Helter Skelter is obviously not The Banshees’ most famous Beatles cover, but I’ve always preferred it to their version of Dear Prudence. Whereas the band’s Prudence, is quite a faithful rendition of the original, their Helter Skelter turns The Fab Four’s heaviest recording into something delightfully weird.
In Ian MacDonald’s wonderful book about The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, he utterly slams Helter Skelter. According to MacDonald, in attempting to emulate the heavy rock of The Who, Cream and Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, “comically overreach themselves”, “reproducing the requisite bulldozer design but on a Dinky Toy scale”. He calls the result “ridiculous” and “a literally drunken mess”. This is coming from a fan who has written extensively about their brilliance and cultural impact and who elsewhere in the book refers to them as “far and away the best-ever pop group”. I agree with most of what MacDonald writes in Revolution in the Head, but not his assessment of Helter Skelter; it’s thrilling and I love it.
Siouxsie and the Banshees’ are clearly also fans of Helter Skelter. Their version doesn’t attempt to replicate the frantic, metal of the original, instead instilling it with an unsettling, post-punk threat. While the original kicks off out of nowhere, like an ambush, the cover couldn’t start slower. Four, long-held bass notes are played before a sparse, atonal guitar chimes in and it’s nearly a minute before Siouxsie begins to sing – “As I get to the bottom” – and a drum beat, of sorts, starts up – “I go back to the top of the slide”. The tempo is almost painfully slow, until she sings “see you again”, and it accelerates and becomes recognisable.
Neither the singing nor the guitars closely follow the original melodies – Siouxsie stamps her own charisma on the vocals and the guitars seem to fuse Paul McCartney’s riff with The Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog. The descending guitar part on the chorus is replaced by a vocal part, “Helter Skelter, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na,” and while the original has a false finish, this one cuts off with a cymbal crash midway through a line. For something so confrontational, from a band with such an unsmiling persona, there’s a lot humour in the song and it’s got an uplifting feel about it.
There’s a great 1983 live version of it here. This is from the time that Robert Smith was in the band, and the YouTube comments quickly descend – as YouTube comments do – into offensive stuff about him and The Cure. At least that’s better than the comments on the video to their Dear Prudence cover. Bob’s in that video too, arsing about, badly portraying vertigo in Venice with the rest of The Banshees, but 90% of the commenters are far more concerned with Siouxsie’s armpit hair. Sorry, I know I shouldn’t read the comments. Incidentally, Robert Smith and Banshees’ bassist Steven Severin, had a side-project at this time called The Glove, which is well worth checking out https://youtu.be/xJ9BNGl5yOs.
Siouxsie and the Banshees also released an excellent live cover of The Velvet Undergrounds’ All Tomorrow’s Parties, as a B-side to their 1994 single O Baby https://youtu.be/aG5bTcWuKhs. I guess Dear Prudence will always be the cover version that defines them, but their Helter Skelter is the one that does it for me, especially when you consider the terrible things that have happened to that song since at the hands of Motley Crue, Oasis and U2 – I urge you NOT to click on any of these links!