In 1968 The Beatles were working hard on their ninth studio album, The White Album. The record did go on to be a smash hit success, selling more than 24 million copies in its month of release. The band did not release any official singles from the record, but one song in the album has a profound history: Helter Skelter.
Helter Skelter is named after the fairground ride of the same name – a tower in which children slide down the side of a stylised lighthouse.
The song itself is one of the heaviest songs written by the Fab Four. Not only did it break from the regular style of the band’s music genre, but it also inspired a generation of hard rock bands. The likes of Motley Crue, Marilyn Manson, Thrice, Aerosmith and even Oasis recorded covers of the song. But the beginning of the song’s journey started when Paul McCartney learned of the “loudest, rawest song” ever recorded.
McCartney recalled reading an interview with The Who’s drummer Pete Townsend, who had discussed the band’s song I Can See For Miles. Paul said: “[Helter Skelter] 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.'”
Unfortunately, when Paul finally heard the song, he did not get what he was hoping for.
The Beatles: Paul wrote the raucous Helter Skelter (Image: GETTY)
Paul said: “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.”
After being left with a sense of disappointment, Paul decided to change things up himself. Before long, he had written Helter Skelter. He continued: “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, ‘cos I like noise.” He later revealed there was a lot more meaning to the song, however.
The Beatles: Paul explained how the track was a response (Image: GETTY)
Paul explained the image of the Helter Skelter – a ride from “the top to the bottom” – was a way to show “the rise and fall of the Roman Empire”. He added: “And this was the fall, the demise.” Paul also revealed how Helter Skelter was a direct response to his critics, who claimed he was only writing ballads and was “the soppy one” of the band.
The track was credited to Lennon-McCartney, but John Lennon later confirmed Paul wrote it “completely”.
There is a reason John might have distanced himself from Helter Skelter, though. Helter Skelter as a phrase was later adopted by serial killer Charles Manson to incite a “race war”. He felt the music was delivering messages about an upcoming war between Black and White communities.
Paul later said: “I still don’t know what all that stuff is; it’s from the Bible, ‘Revelations’ – I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know. But he interpreted the whole thing … and arrived at having to go out and kill everyone… It was frightening because you don’t write songs for those reasons.”