Helter Skelter (song)

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"Helter Skelter"
The Beatles "Helter Skelter" US picture sleeve.jpg
Picture sleeve for the 1976 single release (reverse)
Song by the Beatles
from the album The Beatles
PublishedNorthern Songs
Released22 November 1968
Recorded9–10 September 1968,
EMI Studios, London
Length4:29 (stereo LP)
3:40 (mono LP)
Producer(s)George Martin
Audio sample

"Helter Skelter" is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1968 double album The Beatles (also known as "the White Album"). It was written by Paul McCartney[5][6] and credited to Lennon–McCartney. The song was a product of McCartney's attempt to create a sound as loud and dirty as possible. The Beatles' recording has been noted for its "proto-metal roar"[7] and is considered by music historians to be a key influence in the early development of heavy metal.[not verified in body] In 1976, the song was released as the B-side of "Got to Get You into My Life" in the United States, to promote the Capitol Records compilation Rock 'n' Roll Music.

Along with other tracks from the White Album, "Helter Skelter" was interpreted by cult leader Charles Manson as a message predicting inter-racial war in the US. Manson titled his vision of this uprising "Helter Skelter" after the song. Rolling Stone magazine ranked "Helter Skelter" 52nd on its list of the "100 Greatest Beatles songs".[8] Aerosmith, U2 and Oasis are among the artists who have covered the track, and McCartney has frequently performed it in concert.

Writing and inspiration[edit]

McCartney was inspired to write the song after reading a 1967 Guitar Player magazine interview with the Who's Pete Townshend where he described their latest single, "I Can See for Miles", as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song the Who had ever recorded. McCartney then "wrote 'Helter Skelter' to be the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums, et cetera" and said he 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."[9] In British English, a helter skelter is an amusement park attraction which features a tall spiral slide winding round a tower.[10] McCartney has cited this song as a response to critics who accuse him of writing only ballads.[11]

On 20 November 1968, two days before the release of The Beatles, McCartney gave Radio Luxembourg an exclusive interview, in which he commented on several of the album's songs. Speaking of "Helter Skelter", he said: "Umm, that came about just 'cause I'd read a review of a record which said, 'and this group really got us wild, there's echo on everything, they're screaming their heads off.' And I just remember thinking, 'Oh, it'd be great to do one. Pity they've done it. Must be great – really screaming record.' And then I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of sophisticated. It wasn't rough and screaming and tape echo at all. So I thought, 'Oh well, we'll do one like that, then.' And I had this song called 'Helter Skelter,' which is just a ridiculous song. So we did it like that, 'cuz I like noise."[12] Although the composition is credited to the Lennon–McCartney partnership, John Lennon acknowledged in a 1980 interview: "That's Paul completely ... It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me."[6]


The song was recorded many times during sessions for The Beatles. During the 18 July 1968 sessions, the Beatles recorded take 3 of the song, lasting 27 minutes and 11 seconds,[13] although this version is slower, differing greatly from the album version.[14] Take 2, recorded the same day, originally 12 minutes and 54 seconds long, was edited down to 4:35 for Anthology 3.[14] On 9 September, 18 takes of approximately five minutes each were recorded, and the last one is featured on the original LP.[15] After take 18, Ringo Starr threw his drum sticks across the studio[16] and screamed, "I got blisters on my fingers!"[9][15] Starr's shout was included on the stereo mix of the song. At around 3:40, the song completely fades out, then gradually fades back in, fades back out partially and finally fades back in quickly with three cymbal crashes and Starr's scream. Some sources erroneously credit the "blisters" line to Lennon; in fact, Lennon can be heard asking "How's that?" before Starr's outburst.[17] The mono version (originally on LP only) ends on the first fadeout without Starr's outburst.[18] The mono version was not initially available in the United States as mono albums had already been phased out there.[19] The mono version was later released on the American version of the Rarities album.[18] In 2009, it was made available on the CD mono re-issue of The Beatles as part of the Beatles in Mono CD box set.

