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Forty years ago this month, the world awoke to news of one of the most bizarre series of murders ever committed. In Los Angeles on August 9th 1969, actress Sharon Tate and four of her house guests were found butchered with such ferocity their bodies were barely recognisable. Written in Tate's blood on the door of her Hollywood residence was the inscription, "Pig".
The following night, a middle-aged couple was stabbed to death with similar brutality. Again, obscure words and phrases were found daubed in blood around their home. Police initially drew a blank on who was responsible for such monstrous acts. It was only after months of extensive research that they connected Charles Manson and his weird band of followers called “The Family” to the crimes. While the detail of the murders is shocking enough, Charles Manson’s obsession with the Beatles was equally weird. In this exclusive excerpt from “Charles Manson: Coming Down Fast”, Simon Wells reveals the background to Manson’s extraordinary interpretation on the Beatles’ White Album, and how it sparked the most sensational crimes of the 20th century.
Since 1967, the Manson Family had voraciously lapped up the Beatles’ catalogue, utilising the group’s psychedelic imagery as a soundtrack to their own lives. However by late 1968, no one, least of Charlie, was prepared for what was contained in the group’s forthcoming album release. Following the Family’s relocation to the Californian desert, Manson’s proclamations on an impending apocalypse had begun to gain heavy momentum. Although Charlie’s followers would consume anything that spilled from their leader’s mouth, he knew that aside from his well-thumbed biblical references, he had little current evidence to support his apocalyptic ravings. Dropping in seemingly by osmosis, the Beatles’ White Album went a huge way to endorse every atom of his frenzied discourses. To Charlie, this was ample proof that a two-way thought-line had been established between him and the minds of the Beatles. Heightened by their use of LSD, the bare anonymity of the desert landscape, and Manson’s own spiralling idolatry, the album’s release was nothing short of a major revelation. If elsewhere, the more erudite of music critics saw the Beatles redraw the narrow perimeters of “pop” music with the White Album, for Charles Manson it was the nothing less than a call to arms.
With enough time to process the album’s chimera, Charlie revealed his findings at a party on New Year’s Eve, 1968, in Death Valley. In honour of his startling epiphany, Manson had purchased a battery operated record player to take to the desert to preview the album. Loyal foot soldier Susan Atkins, AKA Sadie Mae Glutz, at that point acquiescent to all of Charlie’s ever revolving philosophies, recalled the night Manson revealed his seismic convergence with the Beatles.
Susan Atkins: “It had a tremendous impact on our lives, especially Charlie’s. One night, when many of us were playing records and listening to the album, Charlie said, “They’re speaking to me.” He was convinced that he had some sort of apocalyptic connection with the Beatles. I never fully understood it, but Charlie, our unchallenged leader, was deeply affected. And I and most of the others believed that, in some way, “Helter Skelter”, the end of the world, was “coming down fast.””
Regardless of the sheer craziness of these associations, Manson had allegedly pinpointed thirteen tracks off the White Album that correlated in with his views. While a lot of the detail concerning Charlie’s interpretations arose during later murder trials (much of it, it must be said, from disaffected associates of Manson) these bizarre connections are worthy of investigation, even if just to give some verisimilitude to the receptive atmosphere surrounding Manson and his followers. Indeed, if Charlie truly believed what he’d deciphered in the recordings, it presents a vivid conduit into the eventual carnival of terror.
To attempt to unravel this extraordinary conundrum, one has to look at where the Beatles’ heads were at this point, and equally, how their wholly unintentional ambivalence could draw in the likes of Manson. Many of the White Album’s compositions were constructed in India during their meditation stint with the Maharishi in early 1968. With little outside influence and an absence of stimulants, the lyrics drew heavily on the Beatles’ inner psyche. With a brief to present a starker canvas than the dense colours that had occupied Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, the album presented the most disparate collection of songs the group had ever produced. Nonetheless, despite this more uncluttered approach, Beatlemanics swiftly honed in on the thirty tracks in search of greater symbolism; not least, one Charles Manson.
