100 Greatest Rolling Stones Songs

1

"Gimme Shelter" (1969)

RB/Redferns

"That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse; the whole record's like that," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995, describing "Gimme Shelter." Like nothing else in rock & roll, the song embodies the physical experience of living through a tumultuous historical moment. It's the Stones' perfect storm: the ultimate Sixties eulogy and rock's greatest bad-trip anthem, with the gathering power of soul music and a chaotic drive to beat any punk rock. The song was born during a pounding English rainstorm. "It was just a terrible fucking day," Richards recalled. He was killing time in the apartment of English art-scene guru Robert Fraser while girlfriend Anita Pallenberg was on set making Performance, a film in which she beds down with Jagger. With chords ghosted by a droning E-note, the music radiated dread – clearly inspired by a mix of Jimmy Reed's trance-inducing blues, Richards' own romantic anxiety, and ­heroin, which he'd just begun using. It took him about 20 minutes or so to get down the basics, which were fleshed out over several sessions in London and Los Angeles during 1969. The finished version is something entirely new for the Stones, with a slithering Watts-Wyman groove and full gospel-style backing vocals; New Orleans-born Merry Clayton was asked to sing on the track because the band's first choice, Bonnie Bramlett, was unavailable, and she seized the opportunity, wailing, "Rape, murder! It's just a shot away!" like the end times were nigh. When the band played the song at Altamont, minutes before concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed, the lines seemed like grim prophecy. Richards later said that his guitar fell apart during the recording, "as if by design."

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