Friday, April 24, 2009

Helter Skelter

Throw some bricks and knock people's heads into walls and smash a motherfucking bottle and threaten somebody with it, because it's "Helter Skelter," kids, and it's coming down fast. And I am angry and wound up, so I'm going to scream and jump around in my living room for a while. Ahem.

Although, if I'm honest, "Helter Skelter" doesn't really help me exorcise these feelings so much as it exacerbates them. I think I need to vote this song "Beatles Song Most Likely to Make Me Cut a Bitch." Which is not at all to say that I don't love it. I love it deeply. Not everyone does, though-- "Helter Skelter" has always had its naysayers. (Ian MacDonald, a roundly respected Beatles critic whose book I like to plug whenever I get the chance, gets this one completely wrong, kvetching about Paul "shrieking weedily" and getting all snooty about how it's just, you know, NOISE or something. His book still rules, though.)

Paul has said that he wrote "Helter Skelter" after reading an interview with Pete Townshend in which he described "I Can See for Miles" as the loudest, dirtiest, most rockingest song that the Who had ever done and, by extension, that the world had ever heard. And Paul thought, "well, I'm sure we can do something even dirtier." I love that Paul works this way, that he is driven by a healthy sense of competition-- it reminds me of the story about how hearing Pet Sounds is what spurred Paul to stop resting on his post-Revolver laurels and get back into the studio to try to do something even better. (Which turned out to be Sgt. Pepper.) And it just shows a sense of musical open-mindedness that's very cool. Speaking as someone who sometimes gives Paul crap for not working hard enough, it's good for me to be reminded of these things. There's the added benefit for Paul of being able to point to "Helter Skelter" whenever anyone accuses him of being a big softy-soppy-pants-- he took on Pete Townshend, and won. (I am sort of covering this song and "Here, There, and Everywhere" in the same week on purpose, for ultimate Paul-swoonage.)

If I remember correctly, I think that Paul had the skeleton of what became "Helter Skelter" already floating in his head even before he decided to make it the heaviest thing the Beatles would ever do. I don't know when the footage below was shot, but you can hear that the song started as a sort of nonsensical noodle.

For comparison's sake, and because I like it, here's the version they released on Anthology 3 as well. You can see that even though they knew they wanted it to be heavy in some way, they were still trying to find the right sound. This version sounds more like a slow, dirty blues than anything else, but in its more stripped-down state, it's easier to hear the bluesy core that's really at the heart of the song. Interestingly, at about 3:43 someone does something on the guitar that sounds exactly like the "Helter Skelter" sound we're used to, but I guess they had to play up till that point to find that sound. Clearly, though, Paul had already decided how he was going to sing this thing. (Could there ever have been another way?)

I should note that Anthology 3's liner notes admit to cutting this track down to 4:40 from a jam that lasted more like 10 or 12 minutes. And in fact, there seems to have been a lot of jamming out on this song. One of the most coveted bootlegs ever, the Holy Beatley Grail, is a possibly mythical 27-minute version of "Helter Skelter"-- it's apparently after that jam that Ringo screamed the "blisters on my fingers" bit, and no wonder. This is one of those tracks that has been lost to time, but hey, in a year in which we got to hear (briefly) "Revolution 1 Take 20," and in which the digital remasters of the canon are coming out in stereo and mono, anything is possible.

So in the end, all the jamming led up to the track on the White Album, which succeeded in being some of the heaviest music ever, certainly that the Beatles had done. And "Helter Skelter" proves that just because a song is loud doesn't mean it has to be dumb. Have you ever realized how killer the intro to this song really is? First there's that guitar snarling the tension-inducing one-note riff thing, and then Paul starts singing, and then the drums are faded in underneath, and then the bass crashes in, and it's all layered so perfectly that your excitement builds along with this even as the chromatic motion is basically downward, like a helter-skelter straight into HELL. And then we stay there for a while. On the verses the bass is like this gigantic drone thing weighing everything down, and Ringo's drums, which pound on the beat with a sinister relentlessness through much of the song, are produced with this crushing weight. There's, of course, a lot more descending motion, namely in that little guitar lick in the chorus, which George is playing (Paul picks up lead guitar on the solo only) and keeps up in the beginning of the coda. I know there's supposed to be John playing the sax, of all things, in here somewhere, but I have a hard time hearing where it is exactly. (Maybe someone else out there can?)

Then there's that long, long outro, which fades out and then fades back in, as if the song is a really pissed-off person who storms out and then storms back in to say "And another thing--". Except, you know, creepier. The whole thing is like a far more demented and terrifying version of the same trick in "Strawberry Fields Forever." "Helter Skelter" sounds so mechanical and metallic that the fade-in always reminds me of the noise of some giant spiked rock and roll death machine rolling into a city and crushing residents pitilessly beneath its weight. (Sort of like the vehicles the goblins use in Labyrinth, except actually scary.) Well, that's just my fancy, anyway.

But the best is Paul's vocal (of course), which is so twisted and bizarre, and so full of screams and screeches, here used less for that "woo-hoo!" Little Richard effect and more for the effect of some kind of scary carnival clown. Look out, indeed, dudes, Paul will EAT you. I want to post just one more video of Paul doing this live-- he doesn't exactly nail the vocals here like he did back in 1968, but, I mean, this is really not bad. And this is from Coachella-- this is from freaking the other day, April 17, 2009. It's an amateur video, but I still wanted to put it up. Paul is almost 67 and far more of a badass than I could ever hope to be. I bow down before him.

"Helter Skelter," released in the U.K. side C track 6 of The Beatles, a.k.a. the White Album, November 22, 1968; in the U.S. November 25, 1968.


  1. You can write the ass off a thing, you know that?

    I think you can hear John playing sax in that section near the end where the song falls apart and then winds back up, that you wrote about. I don't think you can hear him for very long, except maybe on the mono version, where he's probably soloing throughout the whole song, because apparently the mono and stereo versions of stuff are so different they might as well have been recorded by different bands, not that I'm bitter.

    The opening notes are downright iconic -- maybe right below the bassline on Taxman on the list of licks and riffs that every rocker in the world wishes he had come up with. That could be another fun list-y type feature for some enterprising Beatle-based blogger ...

  2. Ah. Hmm. I'm going to have to listen to that later-- at work it's hard to blast these things as loud as they really should be blasted. Of COURSE it would be easier to hear on the stupid mono version. Hey, and you know what? Why does the mono version of this song not have the extended outro? Major points off, even if it IS the more authoritative.

    Good list idea. Haven't forgotten your other (and I am a great one for singing around the house/car/train/other inappropriate places) but haven't had time to concoct a new one just yet. We'll see.

  3. I agree with Troy: you sure can write, girly. Your first sentence made me snarf my lunch. I'm still sneezing out sunflower seeds.

    And all this time, I assumed it was George that screamed about the blisters on his fingers...