Typically, neither John nor Paul took George’s compositions seriously. Frustrated, he persuaded his friend Eric Clapton to the studio, where the presence of an outsider made everyone shape up. “Paul got on the piano and played a nice intro and they all took it more seriously,” Harrison remembered. The resulting song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, written with the Eastern concept of everything being relative in mind, boasts a brooding darkness that Clapton’s solos ignite and intensify. Rock guitar was never more passionate than this, and its overwrought crescendos set the bar high for all subsequent axe heroes.
And then there was Ringo. Carelessly benched by his self-absorbed colleagues, the drummer temporarily ‘left’ the band for a fortnight in August 1968, though not before recording Don’t Pass Me By. While Ringo finally nailed its lyric nursing a curry-ravaged intestinal tract in Rishikesh, he’d been working on the song for years. Ill-served by a throwaway, guitar-free, piano-heavy McCartney arrangement, the White Album’s incarnation of Don’t Pass Me By practically oom-pahs. Yet buried beneath the customary ‘comedy’ treatment accorded any Ringo vocal performance lay a southern rock exemplar par excellence. Neither his fellow Beatles nor George Martin realised the full boogie-rocking potential of Don’t Pass Me By’s driving, country-laced insistence. But the Georgia Satellites certainly did, granting Ringo’s pièce de résistance the barn-storming arrangement it deserved on their 1986 debut album.
With Lennon focused on Yoko, Harrison and Starr sidelined and George Martin’s influence receding, it was Paul who grasped the reins to gallop the White Album’s sound in the general direction of rock’s future.
As September wore on and sessions ground toward their fraught conclusion, the four Beatles set about recording the loudest and dirtiest performance of their career. Eighteen takes later, they had Helter Skelter, one of the prime progenitors of heavy metal.
“I read a review of a record [The Who’s I Can See For Miles] which said that the group goes really wild with echo and screaming and everything,” McCartney said in ’68, “And I thought, ‘That’s a pity, I would have liked to do something like that.’ Then I heard it and it was nothing like it. It was straight and sophisticated. So we did [Helter Skelter]…I like noise.”
While very much a group effort by comparison to the majority of the White Album’s performances, Helter Skelter was most definitely Paul’s baby. Both Helter Skelter and their other proto-metal experiment, the re-cut version of Revolution, attained a level of sonic extremity later disparaged by Harrison and Lennon.
“Revolution is pretty good and it grooves along,” said Harrison, 30 years later, “but I don’t particularly like the noise it makes. And I say ‘noise’ because I didn’t like the distorted sound of John’s guitar.” Lennon was even keener to distance himself from Helter Skelter. “That’s Paul completely,” he said in 1980. “It has nothing to do with anything, and least of all to do with me.”
Helter Skelter’s influence continued beyond heavy rock and metal into mid-70s punk. Siouxsie And The Banshees recorded the song for their debut album, 1978’s The Scream (though possibly more for its macabre association with Charles Manson, whose bizarre interpretation of the song’s lyric as an incitement to commit mass murder only served to accentuate its enduring appeal in certain quarters).
Perhaps more significantly, Helter Skelter’s violent nativity was witnessed by one of punk’s leading sonic architects. By this point, George Martin had effectively thrown in the towel by going away on holiday, though not before scribbling a quick note for his rookie assistant Chris Thomas to “make yourself available to The Beatles”.
Thomas (who eventually went on to produce Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols) was to enjoy something of a baptism of fire: George Harrison running around the studio with a flaming ashtray on his head ‘doing an Arthur Brown’ while Paul McCartney screamed ever more demented vocal takes for Helter Skelter.