While many of The Rolling Stones’ back catalogue can be heralded as either game-changing or life-giving, one song actually went on to typify both the birth of a new decade and the explosive death of another. Here we are looking back into the story behind one the Stones’ greatest numbers, ‘Gimme Shelter’.
The song may have been the signal that the pure creative light fo the sixties was about to burn into an oily and sordid flame known to most as the seventies. But its roots were deeply embedded in the drug-addled psyche of Keith Richards.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of those rare songs that typifies a band. It’s dark and dangerous overtone mirrored the niche the Stones had carved for themselves. It’s lifting, the orchestral sound would be a sign of their future, and the heady cocktail within which it was concocted was all trademark Stones.
Remembered as one of The Rolling Stones’ crowning moments, the track was deeply mired in the distrust and disgust their guitarist Keith Richards was creating one night. Written in glitterati member Robert Fraser’s seedy Mayfair flat while likely snorting copious amounts of coke and heroin, the track is seething with sultry sexuality and serpentine friendships.
The focus of the song was Richards’ relationship with his then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. Having previously stolen Pallenberg from his bandmate Brian Jones in 1968, the muse was now starring in sex scenes with Mick Jagger for his acting debut in Performance.
To add to that brooding collection of unwanted thoughts was underwritten by the Stones’ stalling careers. The band had been struggling ever since 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties had put their musical paths into a ditch. While follow-up, Beggars Banquet had re-routed them slightly the band were still far from the chart-topping run-away freight train of success they began the decade as. When you then take into account the degrading ability of their founding member, Brian Jones, at the hands of drugs—it was not a pretty scene for the Stones.
It’s an atmosphere that is perfectly re-created in Richards’ masterpiece. He recalls in his memoir Life, “It was just a terrible fucking day, this incredible storm over London. So I got into that mode – looking at all these people… running like hell.” So he sat there, surrounded by weird and wonderful art, with the capital screeching to a halt outside, waiting for Mother Nature’s mercy, and wrote one of the greatest songs of his life.
Soon enough Jagger and Richards began working on the track and while Richards has often cited that lightning moment looking out over London, the singer in the group offered a grander depiction of their lyrics. “Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War,” he 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.
“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.”
By the time the band were ready to go into the studio to begin work on their seminal album Let It Bleed, the first song on the ‘to-do list’ was Richards’ marauding opus and he, Jagger and Jimmy Miller began working on it right away. But, as with anything with The Rolling Stones, it wouldn’t be such a simple task and would take nearly six months to complete, during which the Stones would nearly capitulate.
Brian Jones was officially removed from the group to the shock and awe of their fans. Just three weeks later, he would be found dead in his swimming pool. It would wobble the band but with the introduction of Mick Taylor on guitar they would continue on, performing at the iconic free concert in Hyde Park and even booking their first US tour in three years.
Back into the studio and with the American tour up ahead, the band were itching to complete the record. Miller, who had been a big fan of ‘Gimme Shelter’ from the start, suggested that something was missing from the track. Enter the one and only Merry Clayton.
In a 2013 interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, Jagger gushed over Clayton’s incredible performance: “When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, ‘Well, it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,’ or chorus or whatever you want to call it. We randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It’s not the sort of lyric you give anyone–‘Rape, murder/It’s just a shot away’–but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”
Clayton had travelled to the studio in the middle of the night while pregnant without much thought to who the band were or what the song could be. Or indeed the lyrics she was given, “I’m like, ‘Rape, murder…’? You sure that’s what you want me to sing, honey? He’s just laughing. Him and Keith.”
In a conversation with NPR she nonchalantly recalls her moment within the track: “we went in the booth to listen, and I saw them hooting and hollering while I was singing, but I didn’t know what they were hooting and hollering about. And when I got back in the booth and listened, I said, Ooh, that’s really nice. They said, well, You want to do another? I said, well, I’ll do one more, I said and then I’m going to have to say thank you and good night. I did one more, and then I did one more. So it was three times I did it, and then I was gone. The next thing I know, that’s history.”
History it most certainly was. Though the album would be blessed with some of Jagger and Richards’ finest work (‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ another gem of a track), it would be ‘Gimme Shelter’ that would act as a beacon of the death of the sixties.
It had one last sting in the tail too. As by way of punctuating its dystopian view of a crumbling world, the track was released on the same day as the infamous day at Altamont Speedway and the tragic events that took place there. There in northern California after being hired by the band to run security, a member of the Hell’s Angels stabbed and killed teenager Meredith Hunter.
It would be a dark day for the band and a headstone for the decade which had spawned, free love, peace and an undying optimism for change. Hell had returned to the heavenly sanctity of music and now it was going to have its way with the seventies. Little did Keith know on that stormy night in ’68, he would be providing the soundtrack for the entire western world.