Helter Skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass
With the Jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now the half-time air was sweet perfume
While the Sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance
Oh but we never got the chance
'Cause the players tried to take the field
The marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed
The day the music died
We started singing
'Helter Skelter,' a Beatles song, which featured on the 'White' album, was the subject of controversy, as Charles Manson clamed that the song inspired him and God or the devil had spoken to him. He led his followers in the Tate-LaBianca murders in the summer of 1969.
'The summer swelter' could refer to the summer of love, but perhaps more plausible 'the long, hot summer' the name given to the Summer of 1965. An area of Los Angeles which had race related riots known as 'The Watts Riots.' They were started in South Central just a bit West of Watts. More people were killed in the riots than in the 'LA Riots,' but not as much damage was done to property. While the dates of Watts & the Tate-LeBianco murders don't match up, perhaps McLean is just painting an image of the unsettled times.
A 'fallout shelter' is a bomb shelter where you would hide from radioactive fallout following an atomic bomb. Some families built a shelter in their back yard though this was fairly uncommon.. People stocked them with bottled water, canned food and even guns. The guns were to shoot your neighbours to keep them out of the shelter. (nice!!) Air raid drills took place frequently.
The shelters were particularly popular in America in the 50's when Russia also got the A-bomb. Russia was a perceived threat due to the 'cold war.' The American government went to great lengths to make citizens fear the Soviet Union and it's growing number of weapons. People were constantly reminded of the danger with jingles and television clips. Though Russia was seen as a threat, it was only when they became allies with Castro that the real threat was apparent, with the advent of the Cuban Missile Crisis when they put the USSR's missiles a couple of hundred miles off American shores.
The album cover of Bob Dylan's "Bringing it all Back Home, (released March 22nd 1965) on the left has a sign of a fallout shelter. Dylan's song Mr Tambourine Man (on this album) was The Byrds (see below) first hit. Perhaps this means the Byrds propelled Dylan to greater popularity than he achieved on his own. (Ref: Dennis Jacques)
The term fallout shelter is also a colloquism for a rehab clinic. (Ref: M Green)
The fears of nuclear war were played on during the 1964 presidential campaign.Barry Goldwater, wasa Republican senator from Arizona and a retired colonel in the Air Force. He was a right-wing ultraconservative. He was going to run against Lyndon Johnson, (LBJ) who was currently President after JFK's assassination, but an advertisement was shown on television that became very famous. A little girl is seen picking flowers in a big field with blue skies. An authoritative male voice is counting down. When the countdown finishes there is abig mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb.
Apparently the advert was only screened once, but played on the fear that Goldwater would enter the country into an atomic war. This was enough to get him badly defeated in the election. Johnson was elected in 1964 but declined to run for President again in 1968 due to public reaction to the Vietnam war policy.
The group, The Byrds, had a song called 'eight miles high,' which was the first song banned for drug references. That said, The Byrds always denied it was a drugs song & claimed it was about a flight during their 1965 UK tour. It was however still banned by radio for drugs lyrics. (Ref: Greg Gildr) 'Fallin fast,' is another term for a drugs crash or coming down. 'Landing proud on the grass,' again refers to drugs, as one of the band members was arrested for possession of drugs. One of the band members also left the group as they refused to fly in a plane. (Ref: Gene Clark)
A fallout shelter was sometimes known as the "Fifth Dimension", this was also the title of the album by The Byrds with the song 'Eight Miles High.' In the 1950 s, there was a fascination with sci-fi, and a fallout shelter was seen to have a futuristic appearance. The Beatles also had a line in 'Helter Skelter,' that went 'I'm coming down fast but I'm miles above you.' It has also been suggested that "eight miles high and falling fast" could be about a plane such as a B-52 that flies at about 40,000 ft (very roughly eight miles up) and could drop an atom bomb. (Ref: Mark Mirski)
"Landed foul out on the grass," could be a baseball reference. A baseball playing field, or diamond, is divided into fair territory, where almost all of the defending team plays, and foul territory. The batter tries to hit into fair territory. If he hits into foul territory his hit doesn't count, though if the defending team catches it the batter is out. Assuming it's not caught, an announcer might say "it landed foul".
In the stadium there's (typically) a fairly narrow strip of grass between the foul line and the seats. Most foul balls end up in the seats, well away from the field of play. A few foul balls will land in this strip of grass, fairly close to the field of play. Thus, if a ball lands foul on the grass, it was pretty close to being fair (and hence a hit). So the image of a ball landing foul on the grass is of something that almost worked, but didn't quite. (Ref: Ted Robinson)
The next line refers to a "Forward pass," which is a reference to American football. This insinuates that an advantage is being taken.
The forward pass holds a special place in American football. Introduced in 1906 it was seen as a major innovation "The turning away from the unimaginative and brutal mass attack and instead toward the open, fast-striking offense with the pass as a weapon appealed to players and spectators alike" The quarterback throws the ball over arm in a graceful spinning arc that can gain 20- 30 yards where running would only gain a few. (Ref: John Flanagan)
Combining references to these two very American sports contributes to the nostalgic feel of the song.
