Friday, May 4, 2012

Helter Skelter

Richard Furnstein: Can you imagine the look on George Martin's face when he heard this giant bat of the sub-apocalypse fly through Abbey Road Studio? He was probably sitting in the control booth with perfectly rolled shirt sleeves, balancing his morning tea on his delicate left knee while munching on a carob muffin. Just another day at the office, right? Then these four British vikings swoop in with blood in their teeth and fire in their eyes. Ringo has birds of prey carrying his drums through the haunted skies. What do these evil men want? No matter, give them our prettiest daughters and the grain harvest. Just make them go away before they destroy everything. I'm sure George Martin wanted to head to church and make some confessions after hearing this leering, fully fanged treatise of sex and violence. It might be a heavy metal song, but it makes that music sound like wimpy, juvenile garbage. Is that a children's squeaky toy in the mix at the end of the song? What the hell is happening here?  Is that a pentagram on the wall?

Robert Bunter: Yeah, that’s some assault, pal! Sure, The Beatles invented heavy metal (along with music videos, long hair on men, colorful clothes, the counterculture, meta songwriting) on this track, which McCartney supposedly composed after reading a Pete Townshend interview where Pete described wanting to write the filthiest, heaviest Who song possible (he was likely talking about “I Can See For Miles,” but Paul didn’t know that.) Paul liked the idea and decided to take a whack at it. One suspects he was also pleased to do something to muddy up his top-hat-and-cane, choirboy balladeer image. “Hey, I know everybody thinks that I was the softie and John was Mr. Rockandroll, but what about ‘Helter Skelter?” Well, you’ve got a point there, Paul McCartney. This track is really, really awesome. Especially in mono.

Richard Furnstein: Paul takes us to the spiral slide on a balmy May evening; a cloudy flashback to a forgotten English childhood. The song provides the sensation and motion of spinning in an endless circle: the flashing lights begin to slowly pause into a bleeding trail and the trees along the ridge blur into a hulking monster of green and enveloping sadness. His friends (John, George, Ringo, Mal) are still there but their faces have blurred together as well. Summer is about to begin/summer is over. You aren't a child anymore, brother. This is the loss of innocence.

Paul shouts "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" on "Helter Skelter," but it isn't from a place of excitement like on "She Loves You." He seems to be providing affirmation of the unknown evil forces--the darkness--that surrounds this track.  Remember that the devil cannot enter you unless you invite him in. "Helter Skelter" is a gorgeous combination of claustrophobia and a blank void. It's driven by the fear and excitement of the unknown--the next move is huge, but you aren't sure how to take it. From the jungle gym to the jungle!
Four British vikings swoop in with blood in their teeth and fire in their eyes. Ringo has birds of prey carrying his drums through the haunted skies.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, the “childhood slide” angle on this lyric is really bizarre. He sings about a slide, then addresses some very adult lyrics to a grown woman. Meanwhile, the musical atmosphere suggests a terrifying bat cave. This is another example of the new, frightening emotional colors that the Beatles were beginning to add to their palette. We’re all used to shades of Joy, Wonder, Excitement, Melancholy, Trippy, Love and Arrogantly Bemused. The White Album (!) deploys Terror, Madness, Anger and Sardonic Contempt in much bigger amounts than we’d come to expect. No wonder Charles Manson heard this and decided to commit a bunch of crimes. Of course, that’s no excuse. Richard, tell me about the recording session. You know what I’m looking for here. Paint me a picture.

Richard Furnstein: Certainly you are referencing the loose and hypnotic initial takes of this song. Early versions clocked in at 27 minutes and 12 minutes (the latter was edited for use in the Anthology disc). It sure is titillating to imagine the good guys going off script. Light some candles and knock the dank out of this basement, we're going on a little journey. And what a journey it must have been, featuring Paul in full on blues trance mode, George repeating mantras in his head as his Gibson's sweet tones turn his legs to jelly, John nodding off, his forehead planted on a nearby wall, and Ringo famously told us about the blisters on his poor fingers (albeit only on the inferior stereo version). George Martin probably hit the talk back button after that half hour mega jam and told the boys to tidy up the arrangement. The boys would do that anyway, but I'm sure there was the initial jolt of excitement as Paul envisioned dropping a four disc version of their new album, complete with the extended explorations of "Helter Skelter," "Revolution 1," "What's The New Mary Jane," and "Revolution 9." It would have been the ultimate sign that The Beatles were unable to compromise or edit their increasingly disparate musical output. "Helter Skelter" would have taken an entire side and we all would have loved it. Hopefully that fictional version of the White Album also had sequential numbering.

Robert Bunter: Yeah, that must have been a hell of a session. I’m not sure where they got this information, but several Beatle book authors describe George running around with a flaming ashtray on his head while they recorded the 27-minute take. I don’t understand that at all. Was it one of those little diner ashtrays? What did he do, light some paper on fire and run around? How did the paper not fall out? Or what if it was one of those big burnished aluminum floor ashtrays on a stand? How do you put something like that on your head? Were they operating strobe lights during this session? Common sense says that would be impossible, but it seems so right. What drugs had they taken? What were they drinking? Cognac? What did John look like during this session? Was it before or after he shaved the Sgt. Pepper moustache? Granny glasses on or off? I’m picturing light beard stubble and a white linen cloak, but there will probably never be a way to find out for sure.

Richard Furnstein: Wow. Look, I've got goosepimples!

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