Behind the Meaning of the Beatles’ Controversial “Helter Skelter”

“Helter Skelter” is undoubtedly the Beatles’ most controversial song. However, the controversy is no fault of the group and all to do with the infamous Charles Manson co-opting the song for his own use.

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The track, penned by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, has far less nefarious origins. According to McCartney, the song was one part inspired by The Who’s rowdy musicality and one part of childhood memories.

[RELATED: Behind the Bittersweet Meaning of The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road”]

Behind the Meaning of “Helter Skelter”

“Pete Townshend had been talking in the music press about how The Who had just recorded the loudest, the dirtiest, the rockiest thing ever,” McCartney wrote in his book, The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. “I loved that description, so I came into the studio and said to the guys, ‘Let’s just see how loud we can get and how raucous.’

“Let’s try and make the meters peak,” McCartney added.

The Who inspiration accounts for the grungy guitar and pounding drums, but what exactly is a “Helter Skelter?”

“A lot of people in the U.S. still don’t know what a helter skelter is,” McCartney added. “They think it’s a roller coaster. It’s actually another fairground feature–conical, with a slide around the outside. We went on them loads of times as kids.”

McCartney used the carnival ride as a “symbol of life.” “One minute you’re up, next minute you get knocked down,” he added. “You’re feeling euphoric, then you’re feeling miserable. Such as the nature of life.”

Well do you, don’t you want me to love you? / I’m coming down fast, but I’m miles above you / Tell me, tell me, tell me, come on tell me the answer / Well, you may be a lover, but you ain’t no dancer, the lyrics read.

The verses are based on the Mock Turtle’s song from Alice in Wonderland. “John and I both adored Lewis Carroll,” McCartney explained.

In the same book passage, McCartney commented on Manson using the song as the thesis for his impending race war.

“Things got really dark when Charles Manson, a year later, hijacked the song,” McCartney said. “He thought The Beatles were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He was reading all this stuff into the lyrics…It was all too twisted.”

Despite the song being a stellar edition to the Beatles’ catalog, it will always be shrouded in debate thanks to the actions of Manson and his “family.”

(Photo by Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

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