George. To add to the cacophony, John adds squealing saxophone and piano towards the end, while roadie Mal Evans pitches in on trumpet.
Ringo later spoke of that “Helter Skelter” session, calling it “a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio.” In his 1994 memoir, Many Years From Now, Paul remembered: “We got the engineers and [the producer] to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and said, ‘No, it 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. We did work very hard on that track.”
It’s worth noting that anybody who bought the mono version of “The White Album” didn’t hear Ringo shouting about his blisters. The album was the last Beatles LP for which entirely different mono and stereo mixes were made, and it’s the album on which the differences are most notable. The mono “Helter Skelter” ends at the 3.39 mark, with a fade-out. On the stereo version, the cacophony resumes after the fade, John’s squeaking saxophone part sounding not unlike seagulls, before the whole thing crashes to an end and Ringo makes his now-legendary declaration.
‘Their most exciting and mature’
The group’s hard work is evident on what is one of their heaviest recordings, and one that is often cited as the first-ever heavy metal song. Certainly, its pounding backing, riff-laden and overdriven guitars, and howling vocal bear all the hallmarks of that genre, which would, like “Helter Skelter,” “Yer Blues” and others on “The White Album”, owe a large part of its genesis to the heavy blues-rock in vogue at that time. Heavy metal giants Mötley Crüe covered the song in 1983, as had punk rockers Siouxsie And The Banshees in 1978.
But none of these could match the sheer power of The Beatles’ original: a visceral, phenomenal racket that saw Jann Wenner write, in his review of “The White Album” in Rolling Stone magazine: “The ‘hard rock’ aspect of The Beatles is one often overlooked and neglected, oftentimes purposely in the attempt to get them to be something they are not. They are a rock’n’roll band, after all, and they can do that thing. The straight rock is some of their most exciting and mature material.”