While John Lennon’s material on the White Album provided Manson with considerable ammunition, he’d find some common ground with several of McCartney’s contributions. Although the tracks “Helter Skelter” and “Blackbird” would be referenced overtly, some of Paul’s sweeter tunes would also prompt a response from Manson. “I Will” was one fairly innocuous love song that McCartney had written in India. To Charlie though, he believed that the tune was seeking to elicit a clarion call for himself; the Beatles asking Manson to pitch his voice “loud” so that they could hear him over in the UK. Another McCartney track, the skittish and untamed, “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”, was seen by Manson as the Beatles acknowledging the violent street theatre being displayed across America during 1968.
Even McCartney’s most embarrassing offering to the collection; the pithy, music hall homage “Honey Pie,” didn’t escape Manson’s receptive ears. With references to a music career that had “hit the big time” in America, Charlie believed that the cute Beatle was relating his own recording ambitions. Later in the song, Manson would detect what he believed was a direct invitation from the Beatles for him to “sail” over to England to meet them. Later, the song speaks of this intention to meet up, but the protagonist is too “lazy” to make any overtures. As a seasoned Beatlemaniac, Manson knew that the group had long abandoned touring, and so were ostensibly keener for him to make the trip over the Atlantic.
As the creative runt of the Beatles, the diminutive Ringo Starr would only produce four contributions to the group’s oeuvre during their entire career. While two were only co-writing credits, Ringo would carry with him a track from 1964 called “Don’t Pass Me By” for the White Album. While the song is at best, inane and elementary, Manson read far greater inference into the song than had ever been designed. With Starr’s lyrics talking about listening for approaching “footsteps,” Charlie believed that the Fab Four were anticipating his own advance towards them.
The unobtrusive, yet nonetheless able George Harrison would contribute an unprecedented four songs to the White Album. Normally, he’d be allotted customary space for one, maybe two tracks to the band’s LP releases. However, for the White Album, Harrison would score a quartet of largely competent songs. The track “Piggies” was an allegorical, yet powerful swipe at the expense of the rich and ruling classes. The deeply sardonic Harrison would hang out his most sarcastic colours on this song, at one point suggesting that these so called “piggies” needed a right royal "whacking." While Harrison’s reference to the word “pig” was purely metaphorical, in America’s underground, the term held a far greater symbolism. Notably, the revolutionary Black movement had broadened the “pig” symbol beyond the slang for police towards all tiers of the white establishment. Black Panther party leader at time; Bobby Seale, frequently peppered his speeches with diatribes against the “Pigs”, unwittingly handing Manson’s Beatles association on a plate.
Bobby Seale: “The only way that the world is ever going to be free is when the youth of this country moves with every principle of human respect and with every soft spot we have in our hearts for human life, in a fashion that lets the “Pig” power structure know that when people are racistly (sic) and fascistically attacked, the youth will put a foot in their butts and make their blood chill.”
Cleary harbouring his own grievances, Manson would tailor the Panther’s manifesto towards the affluent of Hollywood, and pertinently, those who were denying him a shot at a recording career. While conceding the song’s allegorical status, Harrison would ultimately play down any wider inferences, however bold they may have seemed to others at the time.
George Harrison: 'Piggies' is a social comment. I was stuck for one line in the middle until my mother came up with the lyric, 'What they need is a damn good whacking' which is a nice simple way of saying they need a good hiding. It needed to rhyme with 'backing,' 'lacking,' and had absolutely nothing to do with American policemen or Californian shagnasties!"
Despite these nebulous associations, other tracks on the album would appear strangely coincidental to Manson and his followers. Not least, was the licentious track, “Sexy Sadie.” Not that the wider public would have known it at the time, but John Lennon’s oblique paean to a shunned lover was heavily coded. Written in a fit of pique following his trip to India, Lennon hoped that signals from the song would travel towards the Maharishi, who he’d had fallen out with following some (unsubstantiated, as it turned out) sexual allegations.
