Helter Skelter

In the studio

The Beatles' first attempt to record Helter Skelter took place on 18 July 1968. They recorded three takes, lasting 10'40", 12'35" and 27'11" respectively; the last was the longest recording in the group's career.

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An edit of take two, lasting 4'38", was included on Anthology 3 in 1996. More of a slow jam than an attempt at a final version, the track is more blues-based and lacks the volume and power of the White Album take. It also features McCartney occasionally singing 'Hell for leather' instead of the title.

They recorded the long versions of Helter Skelter with live tape echo. Echo would normally be added at remix stage otherwise it can't be altered, but this time they wanted it live. One of the versions developed into a jam which went into and then back out of a somewhat bizarre version of Blue Moon. The problem was, although we were recording them at 15 ips [inches per second] - which meant that we'd get roughly half an hour of time on the tape - the machine we were running for the tape echo was going at 30 ips, in other words 15 minutes... The Beatles were jamming away, completely oblivious to the world and we didn't know what to do because they all had foldback in their headphones so that they could hear the echo. We knew that if we stopped it they would notice.

In the end we decided that the best thing to do was stop the tape echo machine and rewind it. So at one point the echo suddenly stopped and you could hear 'bllllrrrrippppp' as it was spooled back. This prompted Paul to put in some kind of clever vocal improvisation based around the chattering sound!

Brian Gibson, technical engineer
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

A remake of Helter Skelter was begun on 9 September, and completed with some additional overdubs on the following day. The Beatles taped 18 takes, all considerably shorter than the 18 July versions.

The version on the album was out of control. They were completely out of their heads that night. But, as usual, a blind eye was turned to what The Beatles did in the studio. Everyone knew what substances they were taking but they were really a law unto themselves in the studio. As long as they didn't do anything too outrageous things were tolerated.
Brian Gibson
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn

The 9 September session fulfilled McCartney's desire to create a rock 'n' roll maelstrom. Producer Chris Thomas later recalled George Harrison setting fire to an ashtray and running around the studio with it above his head, in an impression of singer Arthur Brown, while McCartney was recording his vocals.

We got the engineers and George Martin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and said, 'No, still sounds too safe, it's got to get louder and dirtier.' We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, 'I've got blisters on my fingers!' That wasn't a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of the take, he'd been drumming so ferociously. We did work very hard on that track.
Paul McCartney
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles

The best attempt was the final one, take 21. It featured Lennon on bass guitar and saxophone, The Beatles' assistant Mal Evans on trumpet, two lead guitars, drums, piano, more bass guitar, backing vocals and McCartney's suitably raucous lead vocals.

Helter Skelter was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams, and with that song - Paul's bass line and my drums - Paul started screaming and shouting and made it up on the spot.
Ringo Starr
Anthology

The mono and stereo mixes made in 1968 differed significantly. The mono mix, done on 17 September, lasted 3'36"; the stereo, which was made on 12 October, features a full fade out, then the song returns and lasts until 4'29". Only the stereo version contains Ringo's shout at the end.

42 responses on “Helter Skelter

  1. richard calvert

    Frankly living through ‘The Beatles’ era, no other group I know of changed their ‘Sound’ as much as they did. I personally thought ‘Happiness is a warm gun’ or ‘Yer blues’ had a more dangerous edge, than did ‘Helter Skelter'; who’s meaning only Manson tried to invent. Yes, the guitars are gritty + yet I feel the fast version of ‘Revolution’s grittier! To be a menacing song, alot has to be implied, our imagination stirred like Director Alfred Hitchcock, was so good at! (rc.)

  2. zeno zenly

    Late period Beatles heavy guitar sound is usually an Epiphone Casino (w/ Gibson P90 pickups), Vox AC-30 amp with the drive cranked up, plus a bit of compression.

    This setup can pretty much nail everything Lennon did from Revolver on. Think Dr. Robert, Rain, Paperback Writer, Revolution, Hey Bulldog, I want You (She’s So Heavy). Right on up thru Let it Be, and you can watch him playing his (by then stripped and refinished natural) Casino in the Rooftop Concert (Get Back, Dig a Pony, I’ve Got a Feeling).

    Paul acquired a Casino same time as Lennon, calling it his favorite guitar, and still plays one today (when he is not playing his bass). He used it for his lead work on Taxman, Helter Skelter, and others.

