“Few have seen fit to describe this track as anything other than a literally drunken mess” so says the normally fair and sober minded Ian McDonald in his seminal book “Revolution in the Head” (1). And, rather like knowing that Wagner’s “Tannhauser” was Hitler’s favorite music, one’s attitude to “Helter Skelter” can’t help but be affected, knowing that Charles Manson’s ipod would have it on repeat – maybe the only song on his “personal favorites” playlist.
It is a difficult song to discuss, especially with people who look for meaning in everything…
The anecdote most often cited for the genesis of this song is that McCartney heard Pete Townshend talking about The Who’s new single “I Can See for Miles” and how it was the loudest, rawest, dirtiest rock recording ever – so the Fab Four set out to out-Who The Who. That partly explains the sound of the recording, but “Helter Skelter” is full of idiosyncrasies – backward guitars, “samples” of feedback, uniquely strange guitar sounds – like the main rhythm guitar part in the verse that sounds like the strings are being hit so hard that they glissando down into the chord. The track has an air of strangeness about it, like a bad dream – it is not just just a “rocker”.
Personally, I have always thought of “Helter Skelter” as one of McCartney’s most inventive recordings. I say recording, rather than song, because the song is somewhat sketchy – but, as with a lot of exploratory jazz recordings – I am thinking of an obvious example – Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” – that very sketchiness affords a lot of scope in which performers can express themselves. And the recording on The White Album is nothing if not a blisteringly expressive vocal performance, not only the full-out belting, but also the rather sinister quiet singing just before the falling slide guitar and the guitar that sounds like a pane of glass being smashed in slow motion.
I say McCartney, rather than the Beatles, because I don’t hear much input from the rest of them. I can imagine a scenario in which McCartney despaired of getting anything out of his bandmates that would lift this song out of the doldrums, and that he created most, if not all, of what we hear on The White Album, himself.
I hasten to add that this is all conjecture on my part – the official story has everyone involved, with Ringo, or is it John, shouting “I’ve got blisters on my fingers”, on the stereo mix, as proof that this was not a solo effort. 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."(2)
Official stories are there to disguise what actually happened – what actually happened is always so much more interesting. Something about the guitar sounds, the playing, the drumming, that anticipates the sound of “McCartney”, the first of his solo albums and something about the mixture of intensity and playfulness in the vocal performance has this down as pure Macca in my book. Standing back a little I hear the song connecting with “Tomorrow Never Knows” especially after 3.02 with it’s one-chord, open structure and its fragmented feedback guitar and with “Revolution 9” which, I would argue, is the dark heart of the White Album. The songs on that second disc seem to be like satellites gradually being sucked into the gravitational pull of that epic and misunderstood track and “Helter Skelter” is an important step along the way, shading into darkness.
However… what have the men in lab coats at The Abattoir of Good Taste come up with this time?
It seems obvious now – the final solution to the “Helter Skelter” problem is, of course, a big band arrangement!
“Helter Skelter” appears here shaken and stirred, emerging from the sea in slightly risqué swimming trunks, or is that a tuxedo?
Arranger Gary Schreiner is a man born out of time. He lives in a late 1950’s haze where Martini’s are served at 6 sharp and cigarette holders are de rigueur. Known for his smoking jacket collection, food museum and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of lounge etiquette, Schreiner has assembled a crack team of New York’s top musicians to reclaim rock and roll and drag it kicking and screaming back to a time where the cut of a mans suit told you everything you needed to know about him.
In 1990 Bono introduced U2’s appalling version of Helter Skelter by saying:
“Charlie Manson stole this song from The Beatles and we’re going to steal it back”
Gary Schreiner has stolen it back again and he has delivered it as a gift to the legions of unsung arrangers who created the soundtrack to his eccentric life.
(1) MacDonald, Ian (2005). Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties (Second Revised ed.). London: Pimlico (Rand). ISBN 1-84413-828-3.
(2) Sheff 2000, p.200
Trumpet Section: Tim Ouimette, Tony Gorruso, Greg Ruvolo, Dan Yeager
Trombone section: Randy Andos, Mike Davis, Mark Miller, Jack Schatz
Sax Section: Aaron Heick, David Mann, Mark Phaneuf, Jack Bashkow
Gary Schreiner: Piano, Organ, Ukulele intro and all orchestral
Paul Livant: Guitar, Ukulele outro
Will Lee: Bass
Doug Yowell: Drums
Engineered and Mixed by
Music Preperation: Tobias Wagner
Recorded at Dubway Studios NYC and Rich Man’s Den NYC