Months before the White Album’s release, Manson had christened the sex and drug crazed Susan Atkins, Sadie Mae Glutz. She’d enjoyed the dubious moniker, regardless of anyone, least of all Charlie, attributing any verifiable origin to it. However, no one within the Family unit was prepared for the Beatles seemingly rubber stamping her vibrant presence onto vinyl. This alleged synchronicity contributed hugely in validating Charlie’s observations to his followers; especially as the frazzled Sadie was adept in turning on all and sundry, while breaking all the known rules. Not surprisingly, the loquacious Sadie was characteristically cock-a-hoop with the inference, and would go into an orgasmic dance routine every time the track was played.
In “Rocky Racoon,” Paul McCartney’s capricious paean to the vaudeville of the Wild West, Manson drew a racial inference with the syllable “coon.” Further references in the song would relate to gun battles and Bibles which to Charlie verified his prediction of an impending black uprising. During a Rolling Stone magazine interview with Manson in 1970, Charlie elucidated on his “Rocky Racoon” theory, even giving credence to the McCartney’s line concerning “Rocky’s revival,” which he saw as the black community’s bloody resurgence.
Charles Manson: " ‘Coon’. You know that's a word they use for black people... ‘Revival’ ‘Re-Vival’. It means coming back to life. The black man is going to come into power again. 'Gideon checks out' means that it's all written out there in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelations.”
John Lennon’s quasi-junkie song, the fractured, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, was said by Manson to further signify further race insurgency. Lennon’s gung-ho lyrics, originally inspired by a hunter he’d come across in India, were seen by Manson to be encouraging blacks to take up arms in their struggle.
Less coded was “Blackbird”, Paul McCartney’s poignant metaphor for the civil rights struggle in America. Within the bare acoustic delivery, the simple lyrics needed little embellishment to reveal a call for racial freedom. It was a rare political statement from McCartney, who’d rarely left the safety of the political fence up to that point. Not surprisingly, Manson’s receptive ears would cite the song’s challenge to "arise" as a clarion call for the blacks to move towards seizing power.
John Lennon’s intrepid “Revolution 1”, would find itself as the opener to side four of the album. The track that had been previewed some months earlier as the B-Side of the “Hey Jude” single, but given Lennon’s mercurial persona, the musical structure would be given a heavy rework for the White Album. During “Revolution 1,” Lennon writes about seeing the counterculture’s proposed “plans”. As Manson had formulated his own highly ambitious ideas, he interpreted that the Beatles wanted to see these strategies.
Ever receptive to even the slightest amendment, Manson would note the addition of the word “in” following Lennon’s counting himself “out” of destructive acts. Initially, the first cut of “Revolution” had Lennon’s overt pacifism turning on tin-pot revolutionaries. Some months later, his stance had shifted to a more ambivalent stance, this detachment possibly having more to do with his (then) flirtation with Heroin. He’d elucidate on “Revolution 1’s” uncertainty towards violence during the filming of “Let it Be” in January 1969.
John Lennon: “That means I am not sure. I really think if it gets to destruction you can count me out, but I’m not sure. I’m human and I’m liable to change, or depending on the situation, I prefer non-violence.”
Manson on the other hand, would assume that this subtle change was saying that the Beatles were aware that any peaceable approach would collapse as the apocalypse took hold. With his ears finally tuned for more rebellious frisson, Charlie would find an abundance of imagery on “Revolution 1’s” hugely idiosyncratic sister track, “Revolution 9.”
If indeed Manson or any of his acolytes had any stamina left following these stratospheric interpretations, the penultimate track on the White Album would send their frazzled senses towards oblivion. Without doubt, “Revolution 9” is the most complex “track” the Beatles ever put to tape, and certainly the most ambitious recording undertaken by a 1960’s “pop” group. Forty years on, it is still a remarkable and terrifying anthology of fragmented sounds, bound only by a nightmarish, disembodied voice chanting repeatedly, “number nine, number nine.”
This excursion into the unknown wasn’t exactly virgin territory for the group. The Beatles had dabbled with avant-garde noises over the previous two years, although they’d worked them into the metre and structure of a conventional framework. Whilst McCartney had first meddled with these sounds back in 1966, it was Lennon who jumped headfirst into the audio mêlée. As a result of his fascination, he’d begun feverishly assembling a library of twisted sounds at home and in the studio. Lennon’s convergence with Yoko Ono in early 1968 would elevate the importance of his avant- garde obsessions, and they would start to take a greater prominence on the White Album. With McCartney noticeable absent for the recording of “Revolution 9,” Lennon, George Harrison and Yoko Ono began to assemble the college of sounds during May of 1968. Ono’s intimate knowledge of sonic, left-field pioneers such as John Cage and Stockhausen would be an important link in the construction of the piece.
