Shelter is one of our few physical needs as humans; we all know that we cannot live without the basics of food, water and shelter. But the concept of shelter can also take on a more abstract meaning. Shelter can take the form of a refuge from danger, a refuge from worries, a comforting oasis in a desert of distress.
So when trouble hits, Give me, give me shelter.
The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” was released on December 5, 1969, and remains one of the most recognizable songs in the rock band’s catalog. The song is four minutes and 37 seconds long – a perfect length for a rock anthem of this caliber – and leans into the moans of Mick Jagger accompanied by unique elements of the maracas and harmonica.
The song was written by Jagger and Keith Richards, one of music’s most successful songwriting partnerships, similar to the Lennon-McCartney partnership. The song itself was never released as a single, meaning it never had the opportunity to chart as such. It was, however, the opening track of the Stones record. let it bleed which charted as the number one album in the UK and number three in the US
Richards started working on ‘Gimme Shelter’ in London while Jagger was filming Performancea 1970 British crime/drama film. Most significant was that at the time, Richards was romantically involved with Anita Pallenberg, Jagger’s co-star and lover of Performance. While little else can be concluded about Jagger’s time with Pallenberg, Richards made a habit of watching the rain during this time in his life.
“I was sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s flat on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went pitch black and an incredible monsoon fell. It was just people running everywhere looking for shelter – this was the germ of the idea [for ‘Gimme Shelter’]said Richards Harper’s Bazaar. “We took it further until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘at hand’.”
The lyrics of “Gimme Shelter” convey a fairly dark view of the world compared to the rhythmic core of the song.
Ooh, watch the fire sweep
Our streets today
Burns like a carpet of red coal
The mad bull has lost its way
It’s just a shot
Rape, murder, it’s just a shot
It’s just a shot
When Jagger was asked about the harshness of the lyrics and the larger meaning let it bleed Album as a whole, the rocker points to the Vietnam War (1955-1975). In a 1995 interview with rolling stonehe explained that the group was undoubtedly impacted by the Vietnam War when creating songs like “Gimme Shelter”.
“Well, it’s a very harsh, very violent time. The Vietnam War. Violence on screens, looting and burning,” he said. “And Vietnam was not war as we know it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam is that it wasn’t like World War II, 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 opposed it, and people didn’t want to fight it. The people who were there were not well.
Hence the desperate and dark cries of fear of war, gratedand murder. “[‘Gimme Shelter’ is] kind of a doomsday song, really. It’s the apocalypse; the whole record is like that,” Jagger confirmed.
Female vocals and singer.
As you may have noticed, Jagger isn’t the only one singing on “Gimme Shelter.” In fact, there’s a beautifully haunting singer on the track who hits notes just a little higher than Jagger’s.
The guest vocalist on the track is soul and gospel singer Merry Clayton.
“We phoned this poor lady at random [Merry Clayton] in the middle of the night, and she came in her curlers and did this in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and dropped these rather weird words. It’s not the kind of words you give to everyone – Rape, murder / It’s just a gunshot — but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record. She joins the choir. It’s been a great live song ever since,” Jaggar said. NPR in 2012.
Clayton’s role on “Gimme Shelter” solidified the song as one of the greatest rock anthems of the ’60s. His emotive, almost screaming vocals added a layer to the track that the Stones simply couldn’t provide.
Despite the song’s fame, however, “Gimme Shelter” brings back dark memories for Clayton. She was pregnant at the time of the recording, and according to after-the-fact reports, the duo’s physical demands led to a miscarriage for the singer. Later, after “Gimme Shelter”, Clayton continued to collaborate with other artists like Neil Young and Coldplay and eventually released his own music.
give me shelter the film.
On December 6, 1970, just one day after the first anniversary of “Gimme Shelter”, the Rolling Stones released their documentary of the same name. Directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, the film follows the band in the final weeks of the Stones’ 1969 US tour. give me shelter also evokes the calamitous free concert of Altamont in 1969.
Globally, give me shelter the film won critical acclaim for its honest portrayal of the emergence of counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s.
Can there be a happy ending?
In short, yes. The 1969 song gives Stones fans and listeners some hope. The final verse, sung by both Jagger and Clayton, promises that love is just as possible as war.
I tell you love, my sister
It’s just a kiss
Hoping love wins out more often than not.
Photo credit: Kevin Mazur