Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Infamy grows for 'Helter Skelter'

Paul McCartney won a Grammy award this year
for his vocals on a live version of "Helter Skelter,"
originally recorded by the Beatles in 1968.


"Helter Skelter" has had its ups and downs over the years.

Last week, Paul McCartney won a Grammy award for the song he originally recorded with the Beatles back in 1968. McCartney picked-up the statuette for best solo rock vocal performance for a new version of the song contained on his "Good Evening New York City" CD.

Recorded on Sept. 9, 1968, "Helter Skelter" originally appeared on the double-LP commonly known as the "White Album." Reissued as part of "The Beatles Stereo Box Set," the recording garnered another Grammy this year for best historical album.

Beyond the current accolades, "Helter Skelter" may be most known for being hijacked by convicted murderer Charles Manson four decades ago.

The notorious criminal and his "family" took "clues" from the song in plotting the August, 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders which they thought would incite a race war in the United States.

Of course Manson's interpretation of "Helter Skelter," which refers to a amusement park ride, was completely insane.

With Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi heading the prosecution, Manson's murder trial began on July 24, 1970.

As a college student studying journalism, I thought it was an absolute injustice that a Beatles song was implicated in Manson's horrific crime.

Consequently, I wrote an article seeking to vindicate the British group's recording.

Headlined "Beatle Lennon Defends 'Helter Skelter,'" the story was published in the Friday, Nov. 6, 1970 edition of the Bay Beacon student newspaper.

One of their hardest rocking numbers, "Helter Skelter" was entirely composed by McCartney, although John Lennon was also credited as songwriter.

At that time, many assumed the Lennon-McCartney composing credit meant that Lennon was responsible for the lyrics while McCartney composed the music.

When I wrote my story, Lennon was being subpoenaed to appear as a defense witness at the trial.

Lennon told the Associated Press: "I'm a peace-loving man. If I were a praying man, I'd pray to be delivered from people like Charles Manson who claim to know better than I do what my songs are supposed to mean."

Reporter Donald White also quoted Lennon as saying, "Why didn't Manson listen to our song 'Revolution?' 'Revolution' clearly states my position on violence. 'When you talk about destruction, you can count me out!'"

Lennon didn't testify at the trial which ended on Jan. 25, 1971. Manson was found guilty of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

He was sentenced to death on March 29, 1971, although his punishment was later commuted to life behind bars. Manson remains incarcerated at Corcoran State Prison in California.

Lennon, meanwhile, moved to New York City on Sept. 3, 1971, never to return to Britain.

The Manson case returned to prominence when Bugliosi's book about the shocking murders became a best-seller. The book was made into a two-part television drama which ran on April 1 & 2, 1976.

Following the broadcast, Capitol Records issued a 45 rpm single which paired "Helter Skelter" with "Got to Get You Into My Life." Neither had been released as single before.

At the last minute record company executives flipped the single, making "Got to Get You Into My Life" the A side. The record charted at No. 7 in the summer of 1976.

Although they broke up six years earlier, the Beatles were enjoying a revival in mid-1976 thanks to a successful album, single and tour by McCartney and his group Wings.

Lennon, on the other hand, was taking some time off to raise his son Sean, but that period was shattered by another madman when the ex-Beatle was assassinated outside his apartment on Dec. 8, 1980.

"Helter Skelter" reappeared on Oct. 29, 1996 when a previously unreleased version, taped on July 18, 1968 was included in the "Anthology 3" set.

Three extended takes of the song were recorded that day, including one lasting 27 minutes and 11 seconds. These takes were actually rehearsals featuring McCartney (lead guitar and vocals), Lennon (bass), Harrison(rhythm guitar) and Starr (drums).

At the end of one take Starr yelled "I've got blisters on my fingers," a comment which marked the stereo version from the "White Album.

The "Anthology" version was edited down to less than five minutes in length, still retaining all its power.

Since the release of the alternative take in 1996, "Helter Skelter" has resurfaced several times.

McCartney included the number on his setlist when he performed at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee on Oct. 23, 2005.

My wife Sue and I (and the rest of the audience) weren't expecting to hear "Helter Skelter" so we were quite surprised when McCartney delivered an incredible version of the tune, sandwiched between "Yesterday" and "Get Back" during the first of two encores.

Months later, McCartney performed the song at the Grammy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2006. "Helter Skelter" was also featured during McCartney's marquee performance on the David Letterman Show in 2009.

Now firmly in his repertoire, McCartney played "Helter Skelter" during an opening show at Citi Field before 109,397 fans over three nights in 2009. The Beatles played a record-breaking gig at the same venue on Aug. 15, 1965 when it was known as Shea Stadium.

McCartney's band for the historic shows consisted of Paul "Wix" Wickens, Rusty Anderson, Abe Laboriel Jr. and Brian Ray.

"When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride," McCartney intoned.

Released on his "Good Evening New York City" live album, McCartney's performance earned the attention of Grammy voters.

Certainly, "Helter Skelter" has had its ups and downs over the years.

The abhorrent Manson stole "Helter Skelter" from the Beatles, but McCartney has taken his song back, with a Grammy award to go along with it.

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