NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I might be working harder this summer than I do during the school year. If you work at the Central Office in my school district, then I didn’t really say that.
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Next week we’re going to look at Woodstock, but this week’s trivia question is about another big music festival from 1969. Specifically the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, which took place on December 6, 1969. Most people know about Meredith Hunter, the young man who was killed during the Rolling Stones set–in fact, we’ve talked about him in this space just a few weeks ago–so I’d like to talk about something else instead. The Festival was primarily organized by members of two different bands, one of which ended up not playing at the festival. The first band was the Jefferson Airplane. I’d like you to name the other band, which was so instrumental in putting the whole thing together, but which wound up not participating in the show itself.
And this may come as a surprise to you, but I’ll have the answer for you near the end of the show.
We’ve just passed the fiftieth anniversary of one of the worst memories of the 1960s, the Tate-LaBianca Murders committed by Charles Manson’s Family cult. Up until that point, they were a relatively harmless bunch of teenagers and young adults who might have gotten into relatively minor trouble, so when these murders took place, everyone was just horrified by it. And the closer people looked at things, the weirder and more nightmarish it got.
Now, the one thing that most people know about Charles Manson is that he was influenced by The Beatles, specifically the White Album. And, MORE specifically, the song “Helter Skelter”. Manson had traveled to Los Angeles in 1968, and when he returned to the ranch they lived on in Death Valley, he was convinced that The Beatles had seeded the entire album with clues for people to interpret regarding a war that was coming.
But let’s start with the big one, just so I can get out of the way that Manson had it all wrong from the jump. “Helter Skelter” is literally about a playground slide. And while it’s final incarnation is very down-and-dirty, and chaotically noisy, it didn’t really start out that way. But Paul McCartney had read an interview with Pete Townshend in which he talks about The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” as the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song the Who had ever recorded. Now, here’s where the story gets a little fuzzy, because McCartney has said that he wrote “Helter Skelter” as a response to “I Can See For Miles,” which he didn’t view as especially loud, or raw. Here’s one of the earlier takes of “Helter Skelter”:
[HELTER SKELTER TAKE 2]
It’s definitely got a hard edge to it, but it’s also done in a very bluesy style. It’s not until later on that the song started morphing into something harder. Here’s a take marked as Number 17:
[HELTER SKELTER TAKE 17]
So, a lot closer to the version we all know. Now, as I said before, a Helter Skelter is a playground slide, specifically a large spiral slide that winds around a central tower. And while the lyrics do slide into more of a sexual metaphor almost right away, it’s never meant to be more than a big, noisy song with lots of implied chaos, but the fact is that The Beatles generally planned stuff carefully. More often than not, when they made a mistake they somehow worked it back into the recording. At any rate, Manson took the phrase to mean that a race war was coming. Specifically, that the black people were going to rise up and completely obliterate the white race. Furthermore, according to Manson, once Helter Skelter was done with, the blacks wouldn’t know what to do afterward, and that’s when he and his family, who would have been hiding out in a cave the entire town, would come out of hiding and take over.
Another clue to Helter Skelter came from the song “Revolution Nine”, which Manson explained was The Beatles’ version of what Helter Skelter would be like. In short, Manson drew a line between the song and the last book of the Bible, specifically Chapter Nine of the Book of Revelation,which tells of a hellish bottomless pit opening up in the world, and a plague of human-like locusts with long hair coming to torture the unfaithful until an angel blows a trumpet to God. And I suppose if you don’t know what all that looks like, this recording could be the next best thing…I guess?
Nah. So here’s the thing about “Revolution Nine”: it’s obviously an avant-garde piece, and it’s been a controversial track since the day the album dropped, but it’s held a certain fascination for me specifically because of the different elements that it has, with the sound effects from Abbey Road’s sound library, audio clips of broadcasts, bits of John Lennon screaming, snippets of classical music, and a loop of an EMI engineer saying “Number Nine” repeatedly. Now, this wasn’t the Beatles’ first foray into avant-garde sound; there’s another audio collage called “Carnival of Light” that has never seen the light of day, and as of right now, it’s not likely to. But “Revolution 9” was something a little bit different; it’s a form of music called musique concrète, which translates literally into “concrete music”. It’s meant to be a collage that uses manipulated raw material. So, for instance, the “Number Nine” loop is originally from a test recording with the engineer saying “This is EMI test series number nine.” Well, Lennon’s birthday is on the ninth, so he considered it his lucky number, so he chopped out those two words and created a tape loop that he could bring into the mix at will. And even once it was loaded into the board, he’d ping-pong it through left and right channels, so that “Number” is in the left channel and “Nine” is in the right. Listen closely:
[NUMBER NINE clip to Revolution 1]
Beatles fans will remember that there are two versions of the original song “Revolution”. The one that was released as the B side of “Hey Jude” is a rocker and has a full finish on it, but the one on the White Album, titled “Revolution 1”, is much slower and has a fade to it. However, the song was originally much longer, with some takes going as long as seventeen minutes, as the song devolves into chaos and a bit of a musique concrete sound of its own. And there are elements of that longer ending that made it into Revolution Nine.
