What The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ Was Really About
On the double record commonly known as The White Album (1968), The Beatles left it all on the table. Paul McCartney had “Ob-La-Di,Ob-La-Da” and several other examples of what John Lennon called “granny music.” Both Paul (“Blackbird”) and John (“Julia) had quiet, pretty ballads.
Meanwhile, fans also got their share of rocking tracks. Between “Yer Blues,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and George Harrison’s “Savoy Truffle,” The Beatles didn’t forget to turn the amps up to 11 on the record — even without the heavy version of John’s “Revolution.”
But no song matched the sheer volume and chaos of Paul’s “Helter Skelter.” From the searing opening guitar riff to the grinding bass and shouted vocals, the song is 4:30 of hard-rock madness.
Though the song got twisted in the mind of Charles Manson following the release of The White Album, the reason Paul wrote the song was quite simple and innocent. And its subject matter couldn’t have been further from Manson’s ugly interpretation.
Paul wanted to top the heaviness of a 1967 song by The Who.
In 1968, Paul gave an interview in which he explained how he came up with the concept for “Helter Skelter.” He’d read a review about a song by The Who that described it as “a really screaming record” with “echo on everything.”
That track, which turned out to be “I Can See for Miles,” didn’t exactly blow the doors off of listeners’ cars. However, The Who had turned up the volume for rock of the era. Hoping to try something new on the upcoming Beatles record, Paul got going with his own screamer.
“We decided to do the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could,” Paul said on another occasion. His approach was straightforward: “the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums, etcetera etcetera.” Lyrics and chords seemed to be of a secondary nature.
In the studio, the band went about trying to make it as loud and “dirty” as possible. At the end, when you hear Ringo scream, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers,” he was referring to blood on his hands after pounding the drums like a madman.
The lyrics of ‘Helter Skelter’ referenced a fairground ride.
When Paul did come up with the subject, he settled on the Helter Skelter, a fairground ride that has a slide wrapping around a tower-like structure. Paul thought he’d use it as a metaphor for the fall of the Roman Empire. But, as listeners know well, it’s mainly about a sexual relationship.
Paul sings about a lover, their attraction, and their adventures together. It’s safe to say it’s not his deepest song — and was never intended to be. Once the story of Manson’s obsession with the song came out during the trial, it really stunned The Beatles.
In 1970, John Lennon told Rolling Stone that interpretations of their music could at times get far-out, but never on that level. “We used to have a laugh about this, that or the other … some intellectual would read us, some symbolic youth generation wants to see something in it.”
But Manson’s sick mind took it to the darkest place imaginable. To John, the lyrics were hardly meant to be listened to. “It was just a noise,” he said.
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