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.

An edit of take two, lasting 4’38”, was included on Anthology 3 in 1996. The full version was released in 2018 on the super deluxe 50th anniversary reissue of the White Album.

More slow jam than serious recording, the early takes were blues-based and lacked the volume and power of the final version. They also featured Paul 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

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.

Lyrics for Helter Skelter, transcribed by Mal Evans

Lyrics for Helter Skelter, transcribed by Mal Evans

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 John 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

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 Starr’s shout at the end.

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Next song: ‘Long, Long, Long’
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