If the lyrics on the White Album tracks gave credence to Manson’s apocalyptic logic, then the aural vibrations on “Revolution 9” would be its soundtrack. With gunfire, screaming, mob chanting and other jarring sound-bites charging in and out of the mix, it’s a believable, auditory reflection of Armageddon. Not surprisingly, magnified by LSD, it added considerable verisimilitude to Manson’s rantings. Aligned with Charlie’s favourite biblical tract-section nine from the book of Revelation- it’s not that difficult to see how Manson came to derive his own association. While the Beatles blew many minds across the world with “Revolution 9’s” melange of nebulous sounds, it succeeded heavily in blurring Manson and his followers’ imagination and reality into one.
While mono versions of the original pressing would lose all of the sequencing from channel to channel, the repetition of the phrase “all right,” (itself clipped from the vocal track from the “Revolution 1”) would be easily perceptible to the ears. Manson, perhaps too far into his stride at that moment, erroneously thought that Lennon was shouting “rise!” to the black populous to get off their knees. To Charlie, this was an echo from McCartney’s “Blackbird,” and a further indication that the Beatles were predicting the black community’s forthcoming insurrection.
Save for a few passages of nonsensical gibberish at the start of the track, most of the words spoken in “Revolution 9” are totally indecipherable. During later court trials when the mass of this information was presented, it was claimed that Manson had heard the words “Charlie, Charlie, send us a telegram” somewhere in the mix. Although George Harrison does indeed mutter the word “telegram” at some point, it’s difficult to ascertain whether “Charlie” is mentioned at any point. The chief prosecutor would also claim that the phrase, "lots of stab wounds" was also detected by the Manson Family, although there is not even a hint of that anyway. Even more bizarre were the later claims that embedded in the track was the Beatles chanting, "Charlie, can you hear us? Charlie can you hear us? Call us in London. Call us in London.”
Supporting these claims of Manson’s proposed alliance with the Beatles, Squeaky and other Family members most definitely bombarded the group’s Apple offices in London with telegrams, letters and phone calls alerting the Fab Four of their presence. As Apple Records had to endure a daily litany of freaks and other incongruent parties attempting to contact the group, the Manson Family’s approaches were flatly ignored. Undeterred, Charlie would later send an emissary over to England in an attempt to meet the Beatles to discuss matters further.
While there were snippets of other tracks on the album that held some passing significance to Charlie, “Helter Skelter” would become his most foremost correlation with the apocalypse. Arguably, Paul McCartney’s most acerbic contribution to the Beatles songbook, “Helter Skelter” still to this day remains a heavy enigma. While the cute Beatle had to fight off numerous brickbats regarding his occasionally saccharine lyrics, during 1968, he was looking to prove any critics otherwise. The previous year, McCartney had read an interview with the Who’s Pete Townshend, concerning their single release entitled, “I Can See for Miles”. During the feature, Townshend described the song as the “the loudest, nastiest, sweatiest rock number” the Who had ever put to tape. The quote stuck with McCartney, and never one to be outdone by his peers, set about to compete with a similarly raw and unfiltered piece of work. Most recently McCartney elucidated on the track for Mojo magazine in 2008.
Paul McCartney: “Just reading those lines (of the Townshend interview) fired my imagination. I thought, Right, they've done what they think was the loudest and dirtiest; we'll do what we think. I went into the studio and told the guys, 'Look, I've got this song, but Pete said this and I want to do it even dirtier.' It was a great brief for the engineers, for everyone- just as fuzzy and as dirty and as loud and as filthy as you can... I was happy to have Pete's quote to get me there."