The "Players could be musicians trying to progress, with a "Forward pass", in their music. The marching band were the old school band who refused to conform. (Ref: Jonathan Caldwell) Alternatively it could relate to The Beatles, Sgt Pepper.
A very different take is that the "Players" are activists & rioters who were convinced they were going to create a better world. They thought they could move things forward socially & politically, in a drastic and qualitative way that nobody had tried before. The analogy is of a forward pass in football which is an exciting & somewhat risky play that can move things forward dramatically. (Ref: John Flanagan)
'The Jester on the sidelines in a cast,' again is Bob Dylan, and after an almost fatal motorcycle accident, on July 29th, 1966 he was out of action for 9 months. Many have speculated what injuries he had, though I believe the details were never released. After his time in seclusion he returned with a different style of music. (Ref: Matt Wensel, internet)
The players could be other musicians trying to break into the market. Now Dylan was away, theywere given a chance. An alternative interpretation could refer to the American Football player Joe Namath. (Ref: Nate Degn) It's said the McLean really disliked Namath, though this has not been confirmed.
Namath was sidelined with injuries for 19 games in 1970 and 1971 but regained his all-pro status in 1972. Namath became only the third quarterback in pro football history to pass for 400 yards in two games during the same season. (Ref: internet)
The 'sweet perfume could be a drugs reference, as Bob Dylan met The Beatles at Kennedy Airport when they came to the US in 1964 and introduced them to marijuana. 'The Sergeants,' are most likely The Beatles, as seen in 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.' Again, the players could be other bands trying to make a success in the music industry, but due to The Beatles success this was not possible. The band The Monkees were a contrived band, and actors. This could explain the reference to players as well.
Half time entertainment at a football game is a marching band that parades the field in formation. The idea of them refusing to yield at half time adds to the surrealism. (Ref: John Flanagan)
Not getting a chance to dance relates to The Beatles concert in 1966 at Candlestick Park which lasted for 33 minutes. This was their last live concert. They had decided after their L.A shows they wanted to go back to London. However they had a contract with KYA radio station to play at Candlestick Park. On the day of their Hollywood Bowl show, they were served a summons. In the end they played the Candlestick Park show on August 29, 1966 to a crowd of 24,000 screaming fans. The Beatles could not hear themselves sing, as the crowds were so loud. The band didn't want to be there, and for them, as they say, the rest is history.
Surely then, "What was revealed" were The Beatles split. Maybe them refusing to yield, was their continued popularity even after they split up.
It was also well documented that big business was one factor in ruining the relationship of The Beatles, even after they owned the Apple Corporation record label in 1968, which came apart by early 1970. "Do you recall what was revealed." They were planning to donate money to causes and do great things with art and peace. However Linda McCartney's father was a big entertainment lawyer from New York. There were lots of clashes that took place, and some were thought to be due to them. (Linda McCartney passed away in 1998, her maiden name was Linda Eastman)
A very different interpretation could be that this verse is about the Kent State University riots of May 4th 1970.(Ref: Tom Davidson) 4 students were shot and killed by American National Guard troops in Vietnam War protests. The "sweat perfume" could an ironic reference to tear gas. The "Sergeants" could be the National guard & "The marching band refused to yield" could be how the protest was so violently quashed. (Ref: Joe Zemp, Mark Mirski, John Flanagan) The "Marching band" could also represent the military-industrial complex which refused to yield its support for the Vietnam war in spite of the people (football team) trying to end it (take the field) (Ref: Marv Bloom)
May 4th, 1970, John Filo - Body of student Jeffrey Miller - National Guardsmen
had fired in to a crowd of demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine.
Yet another possibility is Sergeant Barry Sadler's 1966 hit "Ballad of Green Beret" which supported the Vietnam war. The song stayed at Number 1 for 5 or 6 weeks, keeping other anti-Vietnam songs off the air for a time. (Ref: Chris Holmes)
Don McLean commented about 'players tried to take the field .' He said it was an allusion to the people at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago who tried to 'take the field' in the streets protesting but turned back by Chicago police. 'the marching band' (of police) refused to yield. Many were hurt and arrested. (Ref: Bill Wilson) (Not verified)
In addition, "the marching tune" could be the draft for the Vietnam war. "We all got up to dance" "Players" or activists - They wanted to take the field, in other words take over and replace the existing institutions (the establishment and the military-industrial complex to use phrases of the time) and create something better. Many people wanted to join in ("dance"). However they didn't get the chance because "the marching band refused to yield": the existing institutions fought back and wouldn't give in (marching band = establishment, police, national guard) "Do you recall" / "But not a word was spoken", presumably meaning that despite all the screaming, crying and dreaming, most of what was said in this period was not worth much (or fell on deaf ears) (Ref: John Flanagan)