Studio Two, EMI Studios, Abbey Road
Producer: Chris Thomas
Engineer: Ken Scott
The Beatles had recorded three lengthy rehearsal takes of ‘Helter Skelter’ on 18 July 1968. During this 7pm-2.30am session, however, the song was transformed from a slow blues jam into the frantic cacophony heard on the White Album.
This was also the first session in which George Martin’s assistant Chris Thomas had a formal production role, although he had been present at a number of earlier Beatles recordings.
At the beginning of the session The Beatles warmed up with a version of Leiber and Stoller’s ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care’. The song had been made famous by Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock, and was also recorded the following year by Buddy Holly. The 1968 recording was released in November 2018 on the 50th anniversary box set of the White Album.
The Beatles recorded 18 takes of ‘Helter Skelter’, numbered 4-21, on this night. The last of these provided the basis of the album version. Paul McCartney played the opening guitar riff and further rhythm guitar, while John Lennon was on bass guitar and Ringo Starr played a blistering drum part.
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.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, Mark Lewisohn
‘Helter Skelter’ was given further overdubs on the following evening. These included lead and backing vocals, lead guitar, piano, more drums, trumpet and saxophone.
Also on this day...
- 2018: Ringo Starr live: Century Center, South Bend, Indiana
- 2016: Album release: Live At The Hollywood Bowl
- 2014: The Art Of Paul McCartney tribute album announced
- 2014: The Beatles’ remastered mono vinyl collection gets worldwide release
- 2009: The Beatles’ mono and stereo remasters are released
- 1971: US album release: Imagine by John Lennon
- 1969: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison meet to discuss their future
- 1962: Live: Cavern Club, Liverpool (evening)
- 1961: Live: Aintree Institute, Liverpool
- 1960: Live: Indra Club, Hamburg
Want more? Visit the Beatles history section.
It’s widely stated that Lennon played bass and McCartney played guitar on the basic track of Helter Skelter, but listening to “Second Version – take 17” (on last year’s reissue) it seems clear that Macca is playing bass. First – at 0:11 — he’s using the bass to make an instruction before they start playing. Also, at 1:57, his vocal ad-libs exactly mirror the bass part, which to me strongly suggests that he’s playing bass. Thoughts anyone…?
I agree with you. It’s well-documented that John absolutely disliked playing the bass guitar, but he loved playing keyboards as well as guitar, even to the point of having two pianos (one in the sunroom and the other in the attic studio), a mellotron and an organ at Kenwood in addition to his guitars and tape machines, but no bass guitars in sight.
When listening to the song, I myself have questioned the accuracy of Ian MacDonald’s dubious line-up, especially hearing the hybrid clicky/bassy Fender Jazz Bass that Paul apparently used on much of the White Album – previously, I thought that he used his Rickenbacker bass, but he evidently used the Jazz Bass on more WA songs than I thought he did.
Yes I think it’s very likely that Paul is on bass and George and John are on the guitars while Ringo is on drums.