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Rolling Stones songs: Gimme Shelter
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Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’ our very street today/ Burns like a red coal carpet, mad bull lost its way…
Also known as: ‘Gimme Me Some Shelter’, ‘Gimmie Shelter’
Written by: Jagger/Richard
Recorded: Olympic Sound Studios, London, England, Feb. 23-25, March 15 1969; Elektra Studios, Hollywood USA and Sunset Sound Studios, Los Angeles, USA, Oct. 17-Nov. 3 1969
Guest musicians: Nicky Hopkins (piano), Merry Clayton (backing vocals), Jimmy Miller (percussion)
*Data taken from Martin Elliott’s book THE ROLLING STONES COMPLETE RECORDING SESSIONS 1962-2012
This is about the political and social unrest at the time. There was the war in Vietnam, race riots, and Charles Manson. Mick Jagger sings of needing shelter from this “Storm.”
Keith Richards wrote most of this song. He strummed the opening on an electric-acoustic guitar modeled after a Chuck Berry favorite.
Merry Clayton is the female vocalist. She is a gospel singer who did backup vocals for a number of artists, including Ray Charles. She had a regular role on the ’80s TV show Cagney and Lacey, and played a maid in the movie Maid To Order.
Clayton is featured in the 2013 film 20 Feet from Stardom, where she talks about her appearance on this song. The Stones were recording late at night in Los Angeles when they decided to use a female vocalist to sing with Jagger on the track. Clayton, who was pregnant at the time, got the call and was retrieved for the session. She showed up with curlers in her hair wearing silk pajamas, and Jagger explained to her that she’s be singing the line, “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.”
She did a take of her line, then decided to “blow them out of this room” on the next take. This time, she delivered a chilling vocal an octave higher, her voice cracking on “murder.” This can be heard at about the 3:04 mark, and you can hear an impressed Mick Jagger in the background saying “Whoo!”
The Rolling Stones didn’t release this song as a single, so it never charted. Merry Clayton, who sang backup on the track, recorded her own version of the song which was released as a single, making #73 US in the summer of 1970.
Jagger: “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. 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.”
“Gimme Shelter” is the title of the movie that documented The Stones 1969 tour, including the Altamont concert where a fan was stabbed by a Hells Angels security guard. The movie was rush released in 1970 to come out before the Woodstock documentary. It was released on video in 1992, and re-released in theaters in 2000 for the 30th anniversary. George Lucas of Star Wars fame was on the crew for the movie.
The Stones recorded this using old, worn out Triumph amplifiers to get a distinctive sound.
Keith Richards overdubbed layers of guitars on this track, making it a challenge to perform live. He told Rolling Stone: “That beginning is so eerie, sometimes in a stadium you start to hear echoes. I’m never sure if I’m the right volume.”
This has been covered by the Goo Goo Dolls, Grand Funk Railroad, and the Sisters of Mercy (who swapped the locations the words “kiss” and “shot” – “War, children, it’s just a kiss away” and “Love, sister, it’s just a shot away”). Patti Smith recorded it for her 2007 album Twelve.
Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese has used this song in three of his films: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.
Keith Richards stated in his memoir Life (2010): “I wrote ‘Gimmie Shelter’ on a stormy day, sitting in Robert Fraser’s apartment in Mount Street. Anita (Pallenberg) was shooting Performance at the time, not far away… It was just a terrible f–king day and it was storming out there. I was sitting there in Mount Street and there was this incredible storm over London, so I got into that mode, just looking out of Robert’s window and looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell. And the idea came to me… My thought was storms on other people’s minds, not mine. It just happened to hit the moment.”
The French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who would win an Academy Award for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004, directed a 1998 music video for this song featuring Brad Renfo as an abused teen who goes on the run with his brother.
From the Rolling Stones – All the Songs, The Story Behind Every Track book:
Keith Richards wrote “Gimme Shelter” in autumn 1968 in the apartment of his friend Robert Fraser. That day, London was hit by a terrific storm. From the window, the Stones’ guitarist watched pedestrians scurrying in all directions for shelter, their faces whipped by torrential rain. At that time, Anita Pallenberg was in the middle of shooting Performance with Mick
Jagger, directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, whom Keith Richards wholeheartedly detested as a “twister and a manipulator.… A razor-sharp mind poisoned with vitriol.” The musician did not go to watch the shoot but could not help wondering about it: “God knows what’s happening,” he would later write in his autobiography. So there was Cammell, but there was also Mick Jagger, who in one scene has to take a bath with the charming Anita. Keith Richards therefore owes his inspiration for one of the greatest songs in the history of rock ’n’ roll to a conjunction of external and internal factors: the natural forces being unleashed outside and the onset of a profound mental anguish.
A storm is threatening my very life today: not only does the first line of “Gimme Shelter” express Keith’s feelings, it also describes the situation in the world at large at the end of the sixties: the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the crushing of the Prague Spring, the murder of Sharon Tate—a torrent of violence that made the lofty ideals of “flower power” seem illusory and absurd. Indeed the verses of the song build up to an apocalyptic vision. A fire is sweeping the very street, a mad bull lost its way, and the floods is threatening my very lif : here we are not so far from the territory of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” (1963) or “Desolation Row” (1965).
“That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really,” Mick Jagger would later claim. “It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.” Nevertheless, “Gimme Shelter” ends on a note of hope with the prospect of redemption through love: I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away. And then there is the music—the spellbinding intro with its distinctive rhythm, preparing the ground for Mick Jagger’s vocals and harmonica… Johnny Marr (former guitarist with the Smiths) would later claim: “I couldn’t believe that something could be so perfect,” seeing the song as the ultimate proof that rock ’n’ roll could be “beautiful and dangerous at the same time.” For Greil Marcus, “The Stones have never done anything better.”
Categories: Can You Hear the Music?