Helter Skelter Rocks!

Billboard calls Helter Skelter the third best song on The White Album. Ultimate Classic Rock rates Helter Skelter as the 19th best Beatles song. Of the 305 songs recorded by The Beatles, Helter Skelter sits close to the top. Personally, I consider Helter Skelter to be one of my favorite Beatles songs. Helter Skelter receives a lot of praise and oh that experiment in hard rock. Helter Skelter rocks! Of course, a song this popular, especially a Beatles song this popular, will have a cover or two…or twenty five. Everyone from Pat Benatar to U2 to Rob Zombie covers Helter Skelter. Do these covers rock? Does Helter Skelter transfer to other genres well? And which version of Helter Skelter rocks the hardest?

Original Version – The Beatles (1968)

“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide, then I stop and I turn and I go for a ride.” Helter Skelter starts out so ridiculous, and yet those guitars! Helter Skelter most might be the closest The Beatles ever come to hard rock.

Helter Skelter Rocks.
The original Helter Skelter.

The Beatles themselves admit the lyrics were trash. Helter Skelter takes its name and imagery from an amusement park ride at Clacton Pier, Mccartney wrote the song because music critics of the day called him the sappy one, and he wanted to prove the critics wrong.

The hard rock sound of Helter Skelter comes as a response to The Who’s “I Can See for Miles.” McCartney heard an interview, stating “I Can See for Miles” was supposed to be a grand experiment in noise, McCartney felt underwhelmed when he finally heard the song. McCartney decided to do a song with the sound he expected to hear from The Who.

The rest is history. A ridiculous song made to sound noisy and loud. Some songs following the same formula would fail hard, and yet there’s just something magical about Helter Skelter. We feel uninhibited when we hear this experiment.

And the cherry on top – Ringo yells, “I Got Blisters on My Fingers!” Best ending to a song ever!

Cover Version – Siouxsie and the Banshees (1978)

A single note plays on a bass guitar. Pause. The same note repeats. Pause. This happens a few times, before a couple notes strum on an electric guitar. Eventually – we hear Siouxsie Sioux sing. We’re still not certain this is a cover of Helter Skelter, even though the track’s title says “Helter skelter.”

Eventually Siouxsie and the Banshees speed up the tempo, and we hear a more familiar song, albeit still an interpretation of Helter Skelter. Siouxsie Sioux almost shouts the lyrics as though she’s a drill sergeant. We hear a rephasing – “You may be a lover, but you ain’t no F(ing) dancer. When we’re really in the groove of the song, this cover of Helter Skelter just stops mid line – the only thing left, a still vibrating cymbal.

Siouxsie and the Banshees shows something amazing about Helter Skelter: the song makes a hell of a good punk rock song. Siouxsie and the Banshees version ignores the rules of not only a good cover, but of music theory in general. And yet it works. Throughout the rebellion inserted into this version of Helter Skelter, arises a bold and amazing song.

And yes…that is Robert Smith on guitar.

Cover Version – Pat Benatar (1981)

Pat Benatar comes at us with a mostly straightforward cover of Helter Skelter. The guitars, the melody, and the lyrics stay true to the original. However, Benatar’s vocals sound forced. Of course, if you know Benatar’s music, the forced (aka power rock) vocals shouldn’t come as a surprise. Benatar forces her vocals on other songs. In fact, Benatar’s power rock vocal style on Helter Skelter resemble her vocal style on “Hit me With your Best Shot.”

Granted – Benatar’s power rock vocals don’t detract from the song – though the high pitched screeching “Helter Skelter” at the very end makes me want to do terrible things. Whatever – Helter Skelter by Benatar still proves to be a fun ass rock song. Power rock, hard rock, it makes no matter. Helter Skelter rocks!

Cover Version – Mötley Crüe (1983)

Mötley Crüe starts their version of Helter Skelter with a seriously impressive speed, led by Mick Mars’ guitars. The rest of Helter Skelter by Mötley Crüe follows the original version closely, though with more of an 80s hard rock flare. All in all, nothing special as far as covers, but Mötley Crüe’s version is listenable.

Having said that – there’s a few facts about Helter Skelter and Mötley Crüe that make my skin crawl. Firstly, Mötley Crüe was one of the top shock rockers of the 80s. Mötley Crüe often used satanic imagery, not because they believed in Satan, but because it scared the old people. That alone isn’t enough to make Mötley Crüe’s Helter Skelter a bad cover. However, seeing this ongoing motivation in their music, and adding Helter Skelter’s racist and psychotic interpretation by Charles Manson…. We almost wonder if Mötley Crüe’s Helter Skelter serves not as a cover, but as a shock piece. Kind of like…”Look! We’re doing that song which motivated that crazy monster! Screw you old people!”

I have no idea if shock rock was the intention of Mötley Crüe’s cover of Helter Skelter. Maybe I owe Mötley Crüe an apology for even suggesting this. However, the two facts when put side by side make a lot of sense.

