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Gimme Shelter: A Song that Defined an Era

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969

Many songs define an era. The 1960s could be said to have a number of them. Ones that paint a picture of what it was like to be everywhere in a world that was rapidly changing so quickly that there was no impetus to stop it. One of the ways that culture changes is through music and voices. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were not newbies to the music scene in 1969 and had made some notable albums including 12x5 (1964), Beggars Banquet (1968), Between the Buttons (1967), Aftermath (1966). Aftermath being their most popular record featured Paint it Black which made the stones a landmark English group. They were the anti-Beatles group, the bad boys of Rock and the British public loved it.

Well 1969, was going to be different. The Rolling Stones were going to release an album that would change the course of history in music and a song on it would be a revolution that would feature an unlikely artist and bring about a new era of music. The song is arguably the biggest that the Stones have ever written and more importantly, it is a song that led to the Stones most popular decade arguably, the 1970s. So let's address a music story that is not often told but crucial to those fans who think “it’s only rock n’ roll but i like it.”


Woodstock, 1969

Woodstock, 1969

When it comes to years, 1969 was pretty controversial but it did have more positives than its predecessor. 1968 was bad enough after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Vietnam War was going well into 1968 and with the Tet Offensive it seemed that the tide had turned. The United States was beginning to realize the mess it had made in South-East Asia.

1969 was the year that Major League Baseball’s first Canadian Franchise was formed, the Montreal Expos who are known as the Washington National were created. Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail around the world without stopping. Charles Manson’s Murders were carried out in August of 1969. Also the first people to land on the Moon happened in July. Public Broadcast Service (PBS) was founded as well.

1969 though was a year for music. Two Albums came to define the year, the first was of course the one that we will be going over in this article and the second was Abbey Road (1969) The Beatles most famous album. It was the last album that they recorded together, although not the group’s final album. It included two notable tracks including Come Together and Here Comes the Sun. 1969 was also the year where the most famous music festival was held, Woodstock. Led Zeppelin also released their first album that year. However, for the Rolling Stones it was a year they would most likely never forget due to some unfortunate circumstances.

1969 for the Rolling Stones


The Stones were on tour from their success on Beggars Banquet in 1968. They had huge success touring the United States in the past but not like this. After being together since 1962, it seemed that the band was making headway into the mainstream outside the United Kingdom. The tour had wrapped up and it was time for the Stones to record something new. Something that would come to define them. However, while recording their album in the spring of 1969, they saw something occurring with a particular member of the band. Brian Jones, who has been a member since the inception was going through issues with addiction. Jones was being productive but he seemed unhappy with the other members and was not happy with what was happening. Jones was soon confronted by fellow bandmates and due to recent unreliability Jones was let go by the band and replaced with Mick Taylor in June of 1969. Within a month of being let go, Jones’s girlfriend came home on July 3rd and found her boyfriend laying in the pool of his home. It was unclear when he had died but the cause of death was drowning.

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Jones’s death was a big hit to the other members who felt that they could not help him. Friends of his, Jim Morrison and Pete Townsend wrote songs and referenced Jones’s contribution to music with his fellow bandmates. Jones and Morrison are both members of the “27 Club” which has members who died at the tender age of 27. Around the time of Jones’s death the Stones moved forward with the creation of a new album. Some of the songs had already been recorded previously such as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in November of 1968. The recording for the Album that would come to be titled Let It Bleed continued until November of 1969.

The Musical Approach: Inspiration for Gimme Shelter

The Stones on tour in 1969.

The Stones on tour in 1969.

The Rolling Stones had been founded on the idea of using a Blues-Approach in their music. Blues was the foundation. The Stones original work had some of this but Let It Bleed had a larger focus on that. It was the first Blues Album considered by many music experts. It was an album that almost broke two members of the band apart, sadly its two most important members. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were the songwriting team and the creators for the band's awesome narratives. They had a bit of a rift in 1969 following the death of Jones. Richards began composing the riff while Jagger was away filming a crime-drama called Performance. Jagger starred alongside Richards' then girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. There were rumors going on about a potential affair between the two and the media ate it up.

Richards was displeased with his friend but nothing was ever found to be true. The song's lyrics can be read in a variety of ways however. The violence of the era can be a reason for the lyrics' meaning. It was also identified that the song was about fighting an “inner war” with oneself. Richards, angry about Jagger’s potential fooling around, decided to make it this way. Although the initial interpretation is the larger meaning.

The song writes of “Rape” and “Murder”. “It’s just a shot away,” Jagger writes. Its meaning seems synonymous with what was occurring at the time. However, in writing the lengthy song it seems that Jagger wrote the most notable portion of the song and felt that a more feminine approach may be necessary. Having recorded the first part of the track, the album's producer made a suggestion that aligned with Jagger’s vision. The Producer set out to find a female singer in the middle of the night when they were recording. A call was sent out to Merry Clayton. Her career had blossomed previously and she was in fact pregnant. Wanting to start a family soon Clayton answered the phone in which she was told that she needed to come down to the Studio immediately. According to her, the producer said “a group from Britain, The Rolling Somebody’s is recording and they need you to come by.” Clayton agreed and with curlers in her hair and in her pajamas, she arrived at the studio. Clayton glanced at the lyrics and was shocked. She had never recorded something so “vulgar.” She was not a fan at first but Jagger reassured her that she was vital to the recording of the song. Clayton rehearsed with Jagger and then after a couple of takes the vocals blew the Rolling Stones out of the room. They were shocked and excited by what they had heard. They finished recording and the song was placed as the opening track to Let It Bleed.

Let It Bleed, 1969.

Let It Bleed, 1969.

It's over 52 years later and the song is still known in popular culture. At the time, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Grell Marcus stated that it was the best song the Stones had written at the time. This was a song that was featured along with some other famous Rolling Stones songs including “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Midnight Rambler” and “Monkey Man.” Gimme Shelter was featured as the #12 song of the decade and later as the #38 greatest songs of all time.

The song was first played on the American Tour in 1969 and did not become a regular song on the setlist until 1972. The Song is played in a variety of movies including almost every Scorsese film including “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, “The Departed”. It has been featured elsewhere in Television Shows including “Dexter” “The Vietnam War” and “Person of Interest.” The song has taken on an afterlife that rivals most songs due to its popularity and being used traditionally in period pieces.

The song was played welcoming the Rolling Stones to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. It has been covered multiple times and is a song that can reflect very deeply on the times that we are living in currently. We are always looking for a song that defines the era that we live in well, the 1960s may have been defined by that.

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