Helter Skelter

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Cover versions and notes on The Beatles' song "Helter Skelter".

Written By: 
Primary Recording
The Beatles
Lead Vocal: 
Paul McCartney
Cover Versions
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: Bonerama
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: Bobs Records
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: Cordelia Records
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: Chrysalis\EMI Records (USA)
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: Organic Music
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: Decca International
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Image of Helter Skelter
Manufacturer: White Parrot
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Alan W. Pollack's "Notes On"

Notes on "Helter Skelter" (HS)

KEY	E Major
FORM	Intro -> Verse -> Refrain ->
                Verse -> Refrain -> Refrain (Instrumental) ->
                        Intro -> Verse -> Refrain -> Outro (w/double fadeout)


Style and Form

- The style of this song is essentially bluesy in spite of its avoidance of strict 12-bar frames and I-IV-V harmonies. The form is slightly unusual with its midstream repeat of the intro and double fadeout outro, but nothing we haven't seen them use before in songs as diverse as "Thank You Girl" and "I Am The Walrus", and "Strawberry Fields Forever".

- And yet, crank this one up some late night when you're home alone and all the lights are off, and it's guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck; to scare and unsettle you. And that phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with what knowledge you do or don't possess about the song's bizarre connection with Charles Manson.

- You have to look beyond the form and style here to the lyrics, vocal performance, and recording production in order to discover the roots of this song's sinister effect.

- Picture yourself, for starters, in an intimate one-on-one with the narrator; his words of love encompassing a relentless, shifting panorama of neurotic unpleasantnesses including, in approximate order of appearance:


  • When I get to the bottom I go back to the top ...
  • ... I see you again.
  • Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nagging, noodging insistence:

  • Do you, don't you ...
  • Will you, won't you ...
  • Tell me, tell me, tell me, come on, tell me ...

Disparaging criticism:

  • ... but you ain't no dancer.

A barely concealed uncurrent of violence:

  • ... don't let me break you.
  • Look out!

- You don't need a 20+ minute long outtake in order to appreciate the obsessive nature of the song. If anything, you may find yourself with a headache just trying to imagine it.


Melody and Harmony

- The blues feeling is created almost entirely by the blue 3rd in the vocal part, sort of the quarter tone in between G natural and G#.

- The tune is almost 100% pure pentatonic in mode (D-E-G-A-B). The only exception is the C natural appoggiatura at the end of the intro sections; i.e. the first note of the "yeah, yeah, yeah .." phrase.

- The small number of chords and the slow pace at which they change conveys a primitive, pre-vocal subtext.

- No V chord ever appears here; the complete harmonic duties being assigned to I, bIII, and IV. Compare this to "Back in the USSR," and also note the cross-relation created by I versus bIII.



- Paul's savage vocal delivery effectively amplifies the impact of the lyrics. It's pretty loud throughout, but rather nuanced in its own way if you bother to trace it, with patches of yelling, screaming, sputtering, and (my favorite), insidious laughing.

- Add to this, the noisy, metallic, mechanical sounding mix on the backing track; layed down in the red zone and mastered equally close up for maximum punch. 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. The much quieter early take of the song, heard on A3, still packs a punch by virtue of the lyrics and lead vocal, but this brutal dimension of the finished track is entirely missing.

- And what, indeed, would a Beatles track be, no matter wigged out it is, without some choreographed layering in the arrangement:

  • Intro: Staggered entrance of lead vocal, drums and bass.
  • Verse 1: Backing vocals enter in the *second* phrase.
  • Refrains: All feature the signature downward guitar scales. The instrumental refrain is the only one to include, at the end, a flash of the backing vocals.
  • Verse 2: Backing vocals appear in both phrases.
  • Midstream intro: includes the full ensemble, this time.
  • Verse 3: Add a lead guitar lick for the first phrase.
  • Outro: Stop chord change, but add special effects and stir.



