It’s often puzzled me that I’ve never heard a decent cover version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Yes, it’s the Beatles — arguably the best recording act the world has seen, and not to be taken lightly by prospective imitators.
But like many of the Beatles’ best-covered songs (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Come and Get It”) “Helter Skelter” is written from the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll playbook. It has the horsepower that should make lesser bands sound better than they are. With its buzzsaw guitar intro, blood-curdling vocals and the refrain’s killer machine-gun riff, it’s a muscle car just begging for a worthy rock act to test drive. And many have tried. It’s not that they’re bad. They simply are missing something, and I think I’ve figured out what it is: Ringo Starr.
History has been kind in assigning proper belated recognition to Ringo Starr, but he still ranks alongside producer George Martin as an overlooked staple of the Beatles arsenal, a critical piece of their musical machinery in the vein of McCartney’s Rickenbacker bass or Abbey Road’s magical mixing board. Ringo was much more than that, and “Helter Skelter” shows why.
We only need to listen to the aforementioned pretenders who’ve come up short in taking on this formidable classic: Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Motley Crue and, yes, U2. These are no slouches. Yet each one focuses too heavily on the front end of the Beatles’ original — the guitar and vocals — while, you guessed it, overlooking Ringo Starr’s unique contribution on the rhythm side. As a result, the drummers tend to follow the frenetic pace of the song — like that muscle car, it’ll go as fast as you want it to. And that’s where the problem lies. “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to write the loudest, brashest song he could, and the guitars and his vocals do their part to make that happen. But what Ringo adds is the mayhem. He doesn’t pace the song, he bludgeons it. He smashes his way around the requisite fills, abusing his kit with such primitive fury (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) it likely got Keith Moon’s attention. And it keeps the song from gaining too much form, which is exactly the point.
It’s a lesson on how a great drummer can make a song better by working against its grain, becoming a counterbalance of sorts. On the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, Ringo takes the opposite approach. The song opens with an unfathomable soup of organ and strings before he counts in with a steady beat to provide much-needed structure under the wash of instruments and John Lennon’s lyrical stream of consciousness. Many drummers would say “this is a trippy song, I need to be trippy.” Not Ringo. He played straight man to Lennon’s clown in the same way he took a high-octane, quarter-mile McCartney rocker for a punishing off-road ride. It’s a rare talent indeed, and rare talent, especially when unrecognized, defies imitation.