The Beatles dabbled with the bones of the song during session for the White Album. On 18th July 1968, they began to record the track in earnest. That night was a particular potty one in all respects, and unusually for them, they abandoned their usual deference for EMI’s stuffy protocol. One memorable take lasted 27 minutes and 11 seconds, culminating in an almighty jam. Harrison had seemingly lost the plot that night, and at one point, he’d ignited a fire in an ashtray, and ran around the studio with it held on his head; a spirited homage to psychedelic prankster Arthur Brown. At the end of the recording, Ringo, whacked out by the interminable madness, screamed, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers”; a caveat duly tagged onto the stereo version of the track.
After coming down from the high-jinx that engulfed the July 18th session, the group decided there was little worthy of salvaging. Nearly two months passed before they decided to tackle “Helter Skelter” again. On the night of September 9th 1968, they taped a more cohesive version of the song. Again, it took a large amount of time to capture something credible. Eventually, take number eighteen was secured as the most competent, and was duly signed off as finished.
The finally completed “Helter Skelter” made its way onto side three of the White Album, wedged in between John Lennon’s “Sexy Sadie” and George Harrison’s highly under-rated, “Long, Long, Long.” Without doubt, sonically, “Helter Skelter” is the most ruthless track in the Beatles oeuvre, and a template for later punk bands to emulate. While McCartney has always been at pains to step back from any revolutionary stance that lyrics might have implied, the electric frisson that pours out from the track is undoubtedly explosive.
With the White Album crammed with an array of hugely disparate sounds, “Helter Skelter” was largely passed over by both critics and fans on its release. For Charlie however, it was the band’s fiercest stake; the strongest conduit between the group and the apocalypse he’d begun referring to with an alarming regularity. Within “Helter Skelter’s” scatter burst of lyrics, the coda’s repetitive chant of “Coming down fast” was to Manson, the sign that the Beatles knew that an end was evidently nigh. The song’s references to going down to the “bottom” from the “top” were confirmation to Manson that the group, like him, were aware of the “Bottomless pit” as foretold in the section nine of the Book of Revelation.
Such was the powerful intensions that Manson saw in “Helter Skelter,” Charlie christened his anticipated uprising after the song. Soon, his obedient followers would be rattling off the phrase during their preparations for the impending apocalypse. When later asked by Rolling Stone magazine to define his own interpretations of “Helter Skelter”, Manson had slightly neutered his initial premise, although he still maintained that the song held some significance towards violence.
Charles Manson: “Helter Skelter means confusion... Confusion is coming down fast. If you don't see the confusion coming down fast, you can call it what you wish. It's not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says, 'Rise!' It says 'Kill!' Why blame it on me? I didn't write the music. I am not the person who projected it into your social consciousness.”
While Charlie had (obviously) absolutely no insider information of the circumstances behind the writing of “Helter Skelter” he was in little doubt that its semantics were wholly in line with his own interpretations from the Book of Revelation; particularly sections seven through to nine. As has been documented, Manson fascination with the Bible went back to his youth whilst sitting in the pews of McMechen, West Virginia. Despite being on the sharp end of his guardian’s Christian admonishments, he’d revisit the texts while serving time in the numerous institutions he’d been incarcerated in over the years, and they had remained something of a constant with him.
Manson had this to say of the Book of Revelation, and its connotations with the Beatles’ White Album, when drawn on the inference during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine in 1970.
Charles Manson: “What do you think it means? It's the battle of Armageddon. It's the end of the world. It was the Beatles' “Revolution 9” that turned me on to it. It predicts the overthrow of the establishment. The pit will be opened, and that’s when it will all come down. A third of mankind will die. The only people who will escape will be those who have the seal of God on their foreheads.”
As the only book in the Bible to overtly cite apocalyptic themes, The Book of Revelation has confused and enraged scholars throughout the centuries. Furthermore, its nebulous and occasionally impenetrable text has provoked numerous interpretations. Given his mania, Charlie had clearly associated the passages with what was occurring across America in 1969, and similarly, in detailing his own relationship with the Beatles and their White Album collection. If nothing else, the following explanations reveal Manson’s sheer ingenuity in establishing a triumvirate between himself, the Beatles and the Book of Revelation.
