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.
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.”]