The Beatles, Helter Skelter (November 1968) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 6

By the time the Beatles came to record their sprawling, incoherent but brilliant double album The Beatles (better known informally as The White Album), hard rock was starting to be a recognised genre, or at least tendency. While several of their own earlier songs (e.g. Drive My Car, Taxman, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) had displayed some hard-rock elements, their heaviest song was the White Album’s Helter Skelter.

Helter Skelter has never had a lot of love from critics. Ian McDonald, in his definitive Beatles-criticism book Revolution in the Head [amazon.com, amazon.co.uk], dismisses it as a “the requisite bulldozer design but on a Dinky Toy scale … this clumsy attempt … ridiculous, McCartney shrieking weedily … a literally drunken mess”. More recently Andrew Hickey called it a “piece of nothing … ultimately a non-song” and says Ringo’s exclamation of “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” is “easily the best thing about the track.”

Needless to say, I disagree. I like Helter Skelter (McCartney’s shrieking is anything but weedy), and it’s historically important in at least three ways. First, it showed how influential hard rock was becoming: even The Biggest Band In The World was jumping on board. Second, it introduced dissonance into rock — or at least, re-introduced it, as Hendrix had paved the way. The opening three chords, each of them only two notes, make a major second, then a minor third, then a major third below an open E top string, implying E dom7, E6 and Emin6 — a sequence far from the usual repertoire of either pop or rock. Then in the “Do you, don’t you, want me to love you” section, while the tonality sits square on E, the bottom string rocks back and forth the semitone between E and F, forming a dissonant root/minor second semitone.

But third and maybe most important is the sheer sense of chaos in Helter Skelter. From the entry of the drums and bass onwards, the song feels like it’s careening out of control, just barely driven away from careering off a cliff or into a brick wall. The bass routinely leaps up and down an octave for the sheer heck of it. Guitar leads come out of nowhere and vanish. The drumming is pumped up by a constant stream of crash cymbals. And the double false ending leads into a jam that is all but atonal, evoking the surreal, avant-garde Revolution 9 from the same album.

Put it all together, and Helter Skelter has a lot more in common with the work of Hendrix than of Cream. If I had to describe it a single word, I might go for “adventurous”.

Helter Skelter (along with other tracks from The White Album, especially Piggies and Revolution 9) was famously interpreted by Charles Manson as a coded message, and was indirectly one of the triggers for the series of murders committed by this followers. (Reading the interpretations, it’s astonishing just how tenuous and far-fetched they are — even McCartney’s 1920s music-hall pastiche Honey Pie is somehow co-opted to their insane agenda.) That may have contributed to the song’s low critical reputation.

[Aside: On their half-studio-half-live double album Rattle and Hum, U2 ‘s live performance of Helter Skelter is introduced by Bono: “This song, Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” I plan to add it to my acoustic-club repertoire, where I will introduce it with “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles, then U2 stole it from him. I’m borrowing it, and when I’m done with it you’re welcome to have a turn.”]

16 responses to “The Beatles, Helter Skelter (November 1968) — Heavy Metal timeline, part 6

  1. interesting blog. Keep em coming

  2. Now we’re cooking with gas!

    Like you I’m a fan of ‘Helter Skelter’. In fact, when I read back your ‘What If the White Album Had Been a Single’ post, everyone who participated voted to keep it. So maybe it’s more popular around these parts.

    Furthermore, even more than ‘Purple Haze’, I’d say this is where the balance tips. It’s not a track played heavily, it’s a heavy track. The distortion, the volume, the sheer sense of abandon seem integral to it. It’s like a track trussed up in song form, and busting to get out. ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘My Generation’ are sharp, like Mod haircuts. ‘Helter Skelter’ is definitely the sound of long, unkept hair shaking itself.

    And yet it still seems a precursor of heavy rock, rather than a launch for it. Written not only by the poppy, melodic Beatles but by the poppiest, most melodic Beatle – perhaps it wasn’t ideally placed to usher in something like that. But also, McCartney has spoken of it as a kind of exercise, to the point of saying he first thoght someone else had the idea first so he couldn’t do it. It’s similar to the way the Kinks wrote a song in that style, then couldn’t figure out a way to re-use the style without rewriting the same song. Having turned all the dials up to 11, what was there to do afterwards but turn them back down again? I’ve no idea how well-known all that was at the time, but perhaps people got that feeling from the track itself. (While Pink Floyd doing ‘The Nile Song’ seems kind of similar.)

    There does seem an underlying suggestion that the problem wasn’t inventing hard rock but working out a way to sustain it. Even with Steppenwolf and Iron Butterfly (was leaving them out an editorial decision?) – while they had longer careers, they’re effectively associated with those single tracks. I couldn’t name anything else by either of them off the top of my head.