At any rate, Revolution 1 has the line where John Lennon sings “Don’t you know that you can count me out…in”, an attempt at being deliberately obscure. But the fast version had already come out AND gotten airplay, and that version has Lennon singing a definite “count me out.” So Manson saw that as The Beatles now being in favor of the violent overthrow. Unfortunately, he’d completely overlooked the part where Lennon sings “But if you want money for people with minds that hate/ All I can tell is brother you have to wait,” instead interpreting the line “We’d all love to see the plan” as a message from The Beatles to Manson, telling him that he needed to demonstrate that he could be the spark. Manson also overlooked the specific references to Chairman Mao in China, so there’s that.
There are two other songs that Manson tied directly to his Helter Skelter theory. The first one is “Blackbird,” which Paul McCartney said was specifically about civil rights in general, and more specifically about females who were working for racial equality. In Manson’s head, this song was the Beatles’ way of programming Black people to start the uprising. The word “rise” was a big one in Manson’s vocabulary, and it appears in this song as part of the lyrics, and also in “Revolution 9” as a long, drawn-out scream.
Then there was “Piggies,” a George Harrison-penned tune where he takes down the bourgeois folks as a kind of circular firing squad, willing to kill and eat each other metaphorically. Again, Manson interpreted this as the pigs being police, since it was a relatively new and common epithet for police, and the line that John Lennon contributed, “What they need’s a damned good whacking” was taken to mean that the pigs, the cops, the establishment in general, was what needed to be whacked.
On a similar note, Paul McCartney wrote a goofy little song about a cowboy named Rocky Sassoon, with some input from John Lennon and Donovan. At some point McCartney changed the character’s name to “Raccoon” because he thought it sounded more cowboy-like. Manson seized upon this as another thinly-veiled story of a black uprising, because of the word “coon” being in the song and the phrase “Rocky’s revival”.
But it doesn’t end there. Manson liked to re-name the people in his cult, and one of the names he gave out was to Susan Atkins, who he called “Sadie Mae Glutz.” Now, this was before the White Album came out, so having a person in the cult who shared a name with a person on the album was a minor coincidence at best. Until…
…after Atkins was arrested, she agreed to testify to the grand jury in order to avoid the death penalty. And that’s what led to the arrests of Manson and the others involved in the killings. But Manson was able to tie the song back to Atkins with the first couple of verses of the song.
Once again, however, Manson was misinterpreting things. “Sexy Sadie” was written about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, with whom The Beatles had just spent time in India. The Maharishi made sexual advances on Mia Farrow–and probably other women there–and John Lennon left the ashram with a bad taste in his mouth. It was the last thing he wrote before he departed. And while there are some audio clips where Lennon is singing the original title, [sung] “Maharishi,” George Harrison talked him into changing it.
OK, I’m going to hit you with three more quickies before I wrap up here.
The song “I Will” has the line “Your song will fill the air/ Sing it loud so I can hear you” – which was a message telling him to make his own album to spread the message that he was a resurrection of Jesus Christ. The phrase “Hollywood Song” in “Honey Pie” meant that Manson was a singing Messiah to boot. Manson also claimed that there were messages in “Yer Blues”, “Don’t Pass Me By” and the Magical Mystery Tour track “Blue Jay Way” suggesting that the Beatles were looking for him. There are numerous accounts that the Manson cult members made multiple attempts to contact the Beatles to get them to come out before the war went down, but so far as anyone knows, nobody heard about it at the other end.
And what did the Beatles think of all this? Well, in the 1980 Playboy interview, John Lennon was quoted as saying, “Manson was just an extreme version of the people who came up with the ‘Paul is dead’ thing or who figured out that the initials to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ were LSD and concluded I was writing about acid.”
Ringo is quoted in Rolling Stone as saying that he knew both Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, and it was a very rough time for him. George Harrison and Paul McCartney addressed it in the 2000 Beatles Anthology book, with George saying that it was upsetting to be associated with Charles Manson, and Paul kind of denying that he’d looked at the whole thing too closely, but he did say that you don’t write songs for reasons like that.
In fact, McCartney avoided playing the song at all in concerts until just a few years ago, in 2004, although it’s been a staple of his shows since then.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to name the second of the two bands that were instrumental in organizing and promoting the Altamont Free Festival, the concert during which an audience member was killed by the Hell’s Angels while the Rolling Stones played onstage.
The first band, as I mentioned earlier, was the Jefferson Airplane. Now, the Rolling Stones were always part of the plan, but they weren’t a crucial part of planning or promotion. That part fell to the third big headliner, The Grateful Dead. They were supposed to go on stage between Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Rolling Stones, but when they arrived at the venue, they heard about the deteriorating situation, which included the Airplane’s Marty Balin being knocked out by one of the Hell’s Angels when he tried to intercede in an off-stage altercation. So the Dead, thinking that security was getting to be a problem, refused to play and left the area.
Afterward, Rolling Stone Magazine, calling it “rock and roll’s all-time worst day,” wrote: “That’s the way things went at Altamont—so badly that the Grateful Dead, prime organizers and movers of the festival, didn’t even get to play.”
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Next week, we’re going to look at Woodstock! Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.