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‘Helter Skelter’: The Story Behind The Song

Arguably The Beatles’ most visceral moment on record, ‘Helter Skelter’ grew from a bluesy jam into what’s been cited as the world’s first heavy metal song.

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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 18 July 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 realised, 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 9 and 10 September, 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, often times 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.”

The super deluxe edition of The Beatles’ “White Album” will be released on 9 November. Scroll down to read the full tracklist and pre-order the box set here.

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The BEATLES (‘White Album’) releases include:

Super Deluxe: The comprehensive, individually numbered 7-disc and digital audio collections feature:

CDs 1 & 2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix

CD3: Esher Demos

– Esher Demo tracks 1 through 19 sequenced in order of the finished song’s placement on ‘The White Album.’ Tracks 20-27 were not included on the album.

CDs 4, 5 & 6: Sessions

– 50 additional recordings, most previously unreleased, from ‘White Album’ studio sessions; all newly mixed from the four-track and eight-track session tapes, sequenced in order of their recording start dates.

Blu-ray:

– 2018 album mix in high resolution PCM stereo

– 2018 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 album mix

– 2018 Dolby True HD 5.1 album mix

– 2018 direct transfer of the album’s original mono mix

Deluxe: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo album mix + Esher Demos

The 3CD; 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition); and digital audio collections pair the 2018 stereo album mix with the 27 Esher Demos.

Standard 2LP Vinyl: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 stereo mix

180-gram 2LP vinyl in gatefold sleeve with faithfully replicated original artwork

Super Deluxe [6CD+1Blu-ray set / digital audio collection]

CD1: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Back in the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
Martha My Dear
I’m so tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Don’t Pass Me By
Why don’t we do it in the road?
I Will
Julia

CD2: The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Birthday
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Long, Long, Long
Revolution 1
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night

CD3: Esher Demos

Back in the U.S.S.R.
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m so tired
Blackbird
Piggies
Rocky Raccoon
Julia
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Revolution
Honey Pie
Cry Baby Cry
Sour Milk Sea
Junk
Child of Nature
Circles
Mean Mr. Mustard
Polythene Pam
Not Guilty
What’s the New Mary Jane

CD4: Sessions

Revolution 1 (Take 18)
A Beginning (Take 4) / Don’t Pass Me By (Take 7)
Blackbird (Take 28)
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Good Night (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Good Night (Take 10 with a guitar part from Take 5)
Good Night (Take 22)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Take 3)
Revolution (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Revolution (Take 14 – Instrumental backing track)
Cry Baby Cry (Unnumbered rehearsal)
Helter Skelter (First version – Take 2)

CD5: Sessions

Sexy Sadie (Take 3)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Acoustic version – Take 2)
Hey Jude (Take 1)
St. Louis Blues (Studio jam)
Not Guilty (Take 102)
Mother Nature’s Son (Take 15)
Yer Blues (Take 5 with guide vocal)
What’s the New Mary Jane (Take 1)
Rocky Raccoon (Take 8)
Back in the U.S.S.R. (Take 5 – Instrumental backing track)
Dear Prudence (Vocal, guitar & drums)
Let It Be (Unnumbered rehearsal)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Third version – Take 27)
(You’re so Square) Baby, I Don’t Care (Studio jam)
Helter Skelter (Second version – Take 17)
Glass Onion (Take 10)

CD6: Sessions

I Will (Take 13)
Blue Moon (Studio jam)
I Will (Take 29)
Step Inside Love (Studio jam)
Los Paranoias (Studio jam)
Can You Take Me Back? (Take 1)
Birthday (Take 2 – Instrumental backing track)
Piggies (Take 12 – Instrumental backing track)
Happiness is a Warm Gun (Take 19)
Honey Pie (Instrumental backing track)
Savoy Truffle (Instrumental backing track)
Martha My Dear (Without brass and strings)
Long, Long, Long (Take 44)
I’m so tired (Take 7)
I’m so tired (Take 14)
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill (Take 2)
Why don’t we do it in the road? (Take 5)
Julia (Two rehearsals)
The Inner Light (Take 6 – Instrumental backing track)
Lady Madonna (Take 2 – Piano and drums)
Lady Madonna (Backing vocals from take 3)Across the Universe (Take 6)

Blu-ray: The BEATLES (‘White Album’)

Audio Features:

: PCM Stereo (2018 Stereo Mix)

: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (2018)

: Dolby True HD 5.1 (2018)

: Mono (2018 Direct Transfer of ‘The White Album’ Original Mono Mix)

Deluxe [3CD digipak / 180-gram 4LP vinyl box set (limited edition) / digital audio collection]

The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Esher Demos

Standard 2LP Vinyl [180-gram]

The BEATLES (‘White Album’) 2018 Stereo Mix

Explore our The Beatles Artist Page.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. John Tempest

    November 9, 2018 at 8:26 pm

    Will the full 27 minute demo of Helter Skelter ever be released?
    Also, I’ve bought this album several times over the years so the album itself I don’t want to buy again. I would however like the sessions discs. Pity you have to buy the whole album just to get the extras.

  2. John Tempest

    November 9, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    Will the full 27 minute demo of Helter Skelter ever be released?
    Also, I’ve bought this album several times over the years so the album itself I don’t want to buy again. I would however like the sessions discs. Pity you have to buy the whole album just to get the extras.

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