Helter Skelter (song)

"Helter Skelter" is a song written by Paul McCartney, credited to Lennon/McCartney, and recorded by The Beatles on 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. It was one of several White Album compositions interpreted by Charles Manson as coded prophecies of a war to arise from racial tensions between blacks and whites.


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 meanings of "confused" or "confusedly" 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. John Lennon stated that Helter Skelter is "Paul's completely ... It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me."


The Beatles recorded the song multiple times during the The White Album sessions. During the 18 July, 1968 sessions, a version of the song lasting 27 minutes and 11 seconds 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 was edited down to 4:37 for Anthology 3, which was originally twelve minutes long. On September 9, eighteen takes of approximately five minutes each were recorded, and the last one is featured on the original LP. After the eighteenth 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; in fact, Lennon can be heard asking "How's that?" before the outburst). The mono version (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.

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."

On the version that appears on the Anthology 3 album, McCartney occasionally sings "hell for leather" instead of "helter skelter."


According to Mark Lewisohn and Allan W. Pollack:

Critical reaction

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."

In March 2005, Q magazine ranked "Helter Skelter" number 5 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.

Charles Manson

Charles Manson told his followers that White Album songs including "Helter Skelter" were the Beatles' coded prophecy of an apocalyptic war in which racist and non-racist whites would be manoeuvred into virtually exterminating each other over treatment of blacks. Upon the war's conclusion, after Black Muslims would kill off the few whites they would know to have survived, Manson and his companions, having ridden out the conflict in an underground city, would emerge from hiding and, as the actual remaining whites, rule blacks, who, as the vision went, would be incapable of running things. Manson employed Helter Skelter as the term for this epic sequence of events. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who led the prosecution of Manson and the killers who acted on Manson's instruction, named his best-selling book about the murders Helter Skelter. The book was the basis for two films of the same title.

Cover versions

  • In 1981, Pat Benatar released a cover of "Helter Skelter" as the final track on Precious Time.
  • In 1982, Ian Gillan released a cover of "Helter Skelter" on Magic
  • 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.)
  • In 1983, The Bobs released an a capella version on their eponymous album. It earned them a 1984 Grammy nomination for best new arrangement of an existing song.
  • In 1986, Hüsker Dü covered "Helter Skelter" live and issued it on their "Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" EP.
  • In 1987, U2 recorded the song in concert for their Rattle and Hum movie and album which was released the following year. Bono's introduction to the song was, "This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles. We're stealing it back." Also noteworthy of this cover is that Bono reworked McCartney's original line "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer" and sung it as (in a kind of double-negative) "you ain't no lover but you ain't no dancer" (this occurs throughout the performance so one assumes that, while he was "stealing it back," Bono's reworking of the lyric was intentional and not simply a live error).
  • From 1990 to 1994, Marilyn Manson used vocal samples of a Charles Manson interview and lifted McCartney's lines "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, come on tell me the answer", and "You may be a lover but you ain't no dancer" on various live and studio versions of their song "My Monkey", along with other various Beatles samples. The partial cover of Helter Skelter was played on their Smells Like Children tour in 1995.
  • On October 31, 1994, Phish covered the song as part of their "Musical Costume" performance of (almost) the entire White Album. This version contained heavy discords; it concluded with the line "I've got Blisters on my Fingers" sung in four-part harmony. This concert was released as Live Phish Volume 13.
  • In 1997, Noel Gallagher of Oasis wrote the song "Fade In-Out" for their 3rd album, Be Here Now. The song is similar to "Helter Skelter" and includes the line, "Get on the helter skelter" among its lyrics. During the recording sessions for Be Here Now, the band recorded a studio cover of the song. It wasn't released until 2000, as a b-side to "Who Feels Love?". The band also performed the song live in some shows throughout 2000, one of which was included as a bonus track on the audio versions of their live album, Familiar to Millions.
  • Dana Fuchs performs this in Across the Universe.
  • Chris Daughtry performed this at the Tom's River Music Fest 2008 with Ed Kowalczyk.
  • The Stereophonics released a cover of the song as a b-side to the "It Means Nothing" single from their 2007 album Pull The Pin.
  • In 2008, Post Hardcore Art Rock Thrice started covering this song live.

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