It took me several listens to decide which Beatles version of this song to bring you. I wasn’t really sure if I could discern the subtle differences, so I kept going back and forth between two of them. Then I decided – what the heck? – I’ll bring you both!
The “original” recording of “Helter Skelter” sounds rough and raw and primitive. Not unprofessional, by any means, but there’s a sense of wildness to it and an improvisational grit that’s common in early recordings without benefit (?) of modern technology. It has texture. There’s a remastered version from 2009 that sounds a shade cleaner. I think I prefer the first one, but just by a hair. I actually think, however, that some of the covers I’ve heard are better to listen to than either of these “originals”.
My first introduction to “Helter Skelter” was through the album Rattle and Hum. I think I knew there was a song named “Helter Skelter”; I knew it was by the Beatles, and I knew that Charles Manson had used it for his own purposes or whatever (resulting in a book by Vincent Bugliosi and a subsequent movie with the same title), but I had never actually heard the song before U2 recorded it.
I took an immediate liking to it. Even now, writing this, I’m rocking out in my chair, furiously bobbing my head and putting it on repeat. It’s done before a live audience so you have the energy and appreciation of the crowd, that big arena sound, and the skill, talent and enthusiasm of a band at the height of their worldwide popularity and acclaim. The U2 version takes a rock classic perverted by a madman and, with jangly, driving guitars, hard drum beats and Bono’s impassioned voice, reclaims it for the people.
I heard bits of the song, again, in the movie, Across the Universe. It’s performed as part of a scene that starts peacefully with the title song and then goes into the more rebellious fury of the cover battle song. It’s a powerful segment exemplifying the spirit of the 60’s: war, social unrest, groundbreaking activism, and a radical rethinking of the established view of government, citizenship, war, peace, death and life.
The figure that you glimpse performing “Helter Skelter” in the movie is actress/singer Dana Fuchs. I have her doing a full version in a live performance. It’s really nice to see this done by a female artist that rocks out just as hard, if not harder, than some of the male artists that usually tackle this. Her voice is strong and raspy ; bluesy and soulful. She has a take-no-prisoners intensity to this and just blows it out of the water.
Another take charge, balls to the wall female rocker that handles this without apology is Pat Benatar. Her commitment level is perfectly matched by her band. This is another great performance from a solid artist.
Motley Crue gives this the heavy metal treatment: big, bold, noisy and head-bangy. It doesn’t bring in anything different or innovative but it’s a fine enough version.
Sir Paul McCartney delivers a truly incredible performance of this during the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund concert in NYC. There’re a few instances of vocal strain, but so what? It’s Paul freakin’ McCartney!!! The dude continues to be fantastically awesome. At the age of 72 the man is still creating, still expressing – still kicking major ass onstage, and he never half-steps it. And his band (including Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters) is right there with him.
As for Siouxsie & The Banshees:
‘Nuff said. Moving on.
I happened upon a sample sound clip from Roger Daltrey of The Who. It’s from an all-star tribute album, The Art of McCartney, that’s due out on November 18. Just this tiny little snippet makes me excited to hear a full version. Should be quite wonderful.
The cover version from Oasis really had to grow on me. My first impression was that it was quite unremarkable, and I couldn’t really come up with what, in particular, made me see it that way. But after several replays I’m finding more of an appreciation for it. Paying more attention to the music and the arrangement on the back end of the song, without the vocals, helped me to reevaluate things. Now listening to the whole thing a little deeper I can see that the vocals fit in very well. It sounds like they were using some throwback technology that made the recording, especially the vocals, sound like they were recorded back in the day. There’s an almost tinny echo underneath the whole thing that takes it slightly out of time from modern musical production advances.
With Steven Tyler’s trademark yelps, Aerosmith stays faithful to the song while still maintaining their signature style. The guitar work is strong and on point, if a bit rushed. A really good interpretation.