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notes on ...

Notes on "Helter Skelter"


Notes on ... Series #150 (HS)
  by Alan W. Pollack
       Key: E Major
     Meter: 4/4
      Form: Intro | Verse | Refrain |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Refrain (instrumental) | Intro |
                  | Verse | Refrain | Outro (with double fade-out)
        CD: "White Album", Disc 2, Track 6 (Parlophone CDS7 46443-8)
  Recorded: 18th July, 9th, 10th September 1968, Abbey Road 2
UK-release: 22nd November 1968 (LP "White Album")
US-release: 25th November 1968 (LP "White Album")

General Points of Interest


Style and Form

  Next note The style of this song is essentially bluesy in spite of its avoidance of strict twelve-bar frames and I -» IV -» V harmonies. The form is slightly unusual with its midstream repeat of the intro and double fade-out outro, but nothing we haven't seen them use before in songs as diverse as "Thank You Girl" and "I Am The Walrus", and "Strawberry Fields Forever".
  Next note And yet, crank this one up some late night when you're home alone and all the lights are off, and it's guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of your neck; to scare and unsettle you. And that phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with what knowledge you do or don't possess about the song's bizarre connection with Charles Manson.
  Next note You have to look beyond the form and style here to the lyrics, vocal performance, and recording production in order to discover the roots of this song's sinister effect.
  Next note Picture yourself, for starters, in an intimate one-on-one with the narrator; his words of love encompassing a relentless, shifting panorama of neurotic unpleasantnesses including, in approximate order of appearance:
  • When I get to the bottom I go back to the top ...
  • ... I see you again.
  • Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Nagging, noodging insistence:
  • Do you, don't you ...
  • Will you, won't you ...
  • Tell me, tell me, tell me, come on, tell me ...
Disparaging criticism:
  • ... but you ain't no dancer.
A barely concealed undercurrent of violence:
  • ... don't let me break you.
  • Look out!
  Next note You don't need a twenty-plus minute long outtake in order to appreciate the obsessive nature of the song. If anything, you may find yourself with a headache just trying to imagine it.

Melody and Harmony

  Next note The blues feeling is created almost entirely by the blue third in the vocal part, sort of the quarter tone in between G-natural and G#.
  Next note The tune is almost 100% pure pentatonic in mode (D - E - G - A - B). The only exception is the C-natural appoggiatura at the end of the intro sections; i.e. the first note of the "yeah, yeah, yeah .." phrase.
  Next note The small number of chords and the slow pace at which they change conveys a primitive, pre-vocal subtext.
  Next note No V chord ever appears here; the complete harmonic duties being assigned to I, flat-III, and IV. Compare this to "Back in the USSR", and also note the cross-relation created by I versus flat-III.


  Next note Paul's savage vocal delivery effectively amplifies the impact of the lyrics. It's pretty loud throughout, but rather nuanced in its own way if you bother to trace it, with patches of yelling, screaming, sputtering, and (my favorite), insidious laughing.
  Next note Add to this, the noisy, metallic, mechanical sounding mix on the backing track; laid down in the red zone and mastered equally close up for maximum punch. One almost flinches before it the same way you move back a step from the edge of the subway platform as the train comes into the station. The much quieter early take of the song, heard on "Anthology", Volume 3, still packs a punch by virtue of the lyrics and lead vocal, but this brutal dimension of the finished track is entirely missing.
  Next note And what, indeed, would a Beatles' track be, no matter how wiggled out it is, without some choreographed layering in the arrangement:
  • Intro: Staggered entrance of lead vocal, drums and bass.
  • First verse: Backing vocals enter in the second phrase.
  • Refrains: All feature the signature downward guitar scales. The instrumental refrain is the only one to include, at the end, a flash of the backing vocals.
  • Second verse: Backing vocals appear in both phrases.
  • Midstream intro: includes the full ensemble, this time.
  • Third verse: Add a lead guitar lick for the first phrase.
  • Outro: Stop chord change, but add special effects and stir.

