July 26, 2021

The story of the tragic time that inspired The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”

How much a dark time, the tensions of a band and the warlike conflicts of the world can influence a song? This exaggerated but interesting question could only be answered The Rolling Stones. Even in a hypothetical case, their answer would surely be given with “Gimme Shelter”.

That mythical song and the album Let it Bleed to which it belongs, they harbor in their history one of the most stormy moments for the group. And that’s saying a lot considering the long history of the legendary English combo.

The Rolling Stones. Foto: Getty

Of course, this track is one of his most emblematic; an unprecedented success that helped to overcome – if you can say so – to digest and reconnect to Mick Jagger and company in the middle of the complicated era that they suffered towards the end of the 60. This is the story behind the song.

The complicated era of ‘Let it Bleed’

“Gimme Shelter” is the song with which the famous opens Let it Bleed by The Rolling Stones released on December 5, 1969. However, the meaning of the track (at least in its title whose translation is ‘Dame Refugio’), reflects in a couple of words the pessimistic feeling that the members felt at that time.

Was the group looking for a refuge? Possibly, given the uncertain panorama that was seen on the horizon. The recording of the album was quite complicated and the guitarist, founder and original leader of the group, Brian Jones, had a lot to do with it. His addiction to drugs reached its highest peak in that year, making it impossible for recording sessions.

In the previous years, precisely in 1967, tensions began to build whenever Anitta Pallenberg had ended her relationship with him to start dating Keith Richards, the other guitarist of the group. By 1968, arrests for drug possession and the occasional traffic accident became constant. The band had planned to go on tour in the United States the following year once the album came out, but Brian’s deteriorating condition, both physically, emotionally and legally, it seemed like an obstacle.

Brian Jones. Foto: Getty

His contribution to the composition of the album was almost nil, only to end up aggravating the situation. So the Stones made the final determination: The guitarist was fired in June of that year. Just a month later, on July 3, 1969, Jones was found dead in his pool. Needless to say, he joined the legendary Club of 27.

So it came Mick Taylor to replace him to finish Let It Bleed and release it at the end of that year … but the tragedies weren’t going to stop even in the last days of the 60s. The Rolling Stones they headed the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6 of that same 1969 (one day after the album came out) and the passions among the public boiled up.

Nor the music of Jefferson Airplane and Carlos SantanaNeither the hippie legacy of ‘peace and love’ that was breathed, appeased the moment. The Stones, in a very wrong move, had hired the motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels to take charge of the security of the event. The result: countless injuries, with the case of the young African American Meredith Hunter losing his life at the hands of a motorcyclist, who allegedly defended himself when he saw the boy draw a gun. What a time.

Hell’s Angels en Altamont Festival. Foto: Getty


“Gimme Shelter” and the horrors of war

“It’s just a shot away” (it’s just a shot away) is the most significant lyric line of “Gimme Shelter”. There are many readings for it, but the most accurate indicates that the band was alluding to the horrors of war and the convulsed social problems of the time, same from which the world sought refuge.

In 1995, Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone magazine that this song portrayed the apocalyptic sense of the album. “It was a tough time, very violent. [Estaba] The vietnam war. And Vietnam was not a war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam is that it wasn’t like WWII, it was not like Korea, nor was it like the Gulf War. It was a really nasty war … “, he mentioned in that talk.

In 2012, Jagger again addressed the meaning in an interview with NPR. “It’s a pretty moody piece about the world creeping up on you little by little … When it was recorded in early ’69 or something like that, it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this melody. “recalls the vocalist.

Vietnamese soldier walking among the bodies of a battlefield. Photo: Getty

Keith Richards gives his version

Although the lyrics of the song make it clear that it talks about war, rape, murder and the world trying to flee, the conception of the song starts from a rather different idea and from a very everyday moment, as he says Keith Richards.

The guitarist was at a friend’s house playing guitar while watching the evening through a window. It turns out that, suddenly, a very heavy rain began to fall. I only saw many people running desperate looking for where to take refuge. That was the germ of the idea. But as we got into it further, it became this, you know, about rape and murder that are ‘one shot away’ “he told Harper’s Baazar magazine in 2017.

Mick Jagger y Keith Richards. Foto: Getty


They needed a female voice

In the background of the song, a female voice adorns the lyric with some desperate and great soul / gospel choirs. She is Merry Clayton and her inclusion in “Gimme Shelter” it is as curious as it is significant. Jagger says in the 2012 NPR interview that while filming in Los Angeles, it occurred to him that it would be a good idea to hire a woman to sing some verses.

“We randomly called this poor lady in the middle of the night, she arrived with her curlers [en el cabello] and proceeded to do it in one or two takes, which is quite surprising“, Clarifies Mick. Clayton was not a complete stranger in reality, in fact, her resume included appearances as a backup singer and backup singer for artists of the stature Ray Charles and Elvis Presley (although there are no records of his collaborations with the latter).

Merry tells that she was about to sleep, around midnight, when she received a call from the producer and an old friend of hers, Jack Nitzsche. He told her that he was looking for someone to record with some Englishmen who had come to the city. So her husband took the phone from her and hee claimed the unexpected call from Jack, further claiming that she was pregnant.

Merry Clayton en 1969. Foto: Getty

Well, she was already reaching the fifth dream when her partner woke her up and said “Honey, you know, you should go.”. The man, it seemed, knew of the renown of these unwelcome Britons. However, Merry had no idea who they were.

“…HiTake the first take and we move on to the rape and murder part. And I said, ‘Why am I singing rape, murder?’ … So they told me the gist of the lyrics and I was like ‘Oh okay, okay’Clayton recalled in an interview also with National Public Radio (via Open Culture).

The issue came together so well for Jagger and Richards that she was encouraged to do a third take at their request. Then, he retired home at dawn without much effusiveness and perhaps without waiting for the eventual success that “Gimme Shelter” would mean for The Rolling Stones.