    By this time George was using Fender guitars (Strat and Tele), often with Leslie (rotating speaker) effects.

  3. Rob

    Its kinda weird how I got into the Beatles, I read the book Helter Skelter.My sister had the White Album. I checked it out out of curiosity…I was hooked. The Beatles have so many different sounds..just an amazing amount of talent in one band

  4. BeatleMark

    John plays bass on this song. From listening to the stereo remaster, John’s bass really stands out, giving the impression that he is actually enjoying himself playing it! Listen for yourself, you will be impressed!

  5. Louise

    Since everyone else has said something dark about this song, here’s an alternative on the ‘meaning’ behind ‘Helter Skelter’. Its real meaning, in my view, is an altogether kinder, healthier one than the one insane people made it into decades ago. How about this version? A famous pop star is talking about rising to the top and going up and down famewise, but every time he comes down or has a problem, he always sees the same fan coming round, over and over again, and wonders what that fan wants of him. He notices the fan might be able to love him (‘you may be a lover’) but can’t ‘dance’ in life like he can – at one point even warning the fan that his fame, or his fall from the pedestal which that fan has put him on, might ‘break’ (or harm) the fan. Could that be the song’s true meaning?

    1. Joe Post author

      I’m pretty certain it’s simply about a fairground ride and chasing after girls. I wouldn’t read too much into it, as I don’t think McCartney has ever suggested there might be a hidden meaning.

    2. Amy

      That is almost exactly how I have always heard this song! Like he is singing about somebody who is tedious, annoying like a tick he can’t get rid of….and it’s making go in circles. And worse, they don’t see themselves that way and this is a huge burden. On this note, I often wondered if Figure Of Eight was a revisit to Helter Skelter but in a much more pop styled, loving delevery of the same ‘buyer beware’ message!

  6. max moose

    Like most of the White Album, this was parody, from an era when smashing guitars during a concert, or lighting them on fire (like Hendrix) was standard fare.

    As with much of the Beatles’ subtler commentary, it’s meaning has been lost on subsequent generations of listeners. Today “Helter Skelter” just seems like a great “hard rock” tune and precursor to “heavy metal,” especially watered down, as it has been, by minimalist bands like Motley Crue or U2. Gone are the devilish squeals seeming to emanate straight out of hell, and the awful taint of the Tate-LaBianca murders.

    Modern audiences probably don’t realize that Roman Polanski, much in the news of late, was Sharon Tate’s husband, and escaped being butchered himself by his absence, although he presumably lost an unborn child in the attack.

    The ghost hunters of “TAPS” recently paid a visit to the site of the murders, and filmed evidence of supposed contact with the spirits of one or more murdered victims.

    I’ll stop there — I admit that’s already more than weird enough, and apologize if anyone finds it upsetting.

    1. thomas

      Frankly, I wish people would quit linking this to Manson. Manson was an ex-convict, druggie, and wanna-be songwriter who for a time hung out with and mooched off Dennis Wilson (Beach Boys), trying to get them to take him seriously as a songwriter. He was, in fact, awful and on the extreme fringe. Like most nut cases with fragile egos and delusional tendencies, Manson took things to extreme and threatened Wilson when the Beach Boys didn’t give Manson what he wanted. He later adopted the Beatles as part of his twisted psychosis, which had nothing to do with their songs but with his apocalyptic delusions and misinterpretations. There was/is simply no connection between the Beatles and Manson.

      1. max moose

        “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles…we’re stealin’ it back.”

        And so Bono of U2 introduces “Helter Skelter” on my copies (CD and DVD) of “Rattle and Hum.”

        I can understand your angst, and your wish that the song and the Manson murders not be inextricably linked in people’s minds. History has not been your ally, however, in this regard, and prospects for the future appear equally dim.

  7. StarrTime

    Lennon’s bass playing on this track is suprising considering how badly he supposedly played on The Long and Winding Road…but I suppose this is a much more exciting track…

    1. Jae Penn

      Gustavo, John is the sole bass player, on every version of Helter Skelter that was ever recorded, n he played no rhythm guitar at all, he also played tha funky saxophone at the end of the song

  8. Jon S

    When I hear Helter Skelter I hear Paul creating heavy metal, as we know it. Helter Skelter was the prototype for heavy metal throughout the 70s and 80s. As was Revolution which was recorded a week earlier. The guitar became the lead instrument rather than vocal harmonies. Paul taught heavy metal bands for years to come how to sing the heavy metal style of vocals. The Manson thing is somewhat interesting as a side note but the song is better and more important to the evolution of Rock and Roll rather than to give that punk Manson any Beatle press. (Although it made the song somewhat notorious) Also interesting was what John and Paul had to say about what happened in LA in Aug of ’69 (again as a side note) but I question the wisdom of quoting a murderer on such a fine website. It becomes something else when we talk about “the family”.