Section-by-Section Walkthrough



  Next note The intro is one long phrase of twelve measures, with the first note of the track being the "four-one" pickup to the first measure, and the lead vocal coming in as a longer pickup to measure 3:
 Upper voice 1: |E       |-       |-       |-       |-       |-       |
 Upper voice 2: |D       |-       |-       |-       |C#      |-       |
        Chords: |E       |-       |-       |-       |A       |-       |
             E:  V-of-IV4/2                          IV6/3

                |C       |-       |D       |-       |E       |-       |
                |C       |-       |B       |-       |G#      |-       |
                |C       |-       |G       |-       |E       |-       |
                 flat-VI           flat-III          I

   [Figure 150.1]
  Next note As if you needed additional phatic cues, the downward chromatic line that runs through the intro helps send a message, from the very beginning, that we're on a sort of descent to hell.


  Next note The first verse is two measures longer than the others, lingering on the first chord and weighing in at four-square sixteen measures:
       --------------- 2X ----------------
      |E       |-       |-       |-       |
   E:  I

      |-       |-       |G       |-       |

      |A       |-       |E       |-       |
       IV                I

   [Figure 150.2]
  Next note The other verses tighten things up a bit by moving to flat-III a couple measures sooner, but this curtails the section lengths to an awkward fourteen measures:
       --------------- 2X ----------------
      |E       |-       |-       |-       |
   E:  I

      |G       |-       |A       |-       |
       flat-III          IV

      |E       |-       |

   [Figure 150.3]


  Next note The refrain is eight measures long in a simple AA form, followed by a four-measure vamp on the I chord.
       --------------- 2X ---------------- ------ 2X -------
      |A       |-       |E       |-       |-       |-       |
   E:  IV                I

   [Figure 150.4]
  Next note Note how the vamp is omitted at the end of the instrumental section; a pace-tightening effect similar to the shortening of the second and third verses.


  Next note The mix of this song on the mono version of the "White Album" strangely has only the first fade-out. The putative authority of the mono album version notwithstanding, I'll side here with the stereo version because of the "value added" by its longer outro.
  Next note The double fade-out strategy, especially as it is played out in electronic effects and musical improvisation over a static harmonic background, begs for comparison with "Strawberry Fields Forever".
  Next note But the even more apt connection is to be made with (surprised?) "Hey Jude". Consider just how large a quotient (about 40%) of the track's overall duration is invested in the outro, and notice how the formal effect of the switch to static harmony is analogous to the switch to the mantra-like modal chord progression in the outro of the latter song.
  Next note Our outro here breaks down into six sections. Keep in mind the time scale of the song proper (e.g. about twenty seconds for a verse section) when sizing up the overall formal thrust of the outro.
  • First section — [2:33 - 2:55]: Transition out of the song proper. Paul's singing and the downward lead guitar solo are still very much in evidence.
  • Second section — [2:55 - 3:09]: A sudden halt in the rhythm, with lots of guitar noise effects and what sounds like muffled studio chat in the background.
  • Third section — [3:09 - 3:42]: Rhythm resumes, lots of drums, bass guitar and guitar noise, but the vocal and lead guitar parts are now gone for good; slow fade-out to literally "niente" for 1 second.
  • Fourth section — [3:42 - 3:58]: Slow fade in on what sounds like a straight continuation of what had just been faded out; comes back to full volume.
  • Fifth section — [3:58 - 4:15]: Slow fade-out again after sustaining full volume for about 8 seconds; this time, we do not disappear completely.
  • Sixth section — [4:15 - 4:29]: Slight rhythm change, then halt, then rapid fade-up for final drumbeats, noise, "blisters on my fingers" and the last guitar noise bouncing instantaneously from left to right.

Some Final Thoughts

  Next note Macca's masquerade here reminds me of someone I went to high school with. This fellow liked to mimic and impersonate; friends, teachers, characters from movies and TV, even some very strange ones he made up all by himself.
  Next note He was almost too good at this sort of thing; often very amusing, but at other times a bit tiresome and unrelenting. Once in a while, in fact, he'd come up with someone or something that was just too strange and in pathetically bad taste, and for a moment you'd worry that maybe this time he'd gone insane and would not be able to ever snap out of it.
  Next note Anybody else out there go to school with this guy?
  Alan (060798#150)
Copyright © 1998 by Alan W. Pollack. All Rights Reserved. This article may be reproduced, retransmitted, redistributed and otherwise propagated at will, provided that this notice remains intact and in place.