In verse one of Revelation 9 it states, “And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star from heaven fallen unto the earth: and there was given to him the key of the pit of the abyss.” Manson was convinced that the Beatles were heavenly deities, and as he had allied himself so closely to the group, he evidently saw himself as the “Fifth” angel. To Charlie, the “key of the pit of the abyss”, related to the “bottomless pit” which Manson had already drawn a connection with from “Helter Skelter’s” lyrics. Additionally, in information he’d sourced from Revelation Seven, Charlie believed that with his Family safely ensconced in the desert underworld, they would sit out the bloodbath occurring in the city. This apparently would take many years until their numbers reached 144,000; a figure Manson had again derived from Revelation Seven, which talked of the twelve tribes of 12,000. With the blacks assuming power following the revolution, in what Charlie assumed would be an inept and haphazard fashion, his followers would merge back into society and then have to clean up the mess, before ultimately taking over. Privy to most of Manson bizarre proselytising was young Family member, Paul Watkins.
Paul Watkins: “Blackie then would come to Charlie and say, you know, 'I did my thing, I killed them all and, you know, I am tired of killing now. It is all over.' And Charlie would scratch his fuzzy head and kick him in the butt and tell him to go pick the cotton and go be a good nigger, and he would live happily ever after."
Further in Revelation Nine it says, "And out of the smoke came forth locusts upon the earth; and power was given them as the scorpions of the earth have power.” Naturally, Manson’s broad entomology dictated that these bugs were naturally in kin with The Beatles. Additionally, Manson’s birth sign was Scorpio.
In section four it reads; “They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.” Manson had previously berated any member of the Family for killing bugs, snakes or any other animals. For the most part, they themselves were vegetarians, and any pets they kept were afforded greater rights than they themselves had. Whether Charlie knew it or not, in 1968 the Beatles were avid vegetarians, but there again, so was much of the hippie populous around that time.
Manson’s most intimate alignment with the Beatles occurred later within Revelation 9. “The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women's hair, and their teeth were like lions' teeth. They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle.”
Manson had already deduced that the “locusts” were in fact the Beatles, and that their “crowns of gold” signified their dominance as world leaders in the pop world. The line, “Their hair was like women's hair” was true in as much as the Fab Four were the first to push the folic length of the male since Edwardian times. The “breastplates like breastplates of iron” passage was meant to signify the Beatles’ electric guitars, strapped, as they were, to their chests. The part reading, “The sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle,” was a direct reference to the chaotic sounds heard during the Beatles, “Revolution 9”. Adding to the desert transport issue, Charlie apparently drew a connection with the chariots and his own preferred battle vehicles, Dune Buggies.
A passage reading that “four angels” would be prepared for the killing of “a third part of men.” was, to Charlie, a direct reference that the black community overthrowing civilisation and culling a third of mankind in its wake. Given that Revelation Nine was explicit in its timeline of “five months” when this would occur, Manson had projected that this would take place in the summer of 1969.
Despite the nebulous connotations Manson would apparently draw from the text, what made his correlations that more believable to his followers, were the collaborative influences of the White Album, and the activities of the black resistance movement; at its height during 1968-9. Add into the mix the desert landscape of Death Valley, strong LSD and not least, Charlie’s escalating paranoia, and it offers a terrifying insight to the horror that unfolded.
With ostensibly the Beatles full patronage, Charlie took his followers to unimaginable heights by these extraordinary interpretations. Following its preview, the White Album was played almost continuously, with Manson driving his revolutionary predictions into his followers’ malleable subconscious. For Paul Watkins, and every other component part of the Family, it was vindication of everything Manson had been pointing at for months. Watkins would later articulate this uncanny realisation following Charlie’s preview of the White Album to his followers.
Paul Watkins “Things were never the same...At that point Charlie’s credibility seemed indisputable. For weeks he had been talking of revolution, prophesying it. We had listened to him rap; we were geared for it – making music to program the young love. Then, from across the Atlantic, the hottest music group in the world substantiates Charlie with an album that is almost blood curdling in its depiction of violence. It was uncanny.”
In Memory of Sharon Marie Tate (January 24, 1943 – August 9, 1969)
Excerpt by kind permission of Simon Wells. "Charles Manson: Coming Down
Fast," is published by Hodder and Stoughton.