Who The Beatles Were Trying to Outdo When They Recorded ‘Helter Skelter’
The Beatles have never been particularly shy about their influences. In fact, during their early years, they never even had to say it. The band’s first album featured two tracks made famous by The Shirelles. And their second US release had covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs.
Later, when the band only recorded original songs, you’d have to listen more closely to hear the influences. George Harrison said the band had Otis Redding in mind when he and Paul McCartney worked out the guitar part for “Drive My Car.”
And Paul said he was thinking of the Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Daydream” when he wrote “Good Day Sunshine.” While the Fab Four was the biggest band on earth by the time they made the White Album (1968), they were still looking to one-up major bands on the scene.
That list included The Who, a band capable of upstaging the Rolling Stones on any given night. When Paul wrote “Helter Skelter,” which he considered the “nastiest, sweatiest” song he could come up with, he was aiming to outdo The Who.
Paul wanted ‘Helter Skelter’ louder and nastier than ‘I Can See for Miles’
Looking back in 1985, Paul spoke about his aim with “Helter Skelter” after reading a review. “The Who had made some track that was the loudest, the most raucous rock ‘n roll, the dirtiest thing they’d ever done,” he said. “And we decided to do the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number we could.”
The song that review referred to was “I Can See for Miles.” When Paul went and listened to it, he was surprised it wasn’t raunchier. “I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of sophisticated.” Indeed, the track by The Who can seem relatively tame, given what was to come.
Still, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon do approach sweaty/nasty in the second half of the track. (Roger Daltrey’s vocal brightens the mood throughout.) But it didn’t have the screaming, heavy tape echo, and/or feedback Paul expected to hear.
So he set about doing the dirtiest song he could imagine with The Beatles behind him. According to the records from those sessions, Paul’s bandmates were more than willing to lend a hand.
The drug-fueled ‘Helter Skelter’ sessions delivered on Paul’s concept
If you’ve ever wondered what “The Beatles unleashed circa 1968” sounds like, just pull out your copy of the White Album (or click play below). According to engineer Brian Gibson, the Fab Four had ingested a number of substances while recording “Helter Skelter.”
After scrapping a 27-minute version of the track, they got “completely out of their heads” to lay down the shorter version they eventually released. Paul’s raucous vocal definitely didn’t skimp on the screaming (or the “sweaty”).
For his part, John Lennon played some bass and saxophone on this track, which concludes with Ringo screaming about the blisters on his fingers. (Ringo bashed the drum kit with all his might on this one.)
George and Paul supplied the guitar parts that took the song over the top. Indeed, it was just about the heaviest The Beatles ever managed to get on record.