Musikwissenschaft – Vol. 3

An appreciation of some of the finest performances in musical history.


Volume number three of this devoted feature focuses on the apocalyptic track Gimme Shelter written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.  The song has never been released as a single by The Rolling Stones despite opening the band’s 1969 album Let It Bleed, becoming a staple of their live shows, appearing on many compilation releases and even lending its name to the title of a 1970 documentary film.  In 2004 Rolling Stone magazine placed Gimme Shelter at #38 on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time”.


The Rolling Stones’ eighth British album and tenth American album Let It Bleed was released on 5th December 1969 on Decca Records.  It became the last album to feature founding member Brian Jones who had left the band in early June whilst recording was taking place and suffered ‘death by misadventure’ less than a month later.  The album reached #1 in the UK chart (displacing The Beatles’ Abbey Road) and has since been ranked at #32 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time”.  The day after the album’s release the band performed at the infamous Altamont Free Concert in California.  The festival was marred by considerable violence, including an incident in which 18 year old Meredith Hunter was stabbed and beaten to death.  It was later revealed that the young man, high on crystal meth, had drawn a pistol close to the stage and was met by an unforgiving member of the Hells Angels (the motorcycle club had been hired as security for the event).  In addition to Hunter’s homicide there were also three accidental deaths (two as a result of a hit-and-run and one by drowning), countless injuries, numerous reports of theft and extensive damage to property.


It is no surprise that Gimme Shelter, a track that is in Jagger’s own words “a kind of end-of-the-world song” that painted a picture of devastation and social apocalypse, is considered (along with the events at Altamont) to mark the end of the optimistic, free-spirited 60’s.  The Rolling Stones had channelled the rage of an era and popularised vigorous dissent in the face of war.  Jagger explained: “It’s a very rough, very violent era.  The Vietnam War.  Violence on the screens, pillage and burning.  The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and 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 objected, and people didn’t want to fight it”.


The track begins with a shaky, shimmering rhythm guitar intro by Richards that is infused with a feeling of impending doom.  As the dramatic piano and haunting, wordless vocals take over the listener is left with the sensation that something dreadful is swiftly approaching.  There is an air of fear and desperation in the lyrics as Jagger barks each verse but the highlight of the song is undoubtedly the powerful, half sung – half shouted chorus.  Guest vocalist Merry Clayton repeatedly sings the line “Rape, murder; it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away”, and her inclusion on the record was more than justified as she was able to reach notes that Jagger would have found impossible to hit.  After Richards’ brilliant guitar solo Clayton’s voice can twice be heard cracking from the physical strain of screaming the lyrics.   The African-American gospel singer would in fact go on to suffer a miscarriage as a result of her emotionally intense performance.


Find some shelter and get ready for the end of the world with this unforgettable British classic.


The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter



– Load It, Check It


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