The Rolling Stones at Altamont, December 6, 1969 -- the day after the official US and UK release of Let It Bleed with "Gimme Shelter" as its opening track. In the wake of the murder and mayhem at Altamont, the 1970 movie Gimme Shelter enshrined the song as an apocalyptic anthem. The Stones played "Gimme Shelter" as the eleventh song in their Altamont set, but only the audio appears in the film, playing over the closing credits.
"Gimme Shelter," released as the opening track on the Let It Bleed album on December 5, 1969, microscopically misses our 1970-and-after requirement. It is included here by executive decree, because it is the greatest rock song ever sung, and a natural anthem for situations when humanity finds itself in truly deep doo-doo. One could almost say it helped to create the 1970s, through its use as the title for the classic 1970 documentary film by the Maysles brothers. The movie Gimme Shelter established the Altamont concert of 1969 as the dark counterpoint to Woodstock, and a convenient benchmark for the end of an era and the looming threat of the unknown.
Despite one of the most menacing electric soundscapes ever scratched into vinyl, "Gimme Shelter" is basically a folk/blues number. As such, it is easily sung by groups of progressives, who are likely to know most of the words by heart. And what words! This is one of rock's essential lyrics, at points almost Blakean in its spareness and elemental force:
Oh, a storm is threat'ning my very life today
If I don't get some shelter, oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away
War, children, is just a shot away, it's just a shot away ...
Oh, see a fire is sweeping our very streets today
Burns like a red coal carpet, mad bull lost its way
War, children, is just a shot away, it's just a shot away ...
Mick Jagger's vocals are magnificent on this cut -- he has never sounded more engaged and unaffected. His distorted harmonica riffs -- often mistaken for an electric guitar -- also provide great sonic moments, especially in the final thirty seconds. But it is guitarist Keith Richards who was the driving force behind the song -- apparently, Keith wrote it as a jilted lover's lament, after Mick nicked his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg! (She later returned, and became Keith's first wife.) Then the group got hold of "Gimme Shelter" in the Olympic Studios in London, and a cultural apocalypse was conceived.
Keith's opening guitar figures, accompanied by the creepy percussion of a Cuban-style guiro (played by producer Jimmy Miller), are among the most chillingly evocative few bars in popular music. His solo, too, is iconic. "[Keith] played the vibrato rhythm and the lead guitar in 'Gimme Shelter'," says Nils Lofgren of Springsteen's E-Street Band. "I don't think anyone has ever created a mood that dark and sinister. There is a clarity between those two guitars that leaves this ominous space for Mick Jagger to sing through." ("Keith Richards," Rolling Stone, December 8, 2011.)
And not only Jagger. What pushes "Gimme Shelter" over the top is Merry Clayton's incendiary backing vocal performance, probably the most famous in rock. Clayton was brought in to overdub a duet with Jagger in a Los Angeles studio, and sang with such frenzied intensity that she went home afterward and suffered a miscarriage. "Rape, murder, is just a shot away, it's just a shot away ..." Here's the pristine 2019 remaster of "Gimme Shelter," from the Let It Bleed reissue. If you listen closely, when Merry Clayton's voice cracks (for the second time) on "Murder!" at 3:01, you can hear Jagger in the background shout "Whoo!" -- a classic rock-and-roll moment. Play it loud.
The "shelter" motif also lends itself naturally to protests against homelessness and for social housing and welfare. In a wonderful recent rendition of the song, musicians around the world contribute in support of the Playing for Change project. "This song expresses the urgency we all face to unite together as a planet and offers us wisdom with the words, 'War, children, it's just a shot away... Love, sister, it's just a kiss away'. It really is that simple. We dedicate this song to all the lost, homeless and forgotten people in this world. It is in the shelter of each other that the people live."
Though the yearning and anguish of the song can be deployed to soulful effect, it can't be denied that "Gimme Shelter" also sounds more like a soundtrack for violent upheaval and revolution than anything else the Rolling Stones recorded. (Note that the "Rape, murder ..." section is missing from the above rendition.) The Stones tended to adopt a more distanced and apolitical stance. "Street Fighting Man" is generally considered their political "anthem," but that's all in the martial music: lyrically, "What can a poor boy do?" is hardly rouse-the-masses stuff. "Gimme Shelter" is sung and played from the center of the maelstrom, not casting an appraising eye from the sidelines. "That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse," Jagger said. In its original incarnation, it is agelessly terrifying -- yet somehow progressive in its thrust. Rapine and slaughter are not to be dionystically celebrated or sensationalized, but rather acknowledged in their awesome darkness, and transcended through love and solidarity. That it is a man and woman singing together, rapturously, offers further inspiration.
Originally released on the Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed (1969), track 1.
Full lyrics to "Gimme Shelter."
A spectacular isolation of Jagger and Merry Clayton's vocal duet in the Los Angeles studio. Clayton's famous vocal crack and Jagger's "Whoo!" are for the first time heard clearly, at 3:07.
The Wikipedia page for the song. Rock critic Greil Marcus is quoted as calling it "the greatest ever rock and roll recording."
Some fan comments on "Gimme Shelter."
In US sources, the title of the song is usually given as "Gimmie Shelter." The original Rolling Stone review of Let It Bleed, by Greil Marcus (December 27, 1969), made these perceptive and prescient comments: "'Gimmie Shelter' is a song about fear; it probably serves better than anything written this year as a passageway straight into the next few years. The band builds on the dark beauty of the finest melody Mick and Keith have ever written, slowly adding instruments and sounds until an explosively full presence of bass and drums rides on over the first crest of the song into the howls of Mick and a woman, Mary [sic] Clayton. It's a full-faced meeting with all the terror the mind can summon, moving fast and never breaking so that men and women have to beat that terror at the game's own pace. When Mary Clayton sings alone, so loudly and with so much force you think her lungs are bursting, Richards frames her with jolting riffs that blaze past her and take it back to Mick. Their answer and their way out matches the power of the threat: 'It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away ... it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away.' The truly fearful omen of the music is that you know just a kiss won't be enough. This song, caught up in its own momentum, says you need the other too."
The live version from the Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones movie -- recorded in Texas on the 1972 tour -- gives a good idea of how "Gimme Shelter" was played in concert during the period of lead guitarist Mick Taylor (for whom this became a showpiece tune), and without the female vocal part:
A muscular live version from Amsterdam in 1995:
The song as performed by Jagger and U2 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 2009, with Fergie of Black Eyed Peas rocking the Merry Clayton vocal part:
A solo performance of the song by Merry Clayton:
And a live version by Clayton:
Clayton recalling the recording of "Gimme Shelter"
in the documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom: