“Gimme Shelter,” the Rolling Stones’ classic rock song off Let it Bleed, sticks out as a pinnacle among the Stones repertoire. It is maximal and moody — and surprising, when you learn the backstory. “Gimme Shelter,” originally titled “Gimmie Shelter,” was released in 1969: a tumultuous year full of Vietnam War angst and social upheaval. With lines like “Rape and murder / it’s just a shot away,” the riotous period is reflected quite literally through the lyrics, written by Keith Richards. However, as revealed in Richards’ autobiography, Life, there is even more to the history behind “Gimme Shelter.”
The Rolling Stones perform “Gimme Shelter” on a 50th Anniversary US Tour with Lady Gaga
The Story Behind the Lyrics
Like most Rolling Stones songs, including “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Gimme Shelter” was a product of the powerful songwriting partnership of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. However, according to Richards, the lyrics of “Gimme Shelter” betray a tension that was present in their relationship. Richards first began working on when his longtime girlfriend, actress and famed Stones muse Anita Pallenberg, was away filming Performance, the 1970 salacious crime drama which starred none other than his dear friend, Rolling Stones frontman (and sex icon) Mick Jagger. Anxious that Pallenburg and Jagger would have an affair, Richard began to pen lyrics like “Ooh, a storm is threat’ning / My very life today…” Richards has said idea was formalized while riff-ing acoustic guitar and looking out the window during a rainstorm; below him were people literally looking for shelter.
While it may seem astonishing that such a gargantuan hit arose from such predictable anxieties, it’s no shock that Anita Pallenburg would have inspired some very intense emotions. The striking starlet has been credited with defining the Rolling Stones on both a personal and aesthetic level. First dating Stones instrumentalist Brian Jones until he became physically abusive, Pallenburg solidified her place in the group dynamic when she began seeing Keith Richards; the two would go on to share three children and five grandchildren. During that time, Pallenburg also enhanced the band’s eccentric, feminine fashion statements as Richards has been quoted joking that “I started to become a fashion icon for wearing my old lady’s clothes.” Regardless of any infidelity on the set of Performance, Richards and Pallenburg remained together until 1980. In 2017, Pallenburg passed away at the age of 75.
Anita Pallenburg in Performance
The Production of “Gimme Shelter”
Unlike most Rolling Stones songs, “Gimme Shelter” opens unmistakably with female vocals. The popular recording features the voice of Merry Clayton, a collaboration which was arranged by the notable producer Jack Nitzsche. (Let it Bleed was officially produced by Jimmy Miller and released by Decca Records and ABKCO.) Keith Richards remembers realizing the song’s duet potential: “I can’t think of a time I ever started a song off saying, ‘This is going to be a duet,’” he’s said, “But somewhere in the process of making the record it suddenly became obvious that we needed a female voice. In addition to Mick Jagger and Merry Clayton’s vocals, the song features Jagger on harmonica, Keith Richards on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass, Nicky Hopkins on keys, and Charlie Watts on drums.
Merry Clayton’s, a talented gospel singer, was featured prominently in the acclaimed 2013 documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, which tells the unique stories of many industry background singers. In addition to the Rolling Stones, Clayton has sang alongside such rock and roll legends as The Who, Joe Cocker, Carole King, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more recently, Coldplay.
And while her soulful work on the great song made Merry Clayton’s career during the late 60’s, she has been candid about the personal toll which it took. In 1986, she shared a deeply troubling anecdote about the experience with the Los Angeles Times: “The physical strain of the intense duet with Mick Jagger resulted in a miscarriage after the session.” Following the incident, Clayton tried to keep a lower profile – even though “Gimme Shelter” would go on to become one of the Rolling Stones’ greatest songs of all time. And of constantly combatting that painful memory whenever “Gimme Shelter” comes on, Clayton has said she found strength in religion throughout the “dark, dark period.”
The Music Video for “Gimme Shelter” featuring Merry Clayton
And so, it is the contributions of women – both on the mic and behind the scenes – which have led to the enduring power of “Gimme Shelter.” After Anita Pallenburg sent Keith Richards into a romantic frenzy, Merry Clayton’s vocals went on to steal the show – a tough thing to do when sharing the stage with Mick Jagger. Fittingly, the Rolling Stones documentary which premiered in 1970 and culminated in the destructive Altamont Free Concert, takes its name from this heated track. Despite intentions, the song has come to represent the violent era it arose in, and it is constantly revived to characterize impending appocolypse. As Mick Jagger discussed with NPR during the aftermath of New York’s Hurricane Sandy, the song is often used “to evoke natural disaster.” Even today — perhaps especially today — the anger and danger lurking in “Gimme Shelter” can still feel like “just a shot away.”