“Helter Skelter” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles that was released in 1968 on their self-titled double album, often known as “the White Album”. It was written by Paul McCartney 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” and is considered by music historians to be a key influence in the early development of heavy metal. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Helter Skelter” 52nd on its list of the “100 Greatest Beatles songs”.
Among music critics commenting on “Helter Skelter”, Richie Unterberger of AllMusic views it as “one of [the] fiercest and most brutal rockers done by anyone” and “extraordinary”. Writing for MusicHound in 1999, Guitar World editor Christopher Scapelliti identified the track as one of three “fascinating standouts” on the White Album. 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”.
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”. 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.'” 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.
In a 1980 interview, Lennon said, “That’s Paul completely … It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me.”
In March 2005, Q magazine ranked “Helter Skelter” number 5 in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.
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 maneuvered into virtually exterminating each other over the treatment of blacks. Upon the war’s conclusion, after black militants would kill off the few whites they would know to have survived, Manson and his companions 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 America. 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. The book was the basis for two television movies of the same title.
In 1988, a U2 recording was used as the opening track on the Rattle and Hum album. The song was recorded live at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado on 8 November 1987. Introducing the song, Bono controversially said, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”
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