Paul McCartney’s ‘Helter Skelter’ was an attempt to create a rock ‘n’ roll song as loud and dirty as possible. It later became one of The Beatles’ most notorious songs, after Charles Manson interpreted it as a symbol for Armageddon.
The sound, which has been described as a prototype for 1970s heavy metal sounds, was an attempt to outdo The Who; in an interview, Pete Townshend had described their single ‘I Can See For Miles’ as the group’s most extreme sound to date.
I was in Scotland and I read in Melody Maker that Pete Townshend had said: ‘We’ve just made the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever heard.’ I never actually found out what track it was that The Who had made, but that got me going; just hearing him talk about it. So I said to the guys, ‘I think we should do a song like that; something really wild.’ And I wrote ‘Helter Skelter’.
You can hear the voices cracking, and we played it so long and so often that by the end of it you can hear Ringo saying,’I’ve got blisters on my fingers’. We just tried to get it louder: ‘Can’t we make the drums sound louder?’ That was really all I wanted to do – to make a very loud, raunchy rock ‘n’ roll record with The Beatles. And I think it’s a pretty good one.
‘Helter Skelter’ referred to a fairground ride mainly popular in Britain, in which people could climb the inside of a wooden tower and slide down a spiral ride on the outside.
I was using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom – the rise and fall of the Roman Empire – and this was the fall, the demise, the going down. You could have thought of it as a rather cute title but it’s since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem, and since then quite a few punk bands have done it because it is a raunchy rocker.
Many Years From Now, Barry Miles
In the US the term ‘Helter Skelter’ was far less well known. Charles Manson, the psychopath who in 1969 led his ‘Family’ to carry out a series of murders. To him, ‘Helter Skelter’ was a coded prophecy for an apocalyptic race war.
Charles Manson interpreted that ‘Helter Skelter’ was something to to with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. I still don’t know what all that stuff is; it’s from the Bible, Revelation – I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know. But he interpreted the whole thing – that we were the four horsemen, ‘Helter Skelter’ was the song – and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone.
During his murder trial in November 1970, Manson explained his interpretation of ‘Helter Skelter’ to the court.
‘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.
By 1968 The Beatles had become amused by the often-fanciful interpretations applied to their songs. John Lennon playfully encouraged such thinking on ‘Glass Onion’, also on the White Album, and several other songs referenced previous works by the group. However, they were appalled by the effect that ‘Helter Skelter’ had upon Manson and his followers.
We used to have a laugh about this, that or the other, in a light-hearted way, and some intellectual would read us, some symbolic youth generation wants to see something in it. We also took seriously some parts of the role, but I don’t know what ‘Helter Skelter’ has to do with knifing someone. I’ve never listened to it properly, it was just a noise.
Rolling Stone, 1970
Like several Beatles songs from this time, ‘Helter Skelter’ was partly influenced by the writings of Lewis Carroll.
The verses are based on the Mock Turtle’s song from Alice in Wonderland:
‘Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?’
John and I both adored Lewis Carroll, and we often quoted him. Lines like ‘She’s coming down fast’ have a sexual component, perhaps a little drug component too. A little darker.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present