There is perhaps no greater song in the Rolling Stones prestigious canon than ‘Gimme Shelter’. Largely, because the song encapsulates everything we know and love about The Rolling Stones, namely the inventive way in which the band’s guitarist Keith Richards wrote some of the group’s finest riffs.
Featuring on Let It Bleed, the band’s esteemed 1969 album, the song will always be remembered as the death rattle of the 1960s. A decade that was so free and peace-loving, a decade that championed creativity and thinking outside the box, was coming to an end, and the heinous hedonism of the ’70s awaited. This track captured that sadness and the danger that had been hiding behind the thick smoke of cheap hash and patchouli.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is a track that would be wholly impossible without Merry Clayton’s perfect vocal performance. The song is a shattering reminder of her talent and her sad story but also works as a deeply political song. “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War,” Jagger said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Violence on the screens, pillage, and burning. And Vietnam was not ‘war’ as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War.”
Adding: “It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it … That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.” If there was one band we could guarantee to be around when the apocalypse finally does arrive at our doors, it would be The Rolling Stones. And we hope they’re playing this song too. But that doesn’t answer how Richards crafted the notorious riff.
The truth is, the song was born out of an accident. Richards’ home at the time was a Mecca for musicians and welcomed a fine array of 1960s heroes throughout the years. One such unnamed guitarist would forget his guitar and become a part of history. “That was done on some nameless Australian full-bodied acoustic [a Maton]. It looked like a copy of the Gibson model that Chuck Berry used,” Richards remembered of the riff.
“The thing had all been revarnished and painted out, but it just sounded great. Some guy crashed out at my pad for a couple of days, then suddenly split in a hurry and left that guitar behind, like, ‘take care of this for me’, I certainly did.” The guitarist would often use the different ‘feel’ of guitars, finding nuances in notes that few rockers would ever pick up on. This guitar would be an instrument he would never pick up again.
“At the very last note of the take, the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original track,” recalled Richards. He expertly provides a cathartic creative vision of the instrument’s last moments. “That guitar had just that one little quality for that specific thing. In a way, it was quite poetic that it died at the end of the track.”
Listen to The Rolling Stones’ song ‘Gimme Shelter’ and keep your ears ready for the final triumphant notes of a mysterious, broken guitar.