Song of the Week – Helter Skelter & Dear Prudence, The Beatles

Ignored           Obscured            Restored

The Beatles (more commonly known as the White Album) was released 50 years ago.  In celebration, a new, boxed set has just come out with remixes of the songs by Giles Martin, the son of the Beatles’ long time producer, George Martin.  The box includes the Esher demos – primitive recorded sketches of the songs, mostly written on the band’s trip to India, intended for learning them prior to entering the recording studio.  It also has previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions.

The Beatles has long been admired and excoriated for the range of styles it explores.  Its 30 songs cover a broad spectrum of styles – some more successfully than others.  This has led to a decades long debate among Beatles’ scholars about whether or not the album should have been edited down to a single album instead of a double, and which songs should have made the cut.

The breadth of the album also provided an opportunity for John and Paul to break out of their stereotyped songwriting roles.  Paul was known for his sentimental ballads (“Yesterday,” Michelle,” “Here, There and Anywhere”) and John for writing caustic rockers (“Day Tripper,” “Help,” “Run for Your Life”).  Not that the White Album didn’t hold true to those labels — i.e. Paul’s “I Will” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” and John’s “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” — but they also did a role reversal.

Paul’s “Helter Skelter” stands among the Beatles’ recordings with the hardest edge.

Who would have thought this track would evolve from the blues dirge heard on Take 2 (available on the Anthology series) into the up-tempo rocker we know from the White Album?

“Helter Skelter” was ruined for many people by its association with Charles Manson and his “family” of murderers.  I like the intro Bono made when U2 covered the song in concert – “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles.
We’re stealing it back.”  Hopefully we have all stolen it back now that Manson is dead and gone.

John contributed two beautifully sentimental cuts to The Beatles.  “Julia” is a tribute to his mother that abandoned him in his early childhood but came back into his life as a teenager only to be killed shortly afterward in a car accident.  The other was “Dear Prudence,” which was one of his finest compositions – not just for the White Album, but in his entire repertoire.

“Prudence” was written for Prudence Farrow (Mia’s sister) who was on the India meditation trip with them.  She became so focused on her practice that she locked herself in her room to meditate all day.  John tried to persuade her through song to “come out and play.”  At the end of the Esher demo John explains “Who was to know that [suppressed giggle] sooner or later she was to go completely berserk in the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.  All the people around were very worried about the girl, because she was going insane.  So we sang to her.” 

Although The Beatles has been criticized for being bloated with non-essential cuts (“Don’t Pass Me By,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Revolution #9”) it still holds up after 50 years.  In my opinion, it is the diversity, risk taking, and wide range of musical genres that account for its enduring charm.  There’s something for everyone.

Enjoy… until next week.

2 thoughts on “Song of the Week – Helter Skelter & Dear Prudence, The Beatles

  1. When the set came out with all the different versions I put it on shuffle and enjoyed being mindblown, and also not sure what was original release. I was cooking dammit.

    In terms of the life of the Beatles I think this is a record of terrific. Uneven. Odd sometimes, but full of fantastic songs, amazing mixes and orchestrations and weird genre forays.

    I mean, by god, it has Back in the USSR on it, which somehow encapsulates all of the Cold War and Rock and Roll in one tune. I don’t think you can beat that.

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