Helter Skelter (1968)
Paul McCartney is one of the least likely candidates to be given the title “Founder Of Heavy Metal,” but that is precisely what he became through one single composition, “Helter Skelter,” a song written solo but credited to the Lennon-McCartney team.
Legend has it that he wanted to make a “bet you didn’t think I knew how to Rock-N-Roll” kind of statement, juicing up more feeble attempts in the late-1960s British Blues scene to cross the threshold into what would become Metal music.
While there is some shred of credence to be given those theories, a quick peek needs to be taken into Sir Paul’s past creations and his penchant for crafting pastiches of others’ music and in the process revitalizing the old work.
Punk before there was Punk:
The first thing that has to be acknowledged is that The Beatles remain the greatest cover band in Rock history. You can trace their song covering history back to “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” through “Ain’t She Sweet,” the former a traditional Scottish Folk song, the latter written in 1927 by the father of the little girl who would grow up to become political commentator Shana Alexander.
They covered “Till There Was You” from the late-1950s Broadway hit The Music Man. “Long Tall Sally,” “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Please Mr. Postman,” “Honey Don’t,” “Kansas City,” “Twist And Shout,” and a dozen other standards received The Beatles’ personal reworking, becoming their own in the process.
In their work there were elements of English dance hall music, Rockabilly, Baroque music, Raga, Blues, Soul (and yada, yada, yada). Yet, among all that, they always sought new directions.
The inclination to synthesize reached its apotheosis during the period that includes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and The Beatles (White Album).
And here is the obligatory mention of the Charles Manson/Sharon Tate murders.
“Helter Skelter” comes in late on what is popularly known as The White Album, originally what was, in the days of vinyl, the third of the work’s four sides. At first blush, the album seems a meandering collection of songs. But two things bind it together (for the most part): the deep involvement with creating pastiches and an avant-garde spirit that is rarely heard in tunes that are also accessible to regular listeners and therefore popular and memorable. It is the best-selling Beatles album and the 10th best-seller of all time.
The pastiche element can be heard in “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” a spin on both Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys (and incidentally a deft but gentle satire of Americans’ provincial love of country). “Rocky Raccoon” models itself after Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album, while likewise satirizing it. The scathing Lennon work, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun,” embraces then explodes the Doo-Wop genre.
Amidst those songs are a number of hard rockers. “Glass Onion,” a derivative of Sgt. Pepper’s “Good Morning,” is also the prototype for The Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey.” Other Rock-N-Roll songs on the White Album are “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” “Birthday,” “Yer Blues,” “Every Body’s Got Something To Hide,” and the immortal “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
From McCartney’s opening guitar lick that heralds “something different” for the Fab Four to his vocals that give no relief from start to finish, the listener is thrust into a wild, whirling amusement park ride (a Helter Skelter in British English is a steep, spiraling slide).
The ride image is interlaced with an address to a girl with whom the writer/singer is having some sort of lovers’ fracas.
When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide
Where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride
Till I get to the bottom and I see you again
Yeah yeah yeah hey
Do you, don’t you want me to love you
I’m coming down fast but I’m miles above you
Tell me tell me tell me come on tell me the answer
Well you may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer
That is pretty much the lyrical schema of “Helter Skelter.” In its simplicity it sets the tone for future Heavy Metal songs, which rely on longish musical breaks to sonically flesh out short, telegraphic emotions and thoughts, verbal minimalism mashed together with instrumental extravagance, even excess.
John Lennon’s plodding, probing bass and Ringo’s drums provide a thick, gooey bottom while George Harrison’s rhythm guitar imparts a layer of continuity sorely needed when the trademark Beatle brass-based sound effects and backward-running tape loops threaten to overwhelm the track.
McCartney uses his full vocal range, making it hard to match up the singer of “Yesterday” with the maniac who howls and groans on “Helter Skelter,” as he draws on his obsession with Elvis Presley’s early gutsy performances. About 2:30 into the song McCartney gives Robert Plant all the schooling Zep’s lead singer needs to become one of the greatest Heavy Metal yowlers of all time. But for McCartney, that short vocal exercise is a mere throwaway.
Popping in from time to time are the renowned Beatles back up harmonies that cannot be properly duplicated by any group, unique as they are to John, Paul and George’s voices.
It should be noted that McCartney bestows on the song the guitar lead of his life. He’s a gunfighter no matter what instrument he handles.
Around the three-minute mark, the tempo slows almost to a standstill until it dunks into a bouillabaisse of previous music ideas heard first on Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour (specifically “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus”), as well as on “I’m Only Sleeping” from Revolver. Heavy feedback surrounds the ear – a lift from Hendrix; time slows, bends, straightens and then heads back to the main body of the song.
Around 3:40 the song appears to end, but re-starts in a jam that culminates in dissonant horns, stuttering, off-the-beat drumming and finally Ringo’s shouting of the famous line, “I got blisters on me fingers.” That’s what happens to a drummer on the 18th take.
Ringo has had the last word on the song in more ways than one: “‘Helter Skelter’ was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams,” he said in the book, The Beatles (2000).
Kick out the jams The Beatles did, and in the process were key players in the birth of one of the biggest, most enduring genres in Rock-N-Roll history.
- How did “Helter Skelter” come about? Paul said: “We did it like that ‘cuz I like noise.” Michelle, ma belle?
- In his rapid-fire 1971 hall-of-famer musical survey of Rock and pop, “American Pie,” Don McLean makes a reference to “Helter Skelter” and The Byrds:Helter Skelter in summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
Also by The Beatles on SongMango.com:
- A Day In The LifeWhen the transition occurs between the two songs we are totally unprepared, the shift so unpredictable, abrupt yet so smooth.
- I'm Only SleepingIt's not about drugs. It’s about the big snooza-palooza, one of Lennon's lifelong "passions." Hey, nap dog.
- She Loves YouThe yeah-yeah-yeah’s are a foundational assertion that signaled the start of the 1960s. The '60s of lofty legend and conservative loathing.
- While My Guitar Gently Weeps An odd mood, unyielding rhythm, Eric Clapton’s spot lead guitar, plus palpable group tension turn the work into a major masterpiece.