According to Chris Thomas, who produced the session in George Martin's absence,[2] the 9 September session was especially spirited: "While Paul was doing his vocal, George Harrison had set fire to an ashtray and was running around the studio with it above his head, doing an Arthur Brown."[15] Starr recalled: "'Helter Skelter' was a track we did in total madness and hysterics in the studio. Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams."[11] Among the overdubs added on 10 September were a lead guitar part by Harrison, trumpet played by Mal Evans, and piano, further drums and "mouth sax", the latter created by Lennon blowing through a saxophone mouthpiece.[18]


"Helter Skelter" was sequenced as the penultimate track on side three of The Beatles, between "Sexy Sadie" and "Long, Long, Long".[20] The double LP was released by Apple Records on 22 November 1968.[21][22]

In June 1976, Capitol Records included the track on its themed double album compilation Rock 'n' Roll Music. In the United States, the song was also issued on the single promoting the album, as the B-side to "Got to Get You into My Life".[23]

Critical reception[edit]

In his contemporary review for International Times, Barry Miles described "Helter Skelter" as "probably the heaviest rocker on plastic today",[24] while the NME's Alan Smith found it "low on melody but high on atmosphere" and "frenetically sexual", adding that its pace was "so fast they all only just about keep up with themselves".[25] Record Mirror's reviewer said the track contained "screaming pained vocals, ear splitting buzz guitar and general instrumental confusion, but [a] rather typical pattern", and concluded: "Ends sounding like five thousand large electric flies out for a good time. John [sic] then blurts out with excruciating torment: 'I got blisters on my fingers!'"[26]

In his review for Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner wrote that the Beatles had been unfairly overlooked as hard rock stylists, and he grouped the song with "Birthday" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" as White Album tracks that captured "the very best traditional and contemporary elements in rock and roll". He described "Helter Skelter" as "excellent", highlighting its "guitar lines behind the title words, the rhythm guitar track layering the whole song with that precisely used fuzztone, and Paul's gorgeous vocal".[27] Geoffrey Cannon of The Guardian praised it as one of McCartney's "perfect, professional songs, packed with exact quotes and characterisation", and recommended the stereo version for the way it "transforms" the song "from a nifty fast number to one of my best 30 tracks of all time".[28] Although he identified it as a Lennon song, William Mann of The Times said "Helter Skelter" was "exhaustingly marvellous, a revival that is willed by creativity ... into resurrection, a physical but essentially musical thrust into the loins".[29]

Among more recent reviews, Richie Unterberger of AllMusic views it as "one of [the] fiercest and most brutal rockers done by anyone" and "extraordinary".[30] Writing for MusicHound in 1999, Guitar World editor Christopher Scapelliti grouped the track with "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as the three "fascinating standouts" on the White Album.[31] While admiring the diversity of McCartney's songwriting on the album, Mark Richardson of Pitchfork cites "Helter Skelter" as one of "the roughest, rawest tunes in his Beatles oeuvre".[32]

Ian MacDonald was highly critical of the song, however, calling it "ridiculous, McCartney shrieking weedily against a massively tape-echoed backdrop of out-of-tune thrashing".[33] Rob Sheffield was also unimpressed, writing in The Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) that, following the double album's release on CD, "now you can program 'Sexy Sadie' and 'Long, Long, Long' without having to lift the needle to skip over 'Helter Skelter.'"[34] Alan W. Pollack said the song will "scare and unsettle" listeners, citing "Helter Skelter"'s "obsessive nature" and "undercurrent of violence", and noted McCartney's "savage vocal delivery" as reinforcing this theme.[35]

In March 2005, Q magazine ranked "Helter Skelter" at number 5 in its list of the "100 Greatest Guitar Tracks".

Charles Manson[edit]

Charles Manson told his followers that several White Album songs including "Helter Skelter" were a part of the Beatles' coded prophecy of an apocalyptic war in which racist and non-racist whites would be manoeuvred into virtually exterminating each other over the treatment of blacks.[36][37][38] Upon the war's conclusion, after black militants would kill off the few whites they would know to have survived, Manson and his "Family" of followers would emerge from an underground city in which they would have escaped the conflict. As the only remaining whites, they would rule blacks, who, as the vision went, would be incapable of running the United States. Manson employed "helter skelter" as the term for this sequence of events.

Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, who led the prosecution of Manson and four of his followers who acted on Manson's instruction in the Tate-LaBianca murders, named his best-selling book about the murders Helter Skelter.[36] The book was the basis for two television movies of the same title.

Cover versions[edit]

McCartney live performances[edit]

Since 2004 McCartney has performed the song with his band on every tour, starting on 24 May 2004, while on the '04 Summer Tour, through The 'US' Tour (2005), the Summer Live '09 (2009), the Good Evening Europe Tour (2009), the Up and Coming Tour (2010/2011), the On the Run Tour (2011/2012) and the Out There Tour, which started on 4 May 2013. In the last tours, the song has been generally inserted on the third encore, which is the last time the band enters the stage. It is usually the last but one song, performed after "Yesterday" and before the final medley including "The End". McCartney played the song on his One on One Tour at Fenway Park on 17 July 2016 accompanied by the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and New England Patriots football player Rob Gronkowski.