Cover Version – U2 (1988)

This is a song Charles Manson stole from The Beatles, we’re stealing it back.” These are the very first words heard on U2’s “Rattle and Hum.” These words give us permission to like “Helter Skelter,” even if the association with Charles Manson made us not want to like the song.

Granted, not everyone hated Helter Skelter because of a crazy monster’s interpretation. The first two covers of Helter Skelter I mention would not exist if the song was universal taboo. Even son, some certainly hated Helter Skelter because of the association with Charles Manson. Paul McCartney even stopped playing Helter Skelter for awhile. Bono’s words tell us not to give two shakes about what some crazy, racist, lunatic says about a song – because dammit, Helter Skelter is a fantastic rock song.

Aside from Bono’s intro, U2’s Helter Skelter follows the original pretty closely. U2 does not try to update Helter Skelter’s sound to a post punk rock sound. U2 presents Helter Skelter as The Beatles present the song. Helter Skelter rocks, and U2 knows it. U2’s love for justice and rock and roll merges with their cover of Helter Skelter.

Cover Version – Aerosmith (1991)

Aerosmith, like so many others, present a straightforward cover of Helter Skelter. Aerosmith adapts Helter Skelter to an early 90s hard rock style dominates the song. Loud guitars, fast tempo, and Steve Tyler screams out the vocals in the same style as “Love in an Elevator.” Ultimately, “Helter Skelter gives us an unashamed hard rock song. Really, nothing more needs to be said for the Aerosmith cover of Helter Skelter except that Aerosmith makes Helter Skelter rock in their own way.

Cover Version – Oasis (2001)

With the Oasis (live) cover of Helter Skelter, we’re greeted with a tremendous amount of feedback at the beginning of the song. Throughout the song, we hear a tremendous amount of noise from the rhythm guitar. Considering Oasis came to fashion in the 90s, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Noise” was extremely popular with alternative and modern rock bands. Loud, unstructured noise. Considering the origins of the Helter Skelter – this noise version seems right on message.

Perhaps the best part of this cover of Helter Skelter, however, is that Oasis made this cover. Oasis, who once said they were bigger than The Beatles, covers a Beatles song. So, does Oasis admit defeat? Does Oasis recently brag by covering Helter Skelter?

Eh – whatever. Oasis’ modern rock version of Helter Skelter rocks, and in the end – that’s what matters.

Cover Version – Soundgarden (2017)

Soundgarden gives us the most unique cover of Helter Skelter thus far. Singer Chris Cornell sings in an almost Jim Morrison style of voice. First Cornell’s voice sounds mellow and low, then violent, intense, and high pitched. Meanwhile the band plays at a slow tempo. Essentially Soundgarden’s Helter Skelter covers a version from a different Universe. A universe where The Doors, and not the Beatles wrote Helter Skelter. Can you dance to Soundgarden’s version of Helter Skelter? Yes, but a slow, grove style dance. Better yet, just listen and experience. The Soundgarden cover of Helter Skelter puts you in a sort of trance – so just close your eyes and relax.

Cover Version – Rob Zombie and Marilyn Manson (2018)

Sigh. This cover has to exist I guess. I already mentioned the dark history of Helter Skelter – how the song fueled the crazy, racist rants of a monster. So – of course two known shock rockers team up to play the song. And of course, one of these shock rockers takes part of their stage name from the aforementioned monster.

As far as the sounds, Zombie and Manson play a dark rock cover of the song – screaming, almost hellish vocals. Loud guitars and distorted effects. Really nothing we haven’t heard before. That might seem harsh. Maybe I’d be less hard on this version if it didn’t make me so sick.

Whatever, this version of Helter Skelter does NOT rock. I have less respect for Marilyn Manson because he chose to participate in this cover. Seriously dude – you should be ashamed of yourself!

Which Helter Skelter rocks hardest?

One thing most of these covers have in common – the artists play Helter Skelter in their own subgenre of rock and roll. We see hair metal, punk, post punk, shock rock, alternative, power rock, and hard rock. Other than the change in style, most of these covers of Helter Skelter don’t deviate too much from the original, which is pretty rare for covers. So having said that – perhaps the cover of Helter Skelter that rocks hardest is the version that comes closest to their prefered subgenre of rock. Do you like punk? Listen to the Siouxsie and the Banshees version. Power rock? Pat Benatar. Classic Rock? Listen to the original. 90s modern rock? Oasis.

Another way to look at the different versions of Helter Skelter – which ones hold up the thesis best? In a perfect world, I believe that version would be the original Beatles version, with the Oasis version being second. However, as already mentioned – The Beatles version of the song was tainted by a racist murder cultist. So having said that – the U2 version of Helter Skelter rocks the hardest. Why? Because the U2 version gives us permission to move past the heinous interpretations of Manson, and just enjoy the damned song.

On a final note – anyone who tries to interpret this great rock and roll song in a way that brings fear and /or harm to anyone should be ashamed of themselves. Helter Skelter is fun, not a hidden message and not something to bring fear and dread. I say this to serial killers, and I say this to shock rockers. Helter Skelter rocks, and if you interpret the song in a perverted way, you need to be locked up.

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