A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why did Charles Manson think "Helter Skelter" was about a race war?

March 13, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Why did Charles Manson believe that the Beatles song "Helter Skelter" was about the upcoming race war? Are there any documents that you own that say why in hell he would think this, other than the fact that he is crazy?

Cecil replies:

I'd say the fact that he's crazy pretty well covers it. "Helter Skelter," which appeared on the Beatles' White Album, was Paul McCartney's attempt to outrock Pete Townshend of the Who. Some Beatles fans describe the song as heavy metal, which is putting it a bit strongly. But it had more energy than most McCartney compositions of the period, and the descending refrain "helter skelter" lent it an edginess that made it stick in the mind.

The song's musical qualities had very little to do with its subject matter, however. "In England, home of the Beatles, 'helter skelter' is another name for a slide in an amusement park," Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi tells us in his book about the case, Helter Skelter. The Oxford English Dictionary further clarifies that a helter skelter is "a towerlike structure used in funfairs and pleasure grounds, with an external spiral passage for sliding down on a mat." Recall the opening line: "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." It's a joke, get it? The Rolling Stones might do this faux bad-guy thing about putting a knife right down your throat, but the ever-whimsical McCartney figured he'd rock the house singing about playground equipment.

All this went over the head of Charles Manson. He thought Helter Skelter was the coming race war and the White Album was a call to arms. If you're in a certain frame of mind you can understand some of this, e.g., the "piggies" in the tune of the same name, who need a "damn good whacking," and the sounds of gunfire in "Revolution 9." But to think that the line "you were only waiting for this moment to arise" in the song "Blackbird" was an invitation to black people to start an insurrection … sure, Charlie. Whatever you say. Now put down that gun.

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