One of the darkest aspects of The Beatles’ career was the misguided belief, by the psychopathic murderer Charles Manson and his ‘Family’ of followers, that the group’s songs incited violence and depicted armageddon.
Look at the songs: songs sung all over the world by the young love. It ain’t nothin’ new… It’s written in… Revelation, all about the four angels programming the holocaust… the four angels looking for the fifth angel to lead the people into the pit of fire… right out to Death Valley. It’s all in black and white, in the White Album – white, so there ain’t no mistakin’ the color.
It was upsetting. I mean, I knew Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and – God! – it was a rough time. It stopped everyone in their tracks because suddenly all this violence came out in the midst of all this love and peace and psychedelia. It was pretty miserable, actually, and everyone got really insecure – not just us, not just the rockers, but everyone in LA felt: ‘Oh, God, it can happen to anybody.’ Thank God they caught the bugger.
Manson first heard The Beatles during their first visit to the United States in February 1964. At the time he was serving a prison sentence for attempting to cash a forged US Treasury check. He was taught to play the guitar by a fellow inmate, and quickly became obsessed with The Beatles.
He was released in March 1967 at the age of 32, and in the summer left the San Francisco area with a group of followers in an old school bus. After The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was released in November that year, Manson adopted the name to refer to the Family’s geographical and psychological movements in the bus.
In later years Manson became inspired by a belief in “‘Helter Skelter’,” a term taken from The Beatles’ song of the same name, which signified an apocalyptic race war he believed would arise between blacks and whites. As well as the music of The Beatles, Manson’s scenario was also inspired by the New Testament’s Book of Revelation.
His first known use of the term was at a campfire gathering of the Family on New Year’s Eve 1968, at their base at Myers Ranch near California’s Death Valley. By February 1969, Helter Skelter had developed into a scenario in which Manson and the Family would create an album which they believed would trigger the conflict and inspire America’s white youths to join the Family. He believed that black men, deprived of white women, would commit violent crimes in frustration, resulting in murderous rampages and a swiftly-escalating conflict between racial groups.
Although The Beatles’ song Helter Skelter referred to a harmless funfair slide, for Manson it encapsulated the chaos which he foretold. He also found references to the imagined apocalypse in a number of other songs, many of which appeared on the White Album.
In Manson’s mind, The Beatles’s songs included a number of coded messages and hidden meanings. Manson wasn’t alone in finding hidden – often non-intended or non-existent – meanings in The Beatles’ songs. After all, John Lennon’s ‘Glass Onion’ had positively encouraged them. However, Manson’s interpretations had abhorrent and devastating consequences way beyond the intentions of the songs’ creators.
Like, Helter Skelter is a nightclub. Helter Skelter means confusion. Literally. It doesn’t mean any war with anyone. It doesn’t mean that those people are going to kill other people. It only means what it means. Helter Skelter is confusion. Confusion is coming down fast. If you don’t see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It’s not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says ‘Rise!’ It says ‘Kill!’ Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.
On 10 January 1969 Manson announced that the Family were to move from the desert into a house in Canoga Park. The canary-yellow house, where the Family temporarily settled to develop their plans for Helter Skelter, was dubbed the ‘Yellow Submarine’.
On 27 July a dispute over money arose within the Family. Bobby Beausoleil murdered fellow member Gary Hinman, at Manson’s instruction. Afterwards Beausoleil daubed the words “Political piggy” on a wall in Hinman’s blood.
Beausoleil was arrested on 6 August. Two days later Manson told the Family that Helter Skelter was to begin. The following night, 9 August, three members murdered Sharon Tate and four others. One of the killers, Susan Atkins, wrote “Pig” on the front door of the murder scene, 10050 Cielo Drive, in Tate’s blood.
The next night three Family members, again acting on Manson’s instruction, murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary at their Los Feliz home. One of the killers wrote “Rise” and “Death to Pigs” on the walls of the living room, and “Healter [sic] Skelter” on the refrigerator.
Abbey Road was released in September 1969, after the murders took place. By this time the Family were living at a camp in the Death Valley area of California. In October, after the Family had acquired a copy of the album, several members – including Manson – were arrested.
On 25 November police raided the Spahn Ranch used as a base by the Family. They confiscated a door on which was written “Helter Skelter is coming down fast”, and the words “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, all good children (go to heaven?)” – the latter words are heard in ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’.
While Manson stood trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders in late July 1970, two people were murdered and one injured in an attack on a beach near Santa Barbara, California. A female member of the Family later referred to this incident as “‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’”.