The ‘White Album’ Classic The Beatles Recorded ‘Completely Out of Their Heads’
It wasn’t any state secret that The Beatles used drugs. Looking back at Rubber Soul, George Harrison spoke of the effect the band’s use of marijuana consumption had on that record. And Paul McCartney said he wrote Revolver’s “Got to Get You Into My Life” about weed.
Of course, John Lennon’s 1968 arrest for possession of hash removed any lingering doubts. But most of that was going on outside of the studio. Apart from the occasional forays — as John and Paul had during the Abbey Road sessions — most Beatles recordings feature the band sober enough to walk straight.
George Martin, the band’s father-figure producer (and head of Parlophone Records), certainly ran a clean studio during his early years working with the band. However, by 1968, the rules had changed a bit.
For starters, The Beatles were the biggest band in the world and could get away with just about anything. And during the White Album sessions, the Fab Four tested those limits during a rare absence by Martin.
The Beatles were completely wasted during the ‘Helter Skelter’ sessions
Before the diseased mind of Charles Manson got hold of it, “Helter Skelter” was intended to be (according to Paul) the “loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number” The Beatles could make. And most would agree the band succeeded.
In July of ’68, the band took its first wild crack at the song, and it went crazier than anyone expected. According to engineer Brian Gibson, the third take lasted over 27 minutes, making it the longest Beatles recording ever.
But that was only the first stab at “Helter Skelter.” For whatever reason, the band let it sit until the second week of September. At that point, they knew they had to record something more manageable. So they went after it again — only this time, while George Martin was on holiday.
With the cat away, The Beatles proceeded to get hammered on a variety of substances and set about condensing the madness of “Helter Skelter” into three or four minutes. “They were completely out of their heads that night,” Gibson said in The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.
Studio antics included John on sax and George setting an ashtray on fire
Gibson described how the rules of Abbey Road studios bent for the label’s cash-cow. “Everyone knew what substances [The Beatles] were taking but they were really a law unto themselves in the studio,” he told Mark Lewisohn. “As long as they didn’t do anything too outrageous, things were tolerated.”
Apparently, the Fab Four aimed to see how much would be tolerated. John Lennon, who probably led the charge of the partakers, played a bass and saxophone at various points of the session. And George Harrison decided on an unusual studio trick.
“George had set fire to an ashtray and was running around with it above his head,” said Chris Thomas, who subbed for George Martin that night. “All in all, a pretty undisciplined session, you could say!”
Well, it was only undisciplined if you needed a bright, clean recording. Considering the band went for “dirty,” “nasty,” and “sweaty,” we’d say they took an ideal approach.