This is one of the great and tragic misunderstandings in all of pop history. Helter Skelter is a song that Paul McCartney wrote because he wanted to one-up Pete Townshend and The Who, and also because:
“Umm, that came about just ’cause I’d read a review of a record which said, ‘and this group really got us 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. Pity they’ve done it. Must be great — really screaming record.’ And then I heard their record and it was quite straight, and it was very sort of 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, ‘cuz I like noise.”
To that end he used the helter skelter – a British term for a playground slide – as a metaphor for the up and down nature of life and the fall of the Roman Empire. If that doesn’t make much sense, don’t blame McCartney, he was probably very, very high. It was quite typical of The Beatles to grab inspiration from any random place like a playground or a scrap of newspaper and run with it. It’s also characteristic of the friendly rivalry between popular bands all blazing and racing and innovating in a small interwoven community. If The Who put out I Can See For Miles, ‘the loudest, rawest, dirtiest song [...] ever recorded’ then The Beatles are almost honor-bound to outdo the effort, even if it’s only in jest. So Helter Skelter is a loud and dirty but essentially silly rock song Paul McCartney dreamed up on a whim, but that’s not what Charlie Manson thought. Manson, as an American of very poor education, was unaware of what a helter skelter actually was. He thought it was a coded incitement to an apocalyptic race war of his own imagining. He thought that the already-violent civil rights movement would escalate into a global war in which all the white people would be massacred, after which the surviving blacks would realize they’d made a huge mistake and beg Charlie to be their ‘massa’. Or something along those lines. Meanwhile, The Beatles were sending out coded messages telling Charlie to get up and stir up that war by killing off a few ‘piggies’. Which is exactly what Charlie went and did. Which you can read all about in the famous book Helter Skelter, or watch the quite accurate movie of the same name. Nobody will ever associate the term helter skelter with an innocent playground slide again.