#832: Gimmie Shelter by The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones first gig was at the Marquee Club in London on July 12, 1962. At that first show, the group was billed as the Rollin’ Stones and, of what would become the band’s original lineup, only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones and keyboardist Ian Stewart performed. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts would formally join in January of 1963, and Stewart officially left the band in May. Though Stewart continued on as the Stones’ road manager and occasionally played with them both on stage and in the studio until his death in 1985. When the Rolling Stones began playing gigs around London in 1962, the notion that a rock & roll band would last five years, let alone fifty, was an absurdity. After all, what could possibly be more elusive than rock & roll, the latest teenage fad? Besides, other factors made it unlikely that such a momentous occasion would ever come to pass. “I didn’t expect to last until fifty myself, let alone with the Stones,” Keith Richards says with a laugh. “It’s incredible, really. In that sense we’re still living on borrowed time.”
“You have to put yourself back into that time,” Mick Jagger says about those early days when he and Keith and guitarist Brian Jones roomed together and were hustling gigs wherever they could find one. “Popular music wasn’t talked about on any kind of intellectual level. There was no such term as ‘popular culture.’ None of those things existed. But suddenly popular music became bigger than it had ever been before. It became an important, perhaps the most important, art form of the period, after not at all being regarded as an art form before.”
The Rolling Stones’ first US tour in June 1964 was, in Bill Wyman’s words, “a disaster.” “When we arrived, we didn’t have a hit record [in the USA] or anything going for us.” Their #3 single in February ’64 in the UK, “Not Fade Away,” only climbed to #48 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stalled for two weeks at #13 in Vancouver in May of that year. But in November 1964 “Time Is On My Side” climbed to #6 in the USA and #1 in Vancouver for two weeks. In April 1965 “The Last Time” climbed to #2 in Vancouver and #9 on the Billboard charts. The Rolling Stones were finally establishing a following in North America. Their next two singles, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud,” were both #1 hits here in Vancouver and in the ‘States. The hits kept coming through 1966-69 with #1 songs in Vancouver including “Paint It Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.”
In the period between “Honky Tonk Women” in the summer of 1969 and “Brown Sugar” in April 1971, The Rolling Stones had just one song played on AM pop radio in Vancouver. That song, “Gimmie Shelter,” was not released as a 45 RPM, but still got airplay in Vancouver and a few other radio markets.
The Rolling Stones “Gimmie Shelter” placed at #38 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It is the first track on their album Let It Bleed from 1969. The first word was spelled “Gimmie” on the Let It Bleed album jacket and vinyl record. However, subsequent recordings by the band and other musicians have made “Gimme” the typical spelling. The Rolling Stones first played “Gimmie Shelter” live at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO on 7 November 1969. Greil Marcus, writing in Rolling Stone has asserted, “The Stones have never done anything better.”
“Gimme Shelter” was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Richards began working at the song’s opening riff in London while Jagger was starring in his debut acting role on the set for the crime drama film Performance. “Gimmie Shelter” leads off with Richards performing a sulking instrumental guitar. He is next accompanied by Jagger’s shrieking harmonica and lead vocal. On Let It Bleed’s bleak world view, Jagger said in a interview with NPR in 2012:
“It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit … When it was recorded, early ’69 or something, it was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune. It’s still wheeled out when big storms happen, as they did the other week (during Hurricane Sandy). It’s been used a lot to evoke natural disaster.”
After the first verse, a second vocal joins Jagger. This is guest vocalist Merry Clayton. In the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones, Jagger stated, “The use of the female voice was the producer’s idea. It would be one of those moments along the lines of ‘I hear a girl on this track – get one on the phone.'” Clayton gives her solo performance, and one of the song’s most famous pieces, after a solo performed by Richards, repeatedly singing “Rape, murder; It’s just a shot away, It’s just a shot away,” and finally screaming the final stanza. She and Jagger finish the song with the line, “Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.” The song is arguably the most memorable of the few recordings of a female vocalist to join the Rolling Stones in studio or in a live concert.
In the song’s opening line, a storm is approaching threatening the singers very life. This can be understood both literally and figuratively. In addition to actual thunderstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes, people sometimes have what is referred to as “a perfect storm.” A perfect storm is a constellation of a particularly bad or critical state of affairs, arising from a number of negative and unpredictable factors. Bigger events in people’s lives, like the Wall Street subprime mortgage and international banking crisis of 2007-2008 can have a negative impact on an individual who suddenly looses their home or life savings when their financial institution goes bankrupt. Or a war is declared: a member of one family is off on a tour of duty, and returns with PTSD or in a casket, while another family is devastated when bombs are dropped on their village that destroy their home and kill a sleeping infant their bedroom. Similarly, a perfect storm can gather when, at a party a woman meets a guy who later rapes her on a date. Or, while walking with friends and family a robber compounds their crime by fatally shooting the person they steal from. The 2016 film, Manchester-By-the-Sea, depicts a perfect storm when an father and husband, intoxicated from a late evening of drinking with his buddies at his home, lights a fire in a fireplace in the room where his young children are sleeping. A fire consumes the house and the children die in the fire. War, rape, murder, fire. They’re all just a shot away, The Rolling Stones tell us. The song is a warning to keep our wits about us and to pay attention. It is also a reminder that good times don’t last forever. Threat and danger also walk the same streets we tread.
While on their 1969 tour, documentary film makers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin shot footage of The Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden, the Hell’s Angels violence at the Altamont Free Concert and photo shoots for the cover of the album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out The Rolling Stones in Concert. A live version of “Gimmie Shelter” played over the credits of the film titled Gimme Shelter. Martin Scorsese has used “Gimmie Shelter” as a signature theme in his crime films Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006). “Gimmie Shelter” peaked on the Vancouver pop charts at #6. Elsewhere in North America the song was only played as a track on FM stations. However, under the artist credit of Merry Clayton, “Gimmie Shelter” made it to #2 in Columbus, Ohio, the Top 20 in San Francisco and Waterloo, Iowa, and the Top 30 in Seattle, Washington, and San Bernardino, California.
The band celebrated fifty years in 2012. They kept charting Top Ten hits through to 1989. These have included “Brown Sugar,” “Angie,” “Miss You,” “Start Me Up” and “Emotional Rescue.”
January 8, 2018
Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter, Maysles Films, 1970
Marc Meyers, The Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway, Wall Street Journal, New York, NY, November 16, 2010
Manchester-by-the-Sea ~ Fire scene
Daniel Kreps, The Rolling Stones Bio, Rolling Stone Magazine, New York, NY
Mick Jagger On The Apocalyptic ‘Gimme Shelter’, NPR, November 16, 2012
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