Saturday, October 9, 2010

Beatles -- "Helter Skelter" (1968)

When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide 
Where I stop, and I turn, and I go for a ride 
'Til I get to the bottom and I see you again! 

I didn't own The Beatles -- a/k/a "The White Album."  I'm not sure why.  It was a two-record album, so maybe it was a little too expensive.  (I had Rubber Soul, and Sgt. Pepper's, and Abbey Road, but not The Beatles.)  It was a very popular record when I was in college, even though it had been released in November 1968 -- almost two years before I started classes.  I heard it played much more often than Abbey Road.

"The Beatles" (a/k/a "The White Album")

The songs on this album are all over the place.  It's wildly uneven, with quite a few highs and quite a few lows and very little in between.

As far as I'm concerned, one song really stands out: "Helter Skelter."  After "A Day in the Life," this may be the best song the Beatles ever recorded.  To paraphrase something George Washington once said about government, this song "is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force."   

What is most shocking about "Helter Skelter" is that it apparently was wholly a Paul McCartney creation. I always assumed it was a John Lennon song, but 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."  (By the way, if he were still alive, John Lennon would be celebrating his 70th birthday today.)

Keith Moon
According to a biographer, McCartney was inspired to write the song after reading a 1967 magazine interview with Pete Townshend of the Who, who described their latest single, "I Can See for Miles," as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song the Who had ever recorded.  ("I Can See for Miles" is a brilliant song -- so original and so good that it's quite breathtaking.  Keith Moon's drumming on this record has never been equalled.)

The Beatles did 18 takes of this song on September 9, 1968, and the 18th take is the one that is on the LP.  Ringo Starr is the Beatle who says "I got blisters on me fingers!" at the end of the song.  (I always thought it was Lennon.)

In British English, the term "helter skelter" not only means "in undue haste, confusion, or disorder," but is also the name given to a tall, spiralling amusement park slide:

A "helter skelter" slide
Of course, it is also a phrase that is associated with Charles Manson, who believed that a number of the songs on the "White Album" (including this one) confirmed Manson's future vision of an apocalyptic race war.  Here's a link to a Wikipedia article that explains Manson's thinking, which is as looney-tunes as it can be.

Manson (now and then)
A book by the Los Angeles deputy district attorney who prosecuted Manson and his "family" and two made-for-television movies about Manson were also titled "Helter Skelter."

I used to think that the most tasteless band name I had ever heard was the Dead Kennedys.  But then I heard a band that called themselves Sharon Tate's Baby.  Much worse, I think.  The Dead Kennedys was very good.  Here's a video of Sharon Tate's Baby performing live:

Here's a link to a webpage that provides a detailed breakdown and analysis of the words and music of "Helter Skelter" for those of you who would like to learn more.  The author of that page captures the very visceral experience of listening to "Helter Skelter":  "One almost flinches before it the same way you move back a step from the edge of the subway platform as the train comes into the station."

Here's "Helter Skelter."  Buckle your seat belts before you hit the "play" button:

Did you know that YouTube has something called The Karaoke Channel?  You can sing "Helter Skelter" yourself.  In fact, you can even record yourself singing it, although that costs money.  (If any of you record your own version of this song, please send it to me -- I will post it here.)

Last but not least, here's a bizarre video of "Helter Skelter" featuring former Alaska senator and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel:

(You can't buy Beatles MP3s on iTunes or Amazon.)

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