The Rolling Stones song ‘Gimme Shelter’ is perhaps the finest ounce of music that came out of the sixties so it was only fitting that they chose to perform the track on the one-off BBC special Pop Goes The Sixties, an occasion built to celebrate the best music that came out of the groundbreaking decade.
Pop Go The Sixties aired on New Year’s Eve in 1969 to usher in a new decade and arrived as a 75-minute TV special which celebrated the major pop hits of the 1960s. The show was a co-production between the United Kingdom’s BBC and West Germany’s ZDF broadcasters which was pre-recorded some weeks prior to it being aired.
The Rolling Stones’ appearance was the perfect way to round off the decade as they performed what many to be their magnum opus which is none other than ‘Gimme Shelter‘, a number which was the perfect anthem for a decade in which rock ‘n’ roll arrived into the mainstream and its grip on society was only going to tighten over the course of the ’70s.
The song was written in a time of political unrest with the ongoing war in Vietnam as well as race riots and, poignantly, the track perfectly encapsulates what the Stones stood for at that moment in time—a factor which still feels sadly as relevant now as it did when the song was first released.
“That song was written during the Vietnam War and so it’s very much about the awareness that war is always present; it was very present in life at that point,” Jagger said this on the masterpiece. “Mary Clayton who did the backing vocals was a background singer who was known to one of the producers. Suddenly, we wanted someone to sing in the middle of the night. And she was around. She came with her curlers in, straight from bed, and had to sing this really odd lyric. For her it was a little odd – for anyone, in the middle of the night, to sing this one verse I would have been odd. She was great.”
In a conversation with NPR, Clayton 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,” she said, before adding: “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.”
‘Gimme Shelter’ not only summarises the band but it also typifies the decade and this performance was the perfect way for The Stones to see out the decade that saw them start it by finishing school and end it as being the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.