    And when hard rock arrived much of the solution seems to have been “oh sod it, let’s just write the same track over again then”. Perhaps it could be argued most of any music genre is just generic. But it seems particularly true of the hard rock of the Sevcnties. Which didn’t last, of course.

    One last thing, to get a properly thorough timeline, I think you need an originating blues track. Zeppelin were most infamous for ripping off old blues nimbers, but up until hard rock led into metal the blues influence seemed integral. This one probably does the trick.

  3. Thanks, Robin. Sometimes it can feel as if these pieces just go spinning out into space. It’s good to know they’re being read and enjoyed.

    Gavin, it’s a relief to find that someone else likes Helter Skelter, and even that it has after all a modicum of critical credibility. Stupidly, I didn’t even read the Wikipedia page before writing this, so all those Paul quotes were new to me: thanks for the pointer.

    No, the Beatles never returned to this style after Helter Skelter; but then they never really returned to anything very much, did they? Part of what remains so astonishing about them is that they kept on trying new things over and over; so that even on Abbey Road, their last recorded album, you have songs like Come Together, Something and Because, which all sound completely different from anything they’d done before.

    On Steppenwolf: I bet if you’d given yourself another 30 seconds’ thought, you’d have come up with Magic Carpet Ride :-) But I admit that beyond that I too have no real idea about what they did — even whether Born to be Ride was a departure for them. But I’m going to have to disagree with your idea that “let’s just write the same track over again then” was “particularly true of the hard rock of the Seventies”. Once you get into the eighties, it’s a lot more true for my money, but there was a whole lot of experimentation in the 70s. Still, rather than defend that assertion now, I’ll be talking about it over the next couple of weeks. Of course the kings of The Same Song Over And Over were Status Quo; but it’s a dishonourable tradition that goes right back to people like Chuck Berry, who wrote several completely indistinguishable ones.

    Interesting thought to include a blues track, but I’m past that point now, really. If I revisit this timeline in book format I’ll probably add a whole bunch of new entries, and a roots blues will likely be one of them. In the mean time, I’ll add Muddy Waters (and Iron Butterfly) to the Ones That Got Away section of the list.

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  6. Richard G. Whitbread

    Repetition? A characteristic of Seventies hard rock? Er…no.

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  8. Don’t forget that Siouxsie & the Banshees did a good version, too. Better than U2’s, I’ll be bound.

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  11. Up until the last three years or so, I used to think that Helter Skelter and other Beatles songs were way ahead of their time heavy metal music, light years ahead of anything before it. However, since youtube came along it is obvious with a little research and a lot of listening that hard rock songs from the rockabilly era of rock n roll from the 50s and the small label garage rock from the mid 60s were in fact far ahead of any of the mainstream Beatles and their contemporaries in the art of loud and crazy rock n roll. I could find in a matter of minutes 50 rockabilly songs from 1959 alone that would smoke Helter Skelter in comparison, out rock it so much it would make the Beatles blush. But the Beatles knew this. They grew up listening to this stuff and you can hear them play it at times on their BBC recording.

  12. “I could find in a matter of minutes 50 rockabilly songs from 1959 alone that would smoke Helter Skelter in comparison.”

    Thanks, but this claim would be more impressive if you would link to one of them.

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  14. Slowly becoming acquainted with the site. I’m loving this section in particular.

    It’s not often you can pinpoint the exact date you first heard something, but I can for the White Album: July 26th, 1983 (I was 11, and it was my Mum’s birthday – I had been playing guitar exactly one month). My older brother, a friend and I listened to the ‘purchased that day’ White Album in full. It’s still my favourite Beatles album. And this is assuredly one of my most-played songs from that album. Great song.

    I would agree that there was loud, crazy rock and roll coming out of the garage bands in the early to mid 1960s – my personal favourite is the Sonics – but although they sound incredible for their time, it was still overwhelmingly souped up Little Richard songs (and others). They weren’t creating unique guitar riff and heavy beat anthems. That was still 5 years and another continent away.

  15. Delighted to have you here, Mark!

    Good call on Little Richard. Likewise, Chuck Berry keeps cropping up — I happen by coincidence to have his Sweet Little Sixteen playing right now, and the Beach Boys’ Surfing USA is essentially indistinguishable from it. But then, since any given Chuck Berry song is identical to half a dozen of his others, he can hardly complain if others plagiarise him, too!

  16. Yep. Years ago I dug into my collections of old blues records from the 1920s and 1930s, and lo and behold just about every one of Robert Johnson’s ‘original’ songs had a very clear and obvious precursor. Lifting songs is definitely not a new pastime.

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