The Beatles Song That Ended Up as ‘a Literally Drunken Mess’

Did The Beatles’ drug use really carry over into the studio? In a 1971 interview, John Lennon scoffed at the idea. “We weren’t all stoned making Rubber Soul because in those days we couldn’t work on pot,” he said. “We never recorded under acid or anything like that.”

Speaking in 2004, Paul McCartney reiterated the point. “It’s fairly easy to overestimate the influence of drugs on The Beatles’ music,” Paul told the Daily Mirror. “The writing was too important for us to mess it up by getting off our heads all the time.”

If you read about The Beatles in the studio — taking a full day to get down a guitar solo and so forth — you can see how adding LSD or some other heavy drugs to the mix wouldn’t have helped. (Speed, which John didn’t mention in the quote above, was a different story.)

And there was at least one occasion when the Fab Four thought indulging in various substances would be fine. That was during the making of “Helter Skelter,” which one Beatles expert described as “a literally drunken mess.”

Early takes of ‘Helter Skelter’ showed The Beatles in control

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jane Asher, and Mal Evans celebrate Harrison’s 25th birthday in Rishikesh, India, February 1968. | Cummings Archives/Redferns

As far as studio sessions went, the first cracks at “Helter Skelter” took place in July of ’68. At that point, Paul already had his concept in place — he wanted to outdo a recording he’d heard The Who made that took heavy rock over the top.

However, listening to those takes reveals a band very much in control. The Beatles ran through a 12-minute take in a mellow, bluesy way. Only about halfway through (6:10) do you hear the band kick into gear. Around 8:40, you can start hearing the track sound like the finished White Album song.

But after an epic, 27-minute take later that day, Paul and the gang put down “Helter Skelter” for a little over a month. When they picked it up again in September, they probably realized they’d need to condense it considerably.

Regardless, the band decided to work on the remake (or “second version”) on a night producer George Martin wasn’t working. And that session produced the version an Abbey Road engineer described as “out of control.” The difference came in the Beatles’ state of mind that night.

The ‘drunken mess’ version went out on ‘The White Album’

Photo of Yoko ONO and Paul McCARTNEY and John LENNON, 1968 | Cummings Archives/Redferns

From the opening seconds of the “Helter Skelter” recorded in September, you realize the Fab Four had revved up the engines before tackling the track a second time. Alcohol had to be on the menu, along with various other substances.

Brian Gibson, an engineer working the session at the Abbey Road studios, described The Beatles as “completely out of their heads” that evening. And the finished product didn’t exactly come off like a track by The Who or Jimi Hendrix.

In the excellent Revolution in the Head, Ian Macdonald called the band’s attempt at heavy psychedelic rock “ridiculous.” Macdonald heard it as “McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing.”

While Macdonald was clearly not a fan of the power-trio bands of the late-’60s (Hendrix, Cream, etc.), his final word on “Helter Skelter” targeted The Beatles alone. “Few have seen fit to describe this track as anything other than a literally drunken mess,” he wrote.

Also see: The Curse Word The Beatles Left in the Middle of ‘Hey Jude’