A “helter skelter” is an amusement park ride with a slide built in a spiral around a high tower (it’s also British slang, meaning “in disorderly haste or confusion”)
Paul McCartney – who penned the song – used the song as a response to critics who accused him of writing too many ballads. The proto-heavy metal musical backing emerged as Paul saw Pete Townshend saying The Who’s “I Can See for Miles” was “the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock and roll record you’ve ever heard", so he decided to up the ante, while also “using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom; the rise and fall of the Roman Empire – and this was the fall, the demise.”
Paul McCartney only started playing the song live in 2004, but it has since become a mainstay of his setlist. Before that, “Helter Skelter” was covered by many artists, including Siouxsie And The Banshees and Motley Crue. And most infamously, Charles Manson used “Helter Skelter” as the centerpiece of his weird beliefs that led to 8 murders.
We used to have a laugh about this, that or the other, in a light-hearted way, and some intellectual would read us, some symbolic youth generation wants to see something in it. We also took seriously some parts of the role, but I don’t know what Helter Skelter has to do with knifing someone. I’ve never listened to it properly, it was just a noise.
-John Lennon to Rolling Stone, 1970