Skip to main content

Song Facts: The Beatles — "Helter Skelter"

Paul McCartney was generally known for writing "silly love songs" like "Yesterday" or cheeky whimsy like "When I'm Sixty-Four," but occasionally he could rock every bit as hard as John Lennon.

While the Beatles recorded numerous violent rockers, few were more fiery, savage and controversial than McCartney's "Helter Skelter."

In this case, McCartney was attempting to outdo not Lennon but rather the Who. After reading an interview with Pete Townshend, who claimed that "I Can See for Miles" was the loudest rock and roll record ever made, McCartney decided to outdo the Who in the most outrageous manner he could conceive.

"Helter Skelter" was the second song, after "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," to be recorded on one of Abbey Road's new 3M eight-track recorders. George Martin was on vacation at the time, leaving his assistant, Chris Thomas, behind to oversee the increasingly rebellious band.

Of the instruments initially recorded for "Helter Skelter," the Beatles kept only the bass and drum tracks, alongside which they overdubbed a new electric guitar part and a lead vocal track. Ringo Starr recorded two drum overdubs, including a part featuring a snare drum processed with repeat echo that was recorded on a single track along with Harrison and McCartney's descending guitar riff, which they played in unison.

Lennon and Mal Evans laid down dissonant horns, and Starr added the finishing touch, screaming "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the song's cacophonous conclusion.

McCartney's lyrics were essentially nonsense ramblings about an amusement park slide and a loose metaphor for the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Cult leader Charles Manson, however, thought the song prophesized Armageddon, and it inspired him to mastermind several horrific murders.

His act transformed "Helter Skelter" into the most controversial song in the Beatles' catalog, a million miles removed from the youthful innocence of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

RECORDED: September 9 and 10, 1968, at Abbey Road Studio Two

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month*

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.