Did the Beatles Record the First Heavy Metal Song?
Swiss metal outfit Samael are the latest to weigh in on the age-old debate
Published Dec 13, 2021Popular mythology surrounding the origins of metal all points to 1968, with the founding of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple — but did the Beatles beat them all to the punch of recording the first heavy metal song that same year?
Swiss symphonic black metal band Samael are throwing their hats into the ring of the long-held argument that "Helter Skelter" was, in fact, the first song of the genre put to tape. They're commemorating the occasion with a cover of the track from the White Album, which celebrated its 53rd anniversary this year.
Now, you may be wondering: how did "Helter Skelter" — a bit of an anomaly in the Beatles' discography — come about? Legend has it that Paul McCartney read an interview with Pete Townshend where the guitarist described the Who's 1967 hit "I Can See for Miles" as the "loudest, rawest, dirtiest" song the band had ever recorded.
It should be noted that many have also cited "I Can See for Miles" as the first heavy metal song ever, as well as the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" from 1964 ahead of it. However, the genre marker also maintains an obvious association with "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf.
In 2018, McCartney told NME that he's never claimed credit for having recorded the first heavy metal song, reiterating that he was just trying to be like the Who.
Of how "Helter Skelter" came to be, he had explained to Radio Luxembourg in a November 1968 interview around the time of its initial release [via Blabbermouth]:
I'd read a review of a record where it said, "This group really goes wild — there's echo on everything, they're screaming their heads off." And I just remember thinking, "Oh, it'd be great to do one like that. Pity they've done it. Must be great; a really screaming record." And then I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was sort of very sophisticated — it wasn't rough and screaming and tape echo at all. So I thought, "Oh, well, we'll do one like that, then." And I had this song called "Helter Skelter" which is just a ridiculous song. So we did it like that, because I like noise.
Also fans of noise, 1987-formed extremists Samael said in a statement:
To the question, "What is the first metal song ever recorded?," we've decided to answer "Helter Skelter" from the Beatles. To commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the first release of "Helter Skelter" and consequently the birth of heavy metal, we present you with a video of our own version of the song. The video exposes the dark side of technology and spirituality, with numerous references to the time frame in which the song was originally released. Music-wise, we've tried to stay true to the original version of the track but we've approached it like it is our own composition. The song appears on our latest album Hegemony.
While the Swiss outfit are certainly not the first to put "Helter Skelter" through the full metal treatment or call it the first-ever song recorded in the genre, they're giving both the song and the debate new life with their latest video.
Hear Samael's take on the heavy metal-birthing song below, alongside the original version.
Read Exclaim!'s review of Peter Jackson's new documentary The Beatles: Get Back.