- The intro is one long phrase of 12 measures, with the first note of the track being the four->ONE pickup to the first measure, and the lead vocal coming in as a longer pickup to measure 3:

upper voice 1	|E	|-	|-	|-	|-	|-	|
upper voice 2	|D	|-	|-	|-	|C#	|-	|
               |E	|-	|-	|-	|A	|-	|

E:	 	 V-of-IV4/2			 IV6/3

        |C	|-	|D	|-	|E	|-	|
        |C	|-	|B	|-	|G#	|-	|
        |C	|-	|G	|-	|E	|-	|
         bVI		 bIII		 I

- As if you needed additional phatic cues, the downward chromatic line that runs through the intro helps send a message, from the very beginning, that we're on a sort of descent to hell.



- The first verse is two measures longer than the others, lingering on the first chord and weighing in at four-square 16 measures:

        --------------- 2X --------------
        |E	|-	|-	|-	|
E:	 I

        |-	|-	|G	|-	|

        |A	|-	|E	|-	|
         IV		 I

- The other verses tighten things up a bit by moving to bIII a couple measures sooner, but this curtails the section lengths to an awkward 14 measures:

        --------------- 2X --------------
        |E	|-	|-	|-	|
E:	  I

        |G	|-	|A	|-	|
         bIII		 IV

        |E	|-	|


- The refrain is eight measures long in a simple AA form, followed by a four measure vamp on the I chord.

        --------------- 2X ------------- ------ 2X ------
        |A	|-	|E	|-	|-	|-	|
         IV		 I

- Note how the vamp is ommited at the end of the instrumental section; a pace-tightening effect similar to the shortening of the second and third verses.



- The mix of this song on the mono version of the White Album strangely has only the first fadeout. The putative authority of the mono album version notwithstanding, I'll side here with the stereo version because of the "value added" by its longer outro.

- The double fadeout strategy, especially as it is played out in electronic effects and musical improvisation over a static harmonic background, begs for comparison with "Strawberry Fields Forever".

- But the even more apt connection is to be made with (surprised?) "Hey Jude". Consider just how large a quotient (~40%) of the track's overall duration is invested in the outro, and notice how the formal effect of the switch to static harmony is analogous to the switch to the mantra-like modal chord progression in the outro of the latter song.

- Our outro here breaks down into six sections. Keep in mind the time scale of the song proper (e.g. ~20 seconds for a verse section) when sizing up the overall formal thrust of the outro.

  • Section 1 - [2:33 - 2:55] - Transition out of the song proper. Paul's singing and the downward lead guitar solo are still very much in evidence.
  • Section 2 - [2:55 - 3:09] - A sudden halt in the rhythm, with lots of guitar noise effects and what sounds like muffled studio chat in the background.
  • Section 3 - [3:09 - 3:42] - Rhythm resumes, lots of drums, bass guitar and guitar noise, but the vocal and lead guitar parts are now gone for good; slow fadeout to literally "niente" for 1 second.
  • Section 4 - [3:42 - 3:58] - Slow fade in on what sounds like a straight continuation of what had just been faded out; comes back to full volume.
  • Section 5 - [3:58 - 4:15] - Slow fadeout again after sustaining full volume for ~8 seconds; this time, we do not disappear completely.
  • Section 6 - [4:15 - 4:29] - Slight rhythm change, then halt, then rapid fade-up for final drumbeats, noise, "blisters on my fingers" and the last guitar noise bouncing instantaneously from left to right.


- Macca's masquerade here reminds me of someone I went to high school with. This fellow liked to mimic and impersonate; friends, teachers, characters from movies and TV, even some very strange ones he made up all by himself.

- He was almost too good at this sort of thing; often very amusing, but at other times a bit tiresome and unrelenting. Once in a while, in fact, he'd come up with someone or something that was just too strange and in pathetically bad taste, and for a moment you'd worry that maybe this time he'd gone insane and would not be able to ever snap out of it.

- Anybody else out there go to school with this guy?


Alan (awp@world.std.com)

"I'd ask you meself only I'm shy." 060798#150

--- Copyright (c) 1998 by Alan W. Pollack All Rights Reserved

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