  9. Schminking of gin

    I would pay a whole lot of money that Paul certainly doesn’t need to hear the 27 minute version of this song. I heard he considered it for Anthology but decided against it because it took up too much space.

    How about a 2-song EP, featuring Carnival of Light and Helter Skelter?

  10. Jammy_jim

    Heavy metal? Not so much. Most likely one of Jimi Hendrix’s songs. When The White Album came out Hendrix had already released all three of his (new material) albums. Given that, I would have to give the nod to Jimi as the true Pioneer/Godfather of Heavy Metal.

  11. apple_jam

    Go to Youtube — type `John Lennon playing bass’ and you’ll hear Lennon’s bass isolated. It’s marvelously raw and, imo, gives the track its weight.

  12. Bill

    I’ve always hated this song, and being from the US, I think that the connotations with Manson have a lot to do with that. I was around when that happened, and it was very big and shocking news indeed. But the Manson thing aside, the song just sounds like it has a serious sinister undertone to it that I’ve always found disturbing. That’s probably why it appealed to Manson in the first place. Anyone else notice that?

    1. Joseph Brush

      Unfortunately, Charles Manson the nutjob has tainted this harmless song forever by including it as part of his warped philosophy and rationale for an unspeakable crime. I hear no serious sinister undertone(s) when I listen to this song.

      1. Paul R

        You can hate the ones that sucked, or is there some unwritten rule that all they did was gold? Great band, but they did have bad songs, like every band this world has and will evr know.

  13. James Ferrell

    Not my favorite White Album track, but it has a lot going for it. I especially like the descending guitar riff that starts the song and the descending scales in the choruses–good hooks. And good vocals from Paul.

    And I loved the guitar sounds all over the White Album. After MMT, which had almost no lead guitar, it was nice to hear some again. This was the first album where I thought that George’s leads really soared–the second lead in Yer Blues, the chorus lead in Me and My Monkey, the solo in Savoy Truffle… Early George leads sometimes sounded clunky to me, but these are all sinuous and cool. Always thought they sound like a Tele or Strat with a lot of compression. You can sort of hear how he might end up being the slide master he became.

    1. Ron Wilder

      I’ve always thought of this song as a spoof of I Can See For Miles. First, there’s the interview in which Townshend indicated he thought the Beatles are like Herman’s Hermits, and can’t rock. So I imagine a Beatle saying “Let’s out-noise them”. Then there’s the over-powered recurring twangy bass note as an answer to Townshend’s whining high note. “I see you again” vs “I can see for miles”. Townshend has commented many times about his windmill guitar strokes tearing up his fingertips…thus “I got blisters on my fingers!”.

  14. Michael Kyselka

    The song is extremely evocative, just like Cobain ´s tunes. One doesn t sometimes fully comprehend, what he wrote and recorded. Not to take away the guilt factor of the Tate la Bianca slayings. On the other hand – Charles Manson certainly was a talented musician and composer.

  15. Paul R

    One thing I would like to know: by which authority is determined which Beatle played what on whichever? Emerick? Lewisohn? John probably played some bass noise on this track like he played noise sax, but the main bassline has to have been Paul’s. I forget where I read it, but John’s skill on bass was horrible and there was a tune he tried to play and it got erased and dubbed over. Yes, I know George played bass on She Said, She Said and Old Brown Shoe, but I need documentation before I’ll believe John played bass on this tune.

    1. asterion9

      All important sources claim Lennon plays bass. I´m not a bass player, but I think the part for HS It´s not a difficult one, but Lennon played it with feeling and emotions. Lennon play awful in TLAWR and LIT because he was bored and didn´t care at all.

  16. Lissa

    I was wondering if anyone here has any idea what is being said during the interlude part where no vocals are. I can’t figure it out and to be honest, it’s driving me crazy. I’m not sure who it is but it sounds like Paul’s voice.

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