This time around on #askNat, Twitter reader Matheus Galvão from Brazil asks:
Is it really true that there is an existing version of “Helter Skelter” that lasts more than 20 minutes? Thank you!
Good question Matheus! Paul McCartney read a 1967 interview of The Who’s guitarist Pete Townshend, in which he describes their latest single, “I Can See For Miles” as being the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song The Who had ever recorded. This is what inspired Paul to better it with something even meaner, with wilder vocals, louder drums and as over-the-top as possible. Paul can be heard planning the track during the White Album sessions on June 11th, 1968 where he sings a falsetto version of the song. But he was only armed with an acoustic guitar at the time since the main focus of the day was to get “Blackbird” recorded (catch some of this footage here).
It was over a month later on July 18th, 1968 when the band got back around to giving further attention to the song, now considered by many to be the beginnings of heavy metal. However at this middle stage, “Helter Skelter” was no more than a plodding blues-based jam in the key of E. Paul would add in a chorus and verse here and there, but where they actually fit in was random at this point.
The first take of the song lasted 10:40. Their are two electric guitars, bass and drums and it is possible that Paul is playing electric guitar and John Lennon playing bass, judging by the way the bass stays fixed to E throughout the rehearsal. With George Martin producing, all of the instruments were put on one track and Paul’s lead vocal on the second. With the same line up they do a second take which ends up clocking in at 12 minutes. An edit of take 2 is what is included on the Beatles Anthology 3 CD set but this is only about 4 and a half minutes of it. To give an imagined experience of hearing the complete take, an account of it that artificially extends the Anthology version by means of some clever editing can be heard right here as it was the feature of the very first Beatles Rarity of the Week I offered on TheBeatlesRarity.com. These first two takes filled up an entire reel of tape and with a second tape loaded the band recorded take 3 using the same lineup, which went on for a full 27:11, giving it the legendary record as the longest continuous Beatles performance in the studio. Beatles writer/historian Mark Lewisohn who had a hand in selecting tracks for The Beatles Anthology CD releases asked that the complete take 3 of “Helter Skelter” be considered for release, given it’s historical notoriety. He was outvoted however by producer George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick, reasoning that one third of the 2-disc set’s playing time should not be spent on what was not much more than a jam session.
Some weeks later on September 9th, 1968, the remake of “Helter Skelter” that came to light on the White Album was recorded. George Martin was on vacation at the time and Chris Thomas was filling in for him as producer. Many of the overdubs were completed the following evening.
Thanks again Matheus for a good question to put up for this week’s #askNat. I invite you to add to the topic yourself in the comments below.
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Here are some Amazon links to read more on, or purchase music related to this post:
1) The White Album – 2009 remastered 2-CD set of original 1968 stereo double LP featuring the finalized version of “Helter Skelter.”
2) Beatles Anthology 3 – 2006 2-CD compilation of Beatles out-takes and extras recorded between 1968 and 1969. Includes an edited account of take 2 of “Helter Skelter.”
3) Sound City: Real To Reel – David Grohl’s soundtrack to the Sound City film features a plethora of big name rock artists such as Pat Smear, Robert Levon Been, Trent Reznor and Paul McCartney with the surviving Nirvana members performing “Cut Me Some Some Slack.”