McCartney performed the song live at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards on 8 February 2006 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. In 2009, McCartney performed the song live on top of the Ed Sullivan Theater during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

The version of the song from McCartney's live album Good Evening New York City, recorded during the Summer Live '09 tour, was nominated at the 53rd Grammy Awards in the category of Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance.[46] It won, becoming McCartney's first solo Grammy win since he won for arranging "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" in 1972.[47]

McCartney opened his set at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief with the song.[48]


Personnel per Mark Lewisohn[49] and Alan W. Pollack[35]


  1. ^ McKinney, Devin (2003). Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. Harvard University Press. p. 231. ISBN 0-674-01202-X.
  2. ^ a b Winn 2009, p. 210.
  3. ^ Rowley, David (2013). All Together Now. Troubador Publishing. p. 68.
  4. ^ Athitakis, Mark (September–October 2013). "A Beatles Reflection". Humanities. National Endowment of the Humanities. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  5. ^ Miles 1997, pp. 487–488.
  6. ^ a b Sheff 2000, p. 200.
  7. ^ Erlewine 2007.
  8. ^ "100 Greatest Beatles Songs". 19 September 2011. Retrieved 15 October 2014.
  9. ^ a b Miles 1997, pp. 487–88.
  10. ^ AskOxford 2008.
  11. ^ a b The Beatles 2000, p. 311.
  12. ^ Beatles Interview Database 1968.
  13. ^ Lewisohn 2005, p. 143.
  14. ^ a b Winn 2009, p. 190.
  15. ^ a b c Lewisohn 2005, p. 154.
  16. ^ Spitz 2005, p. 794.
  17. ^ Winn 2009, pp. 210–11.
  18. ^ a b c Winn 2009, p. 211.
  19. ^ Miles 2001, p. 321.
  20. ^ Miles 2001, p. 319.
  21. ^ Lewisohn 2005, p. 163.
  22. ^ Miles 2001, p. 314.
  23. ^ Schaffner 1978, p. 187.
  24. ^ Miles, Barry (29 November 1968). "Multi-Purpose Beatles Music". International Times. p. 10.
  25. ^ Smith, Alan (9 November 1968). "Beatles Double-LP in Full". NME. p. 5.
  26. ^ Uncredited writer (16 November 1968). "The Beatles: The Beatles (White Album) (Apple)". Record Mirror. Available at Rock's Backpages (subscription required).
  27. ^ Wenner, Jann S. (21 December 1968). "Review: The Beatles' 'White Album'". Rolling Stone. p. 10. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  28. ^ Cannon, Geoffrey (26 November 1968). "Back to Spring: The Beatles: The Beatles (White Album) (Apple)". The Guardian. Available at Rock's Backpages (subscription required).
  29. ^ Mann, William (22 November 1968). "The New Beatles Album". The Times.
  30. ^ Allmusic 2007.
  31. ^ Graff & Durchholz 1999, p. 88.
  32. ^ Richardson, Mark (10 September 2009). "The Beatles: The Beatles". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
  33. ^ MacDonald 2005, p. 298.
  34. ^ Brackett & Hoard, p. 53.
  35. ^ a b Pollack 1998.
  36. ^ a b Bugliosi 1997, pp. 240–247.
  37. ^ Linder 2007a.
  38. ^ Linder 2007b.
  39. ^ "Pandora's Box – Aerosmith". AllMusic. Retrieved 7 September 2017.
  40. ^ Clark, Carol. "The story behind the song: Dear Prudence by Siouxsie And The Banshees". Louder. Future. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  41. ^ Johnston, Chris. "The Crate: Siouxsie and the Banshees faithfully cover the Beatles' Dear Prudence". The Sydney Morning Herald. Nine Entertainment Co. Retrieved 12 March 2019.
  42. ^ "The Bobs – The Bobs". AllMusic. Retrieved 7 September 2017.
  43. ^ 1984 Grammy award nomination, Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or More Voices, Richard Greene, Gunnar Madsen – Helter Skelter (The Bobs) LA Times, "The Envelope" awards database, accessed 2010 Jan 13.
  44. ^ "U2 – Helter Skelter". U2songs.com. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  45. ^ "Bono Bites Back". Mother Jones Magazine. Retrieved 20 November 2017.
  46. ^ Final Nominations List, 53rd Grammy Awards Archived 14 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Retrieved on 10 February 2011.
  47. ^ [1][permanent dead link] Yahoo! Entertainment Story – Reuters. Retrieved on 13 February 2011.[dead link]
  48. ^ '12-12-12': Paul McCartney fronts Nirvana 'reunion' and more highlights from Sandy benefit concert Archived 14 December 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 13 December 2012.
  49. ^ Lewisohn 1988, p. 154.


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