Thursday, February 21, 2008

Helter Skelter

From the composer of "Yesterday" and "Michelle" comes a complete 180: a blast of heavy metal before the genre really existed.

Paul McCartney's "Helter Skelter" probably is the most notorious tune in the Beatles' discography, thanks to its association with Charlie Manson and his minions. When the TV movie of the same name was released it 1976, it led to rumors that "The Beatles" (the two-record set commonly called "The White Album") would be banned because of the connection.

The lyrics of the song apply for the most part to a sliding board in the British parlance: "When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide ..." Sure, prosecutor Vince Bugliosi convinced us that Charlie read a lot more into that. But "Helter Skelter" is basically a love song set to unprecedented bombast.

Actually, the song started as a slower, more deliberate and somewhat more menacing tune than the one eventually released on "The Beatles." A version appears on the second "Anthology" release of the '90s, a four-minute slice of the song culled from a take three times that length. And according to legend, a 27-minute version of the prototype was committed to tape, although that marathon session never has surfaced on any of the myriad Beatles bootlegs. I'd love to hear it, with my preference for long jams; plus, from Mark Lewisohn's description of the session, that version includes a mutated version of the Marcels' "Blue Moon" in the middle. Sounds interesting.

While the Beatles were working on "Helter Skelter," John Lennon was taking the basic track from "Revolution" and adding the proverbial kitchen sink full of sound effects in a sonic collage that become "Revolution 9," probably the second-most notorious "song" (using the term loosely) in the Beatles' catalog. A contemporary Lennon recording, "What's the New Mary Jane," is almost as bizarre, but not as well-known.

After hearing "Revolution 9," McCartney supposedly set out to create his own exercise in cacophony, so he orchestrated a revised "Helter Skelter" with maximum volume on all fronts, fading it out and back in again, and ending it with Ringo Starr's famous utterance "I have blisters on my fingers!" And it worked effectively (at least until Pat Benatar covered it).

One more bit of trivia: On the original monophonic release of "The Beatles," "Helter Skelter" faded out but not back in, meaning there was no "blisters on my fingers!"

Another reason to listen to music in stereo!

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