McCartney, too, drew inspiration from far and wide, most impressively from an interview with The Who’s Pete Townshend, published in one of the music papers.
The Who had just released a new single, “I Can See For Miles,” which Townshend described as the most direct, and dirtiest, record the band had ever made.
McCartney found himself wondering which of his songs he could make a similar claim for, and, having come up blank, he decided to write it there and then. The result was “Helter Skelter,” for which he demanded “the most raucous vocal, the loudest drums, etc., etc.” He got them, too. Starr’s plaintive cry “I’ve got blisters on my fingers” was not a put on. He really did.
The song’s title was taken from what was then a familiar sight at every English fairground, a tall tower rising above all the other rides and attractions, within which was concealed a ladder to the top, and a slide back down. In McCartney’s mind, “Helter Skelter” was a charming image, a sweet symbol of childhood that he co-opted to represent “a ride from the top to the bottom, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.”
Unfortunately, he reckoned without Charles Manson.
Entire books can (and have) been written about Manson’s apparently unique interpretation of The Beatles music; how “Helter Skelter” predicted a race war precipitated by the blacks (of “Blackbird”) against the establishment (“Piggies”); how “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” warned Manson and his followers to arm themselves in preparation for the conflict; while “Honey Pie” spoke directly to Manson and his Family, sequestered as they were not so far from Hollywood.
Manson was not, of course, the first Beatles fan to believe that the group was communicating directly to him — can you even imagine how many girls named Michelle went to sleep dreaming that McCartney was singing personally to them? Nor was he the last to unearth dire significance from their music and imagery: in 1969, the belief that McCartney was dead was communicated to the youth of the world via such disparate symbols as the license plate of a motor car pictured on the sleeve of Abbey Road, and the belief that if you played “Revolution #9” backwards, a secret voice demanded “turn me on dead man.”
Manson, too, found hidden messages in The Beatles music. But, whereas those other fantasists allowed their beliefs to simply color their own minds, Manson not only brought his to gory reality, he wasn’t ashamed to broadcast them. On trial for the string of bloody murders that his followers undertook over Woodstock weekend 1969, Manson denied that he ordered the killings. It wasn’t him, he insisted, “it’s The Beatles, the music they’re putting out. They’re talking about war. These kids listen to this music and pick up the message. It’s subliminal.”
“Helter Skelter,” in particular, has never shaken off its association with Manson, lending its title to both a best-selling book and movie on the murders and subsequent trial. Certainly, punk band Siouxsie and The Banshees made little attempt to disguise their motives when they introduced the song to their live act in 1977, and when U2 began performing “Helter Skelter” a decade later, even Bono’s nightly pledge that “Charles Manson stole this song from The Beatles; so we’re stealing it back” could not diminish the power of the link.
Yet Manson is not the scariest aspect of this tragic affair. What is really frightening is that, a little over a decade later, the religious right in America woul