The White Album: Side Three

22. Sexy Sadie

Primary Songwriter: Lennon

Recorded: July 19 and 24, and August 13 and 21, 1968 at Abbey Road

Things you may not know about this song include:

1. Lennon wrote this little kiss-off as he was packing to leave India in late spring, 1968, upset over his discovery that the Maharishi had made a pass at one of the women in the Beatles’ entourage.

2. Charles Manson thought that the song had been written about one of his followers, the whacked-out soon-to-be-murderer Susan Atkins, since he had nicknamed her Sadie Mae Glutz before the song came out! (The logic is impressively lysergic on this one, no?)

3. This was one of my favorite songs for a couple months when I was 12, and also again when I was 17. It is not even my favorite Beatles song now.

4. Lennon’s first attempt at the lyrics was outstandingly straightforward in its anger and bitterness: “You little twat! Who the fuck do you think you are? Who the fuck do you think you are? Oh, you cunt!” These lyrics were eventually softened to “Maharishi, what have you done? You made a fool of everyone.” Improvement?

5. When I first heard Radiohead’s “Karma Police” I thought it was a rip-off of “Sexy Sadie”, and then Thom Yorke told people that it sort of was. I still don’t know how to feel about this.

6. Harrison persuaded Lennon to change the lyrics after they got home from India because he found them to be offensive (and he wasn’t talking about the swearing! He was talking about using the name Maharishi — he suggested “Sexy Sadie” instead). So, instead of this being a song about the crushing disillusionment Lennon felt at seeing his idol revealed to be a false prophet, it ended up sounding like a mean-spirited jab at a loose woman. See point #3.

7. Back at Abbey Road Studios, Lennon scrawled the lyrics onto a piece of wood for some reason (which reason I’m guessing was drug-related, since these were the fucking Beatles, so you’d think he could have found paper and maybe even a pen if he’d wanted to) and this piece of wood was sold recently at auction by Starr’s one-time wife Maureen. For a lot of dough.

8. The woman that the Maharishi made the pass at was not Mia Farrow.

9. I actually know someone (I am not making this up) who tried to lose his virginity to “Sexy Sadie”, but was detained, reasons unclear, on the way to the, you know, forum, and he ended up having what was already bound to be an awkward and anxious first-time sexual experience to the cacophonic dissonance of “Helter Skelter”. Burn.

10. At one point during recording, the song had been clocking in at eight minutes. See point #9. He just might have made it.

Stuart Henderson

23. Helter Skelter

Primary Songwriter: McCartney

Recorded: July 18, and September 9-10, 1968 at Abbey Road

We got the engineers and George Martin to hike up the drum sound and really get it as loud and horrible as it could and we played it and said, ‘No, it still sounds too safe, it’s got to get louder and dirtier.’ We tried everything we could to dirty it up and in the end you can hear Ringo say, ‘I’ve got blisters on my fingers.’ That wasn’t a joke put-on: his hands were actually bleeding at the end of the take, he’d been drumming so ferociously.– Paul McCartney

Having written such popular mellow tracks like “Yesterday”, “Michelle”, and “Blackbird”, it was often assumed by casual listeners that McCartney played the rosy-eyed sap to Lennon’s rocker persona. On the contrary, not only did Macca possess the best pure rock ‘n’ roll voice in the band, but he was responsible for some of the Beatles’ most ferocious tunes, from “I’m Down” to “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” to the mother of them all, “Helter Skelter”. Of course, venturing into the heavier side of rock was never exactly the Beatles’ forte, especially in 1968 when band after band continued to push the envelope, but that didn’t mean they weren’t up for a challenge. After reading a Pete Townshend quote in which the guitarist boasted about the rawness of the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”, McCartney, in an inspired moment of “if they can do that why can’t we?”, penned a track that would prove to be every bit as primal, potent, and loud as not only the Who, but Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge, and White Light/White Heat-era Velvet Underground as well. Yet again, it was proof that these four astonishingly versatile musicians were capable of anything.

Initially recorded as a series of extended, slinky, blues-inspired jams in July 1968 (the unreleased 27-minute third take achieved legendary status among fans), by the time the band recorded the album version on the night of September 9 with 21-year-old assistant producer Chris Thomas at the helm in place of an absent George Martin, “Helter Skelter” had morphed into a full-throttle rocker. No fewer than 18 takes were recorded that evening, with the last one making the cut. The sweat, the blood, and that uneasy balance between adrenalin-fueled mayhem and late-night fatigue is all palpable throughout the song’s four and a half minutes.

That jarring staccato riff kicks it off, more dissonant than any other Beatles track prior, McCartney joining in with his famous first line, playfully referencing the children’s spiral slide (“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide”), his voice ascending ominously (“When I stop and I turn and I go for a ride / Till I get to the bottom”) as Starr adds nervous snare beats, McCartney then exploding into a maniacal, out-of-breath scream: “Till I see you AGAIN!” On that cue, the entire band launches into an absolutely vicious groove, McCartney and Harrison on guitar, Lennon providing a thick bass line, as McCartney continues with one of his greatest vocal performances, his voice ragged and hoarse, underscored by the famous descending seven-note riff in the chorus. And like a bunch of precocious kids fooling around while the headmaster’s away, Lennon and band assistant Mal Evans add some hilariously amateurish saxophone and trumpet respectively during the outro, which fades out, in, out, and back in again, in time for us to hear Starr add three exhausted cymbal crashes, fling his drumsticks, and let out his infamous exclamation.

The ambiguity of the title works brilliantly throughout the song. Is it about a person’s descent into madness? The dizzying temptation of pure, physical lust? Or just about a kid playing on a slide? On the other hand, a creepy little dude in California named Charles Manson had other ideas what the song was about, and after the grisly events of August 8 and 9, 1969, “Helter Skelter” would gain more notoriety than McCartney and the Beatles had ever intended. But in the end, the song far outlasted that controversy, with many prominent artists recording covers, and while U2’s obnoxious 1988 rendition is arguably the most famous, Siouxie and the Banshees’ feral 1978 interpretation, Mötley Crüe’s pulverizing 1983 cover, and Hüsker Dü’s cacophonous 1986 deconstruction actually come closest to equaling the pure, raw, inimitable power of the original.

Adrien Begrand