Track of the Day: 'Helter Skelter' by The Bobs

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to my inquiry for the most genre-bending Beatles cover, Jay in Cincinnati remembers a truly unique, a cappella version of “Helter Skelter”:

Somewhere in the mid-1980s, I was working late ... really really late, after 3 A.M. late. Finally driving home, my brain competed with only two thoughts: staying conscious enough to survive the trip, and how good it would feel when I finally could collapse into bed.

The radio was on—nice and loud, to help me avoid nodding off, tuned to a small non-commercial station that played non-mainstream music. When this song came on, it must have been close to 30 seconds before I even realized it was a song I knew. It was so different—not just different from the original song, but from almost any kind of music I’d ever heard—that for my own safety I pulled off the road so I could listen. Nobody identified what I’d heard; they just kept playing more music. Sometimes on this station it could be 40 minutes before anyone came on to list what had been played.

There were no cell phones, there was no internet. When I got home, I did not go to bed. I had to get a phone book, look up the station’s number and call. I had to know. Unlike today, when hardly any radio station in America has a live person on the air overnight, someone answered.

I’ve since seen this group [The Bobs] in concert maybe ten times, occasionally planning family/friend visits to other cities based on when they would be performing there. They’ve done covers of other famous songs, sometimes as radically different as this, but also in versions more recognizable. Mostly they sing their own songs, which range from hilarious to weird to touching. Every time I see them do this song, it brings back that night.

Update from a reader in Bend, Oregon:

I nominate Tiny Tim’s cover of the Beatles song “Girl.” Tiny was generally not taken seriously, but he was very serious about music:

When he burst into public recognition in 1968, people either regarded Tiny Tim as a lovable wacko, or simply a wacko; though Tim’s eccentricity seemed both charming and oddly appropriate in the wake of the Summer of Love, despite his long hair and beatific attitude, he was no hippie, but instead an amateur archivist of American popular song who made it his life’s crusade to remind people about the joys of the Tin Pan Alley era. In his own odd way, Tiny Tim was one of the first artists of the rock era to celebrate the notion of the Great American songbook, though his fondness for a warbling falsetto delivery, his thrift-store wardrobe, his slightly fey personality, and his championing of the ukulele as his favored means of accompaniment was every bit as anomalous in 1968 as it would be today. While Tiny Tim was (principally) marketed as a novelty act and treated as a joke by many who presented him to the public (one of his most frequent television platforms was on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In), Tim wasn’t kidding -- he loved and lived for this music, and he performed it in a historically accurate manner, remaining true to his musical vision right up to the very end . . . .

This cover sounds both serious and wacky, and it bends the original song into such a bizarre vaudeville style that it is almost unrecognizable. Tiny’s vocal range is very wide, and gives the song a unique sound. I would guess that most people won’t like it, but here it is anyway.

(Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here. Submit via hello@.)