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"'Gimme Shelter' is downright apocalyptic, and a product of its time that still speaks to us today." - Mick Jagger | Photo: Lucien Grix (CC BY 2.0)
"'Gimme Shelter' is downright apocalyptic, and a product of its time that still speaks to us today." - Mick Jagger | Photo: Lucien Grix (CC BY 2.0)
Kieren Alexander -

Story of a Hit #10: "Gimme Shelter"

The 1969 song by the Rolling Stones is often regarded as their greatest work. Sitting at number 13 on the list of the greatest songs by Rolling Stone magazine, it's an urgent and haunting number, that is impossible to forget. Over the years, the song has come to represent many things, like the death of the 60s, the era of the Vietnam War and the social turmoil at the end of a transformative decade.

It's the opening track of Let It Bleed, the Stones' 8th album (or 10th in the US), which like their landmark album Aftermath (1966) has that classic bluesy sound that iconifies them. There are several great candidates for the best Stones song – with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Paint It Black" being the most obvious – but there is something unique about "Gimme Shelter" that has held its prominence in music history.

An intense era for the Stones

It was written and recorded during a complex time for the group. Brian Jones, the founding member of the Rolling Stones, was becoming less active in the band due to problems with alcohol and drugs. His attitude and addictions were causing more and more conflict and he was actually fired from the band during the recording sessions for Let It Bleed – it's the last album that he played on, he only appears on two tracks and only on backing instruments at that. Jones died less than a month later from drowning in a swimming pool in his home. This was the turbulent setting in which the album and "Gimme Shelter" came to life.

The song is full of that sound that makes the Rolling Stones so good – intertwining guitar lines, driving bluesy licks and Jagger's charismatic vocals. It's powerful and simultaneously so catchy – certainly one of the great rock songs.

Inspiration for the song

The original idea for the song came to Keith Richards as he witnessed a storm breaking out, hence the title. As he sat at a window in his friend's apartment in London, guitar in hand, he watched people scrambling about trying to escape the downpour: "It was just people running about looking for shelter – that was the germ of the idea." And that feeling remains in the song, the sense of urgency, but of course, the lyrics set the stage for something darker and more foreboding than a mere rainstorm.

The other side of the story is that Richards started writing the song when his girlfriend was shooting a raunchy film with Mick Jagger, and he poured his fear and jealousy into it. This was, of course, the famous Anita Pallenberg, who had a relationship first with Brian Jones, and later two children with Keith Richards. She is sometimes credited as the band's muse and shared a tumultuous relationship with drugs, much like the band itself. While Richards says quite plainly in his autobiography Life that she did have an affair during the filming of Performance, Pallenberg has denied it on multiple occasions.

Still, you begin to see the complex background that gave birth to "Gimme Shelter" – and the story doesn't end there.

On the track, there is the usual Stones line-up (minus Brian Jones), plus the fantastic Nicky Hopkins on piano, whose driving bluesy piano licks and chords really hold the song together. But one of the song's most prominent features is of course the vocals by Merry Clayton. When they were listening to an early mix of the recording, the band realised something was missing. Jagger apparently said: "Well, it'd be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse."

Some of the most important backing vocals in rock

Merry Clayton, an American soul and gospel singer, was contacted to provide backup vocals and was apparently brought out of bed at midnight, while four months pregnant. Her vocals on "Gimme Shelter" provide a lot of the song's urgency and flavour – there is something about the way she sings and shouts "rape, murder! It's just a shot away!" that just chills you to the bone. You can actually hear her voice crack at 2:59, presumably under the pressure and demand of the performance, to which Jagger can be heard responding "wow!". Her high-pitched vocals and gospel sound just compliments the group so well – it's hard to imagine the song without her.

It's the most prominent female vocals in any Stones song, which is quite a decoration, given their status as an all-man rock band. The day after the recording session, Merry Clayton suffered a miscarriage and it's quite likely the intense late-night recording session had something to do with it. Still, she covered the song in 1970, but was unable to listen to the Stones' version for a long time. In her own words: "We lost a little girl. It took me years and years and years to get over that. You had all this success with "Gimme Shelter" and you had the heartbreak with this song."

According to Jagger: "'Gimme Shelter' is downright apocalyptic, and a product of its time that still speaks to us today [...] when it was recorded [...] it was a time of war and tension". They first started performing it during their 1969 America tour and it became a favourite of the band and fans. Since then it's been used in countless films, series and documentaries, presumably for its popularity and relevance, and perhaps as a way to capture the turning point in music and society that culminated at the end of the 60s. The fact that Martin Scorsese has used it in three separate films tells you something!

The death of Meredith Hunter

Notably the 1970 documentary "Gimme Shelter", took its name from it, and chronicles the Rolling Stones' 1969 America tour. The Stones played their last concert at the "Altamont Speedway Free Festival" which was hoped would be a sort of West Coast Woodstock, which had took place earlier in the same year. However, due to many reasons, the West Coast festival was a disaster: four people died, many people were injured, cars stolen and property destroyed.

During the Stones' set at the festival, a man named Meredith Hunter pulled out a gun and was subsequently stabbed to death by a member of the Hell's Angels, who were serving as security guards. The incident was actually caught on camera and features prominently in the 1970 documentary.

You can hear Jagger commenting on how the band couldn't see what was going on, that it seemed to be just another scuffle in what was a pretty chaotic festival and set. And yet the death of someone at one of their concerts certainly shook them, understandably. I imagine it was a shock for many who lived through the 60s, a sort of wake-up call, that all that free love, drug use and hippy living didn't necessarily mean that bad things couldn't happen.

This is precisely what "Gimme Shelter" is about – "rape, murder, it's just a shot away!" It's a song that both literally and figuratively marks the end of a decade that transformed society. After the 60s, the world would never be the same again, and the Stones' classic reminds us of that.

What do you think, is "Gimme Shelter" the best song by the Rolling Stones? What would you pick? 

Leave us your opinion in the comments below!

Tagy Story of a Hit The Rolling Stones

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Kieren Alexander
Accordionist and pianist originally from Australia, but living in Europe now for over 10 years. Kieren plays with various bands in the Czech Republic, including his Balkan fusion group Free Balkan Quintet. He teaches piano and travels regularly for folklore workshops and proje…