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(Credit: Jim Marshall)

What's that sound? The Rolling Stones classic made with Keith Richards' broken guitar

The Rolling Stones are possibly the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. The ragtag group of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor have come to embody somewhat of the musical Sisyphus. Whether it be the tragic death of founding member Brian Jones in 1969 or the fact that guitarist Keith Richards is still alive, the Stones have dodged so many obstacles over the years; it is nothing short of a miracle that they have endured.  

Alongside their iconic branding, the red puckered lips and suggestive tongue, the band’s sonic swagger has endeared them to listeners since their breakthrough album, The Rolling Stones/England’s Newest Hit Makers, was released in 1964. Spearheaded by the power couple Jagger and Richards, the Stones have made an indelible mark on music history.

Iconic tracks such as ‘Wild Horses’, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ‘Paint It Black’ have all contributed to the band’s continuing legacy. However, no discussion of the Stones’ back catalogue would be fully complete without turning to what is possibly their most iconic number, 1969’s ‘Gimme Shelter’. The opening track of the brilliant album Let It Bleed, it would not be unreasonable to state that the track’s composition features some of the Stones’ most memorable in the whole of their career.  

The hazy, anti-war song is so clinical in capturing the essence of the time; the listener is transported back to the era, catapulted up the Mekong Delta on a US army speedboat, with the song blasting through a radio. Featuring the lines: “War, children/ It’s just a shot away” and “I tell you love, sister/ It’s just a kiss away”, the song sticks in the contemporary consciousness.  

The most memorable part of the song is undoubtedly guest vocalist Merry Clayton’s soul power as she underpins the track by singing in tandem with Jagger. Her voice is so powerful that the meaning of the line: “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away/ It’s just a shot away” is expertly driven home when her voice cracks towards the end of the song.

However, there is another lesser-known reason why ‘Gimme Shelter’ is iconic. 

In a 2017 interview, charmed axeman Keith Richards cast his mind back to the song’s inception: “I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black, and an incredible monsoon came down,” he said, adding: It was just people running about looking for shelter – that was the germ of the idea. We went further into it until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away’.” 

With the mental wheels in motion, Richards set about cooking up the brilliant apocalyptic warning. In 1995, he went into detail about the other influences that comprised the song and Let It Bleed. One of which, the Vietnam War, we have already alluded to. The guitarist recalled: “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. 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. 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.”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. (Credit: David Cole / Alamy)

So for such a powerful song, Richards needed an axe that could wield the weight of the song’s foreboding sentiment. This time, his hallowed five-string Telecaster was not chosen. Like King Arthur leaving Excalibur at home before a battle, this decision might seem a little crazy. However, writing such an era-defining song needed the flavour of something else. 

Typical of Keith Richards’ entire career, he acquired this yet unknown axe through luck after the guitar had been forgotten at his home. 

In the 2017 interview, he revealed: “It looked like a copy of the Gibson model that Chuck Berry used. 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 exact model of the guitar has still not been definitively disclosed, but if we take the pointers from Richards’ above statement, we can presume he means the classic Chuck Berry model, the one most associated with the pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll — the iconic, hollow-bodied Gibson ES-355.

This actually goes some way in accounting for the wicked, sustained fuzz of Richards’ guitar in ‘Gimme Shelter’, Gibson or copy, hollow bodies are well known for their resonance. No wonder Richards’ legendary axe screams like it truly was the end of the world. In conjunction with Clayton’s warning vocals, the guitar augments the track beyond its earthly realms. Sonically, together, the Stones and Clayton are like the five riders of the apocalypse.

The irony of the whole recording process and Richards’ relationship with the guitar is that it literally fell apart. During the track, as Richards is bending the strings pleading to humanity to stop the war, the squeak you hear is the “whole” of the guitar’s neck falling off. As if the wood was physically damaged by conveying the song’s warning of death and destruction, it decided to call it a day.

Richards remembered: “You can hear it on the original track. 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.” 

There we have it, another reason why ‘Gimme Shelter’ is such an iconic work — a perfect anti-war anthem that features a voice cracking and a guitar breaking. Perhaps this is why its legacy has endured. Sonically and literally, it conveys the dawning of the apocalypse and the world around the band falling apart.

Listen to ‘Gimme Shelter’, below.

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