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Metal’s Patient Zero: Helter Skelter


Palm muting, screamed vocals, dissonant guitar lines, highly compressed drum sounds, and actual blood on a drumkit. No, I’m not describing Aborted’s latest recording session, I’m describing the recording of “Helter Skelter” by The Beatles. The Beatles are credited with numerous “firsts” in music history. The rise of heavy metal and the mentality of being heavy for the sake of heavy, however, is one of the more overlooked ones. Most would give these accolades to fellow English groups like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or possibly their american counterparts in Blue Cheer. However, it was the Beatles who recorded the song that would become the blueprint for heavy metal in September 1968, one year and one month before the recording of Black Sabbath’s eponymous first album. The Beatles beat Black Sabbath to the punch thanks to Paul McCartney’s disappointment with the Who’s single “I Can See for Miles” and his newfound ambition to make the loudest song recorded to date.

McCartney was elated when he heard Pete Townsend of the Who proclaim that his band’s October 1967 single, “I Can See For Miles,” was the loudest, dirtiest song ever recorded. Unfortunately, he was disappointed upon hearing it, and appropriately so. There’s no denying it’s a catchy tune, but heavy? Not really. The guitars are highly distorted but they’re paper thin. They have no oomph or power whatsoever. The drum sound is all cymbals with an almost inaudible kick drum. The vocals are sung with the cleanest possible delivery and the lyric focuses on an all-seeing jilted-lover, standard fare for a sixties rock song.

“Helter Skelter” is heavier than “I Can See For Miles” in every area and possesses aggression, an essential component of metal, in spades. The dissonance of the opening guitar riff creates an atmosphere of unease and tension before Paul screams, “and I see you again,” at the top of his lungs while the guitar drones on an open E struck with such ferocity that the note goes audibly sharp. Where the guitars on “I Can See For Miles” sound brittle, the tone on “Helter Skelter” is full. This chunky guitar tone adds a level of aggression to the bluesy chorus riff absent from the guitars on “I Can See For Miles” and features down-picked palm-muting, a staple technique of metal guitar playing. McCartney’s viciously-delivered vocals add further heaviness to the performance. Though the lyrics appear to be nothing more than a nursery rhyme about a trip up and down a slide, McCartney revealed to biographer Barry Miles that they symbolize the inevitable fall of empire, a topic that fills entire albums by metal bands like Megadeth on Peace Sells…but Who’s Buying, Lamb of God on Ashes of the Wake, and countless others.

Ringo’s ferocious drumming provides the final nail in this proto-metal coffin. McCartney insisted so adamantly that the drums be as loud as possible that he nearly drove the recording engineers insane according to Barry Miles’s 1997 biography of McCartney. Ringo pushed himself to the breaking point as well, striking his kit with such force that he screams in pain at the end of the song, exclaiming that he has blisters on his fingers. His bodily sacrifice provides the track with the punchy, high-compressed drum sound that propels the tune forward into full-on headbanging territory.

The final result is a song which polarizes and unsettles listeners. Some critics, like Ian MacDonald who wrote “Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties,” described the song as “thrashing” and “unlistenable.” While not terms commonly used to describe Beatles songs, these adjectives are now badges of honor within the metal community. By screaming where The Who sang, riffing where The Who strummed, and causing bodily harm to themselves for the sake of performance, The Beatles had created the blueprint for heavy metal.

Through the Beatles, competition conceived heavy metal and it’s only natural for a genre born out of competition to retain a competitive mindset. The Beatles combined all the heaviest elements of rock in an attempt to be louder and dirtier than The Who, and in doing so, finally molded rock music into the blueprint of heavy metal. Since then that model copied and tweaked further by the first true heavy metal bands like Black Sabbath, who were avid fans of the Beatles, but strove to make heavier music than their peers. After the dawn of thrash metal, Slayer sought to show the world what heavy really was with Reign in Blood. Cannibal Corpse later aspired to be heavier than thrash metal with their gore-obsessed brand of punishing death metal. Perpetually chasing this white dragon has led us into an age of detuned nine-string guitars, ridiculously high-gain amps, pig-squeals and the “I’m more brutal than thou” attitudes common in sub-genres like deathcore and slam death metal. Clearly, the idea of being heavy for the sake of heavy that started with “Helter Skelter” is alive and well. As a fan of heavy metal and in the interest of the continual evolution and longevity of the genre, I hope we never get to the bottom of that slide.

-Chris Butler

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