‘Gimme Shelter’ or ‘Gimmie Shelter’
as originally named, was released by Decca Records in 1969 on The Rolling
Stones number one album, Let It Bleed. Written by vocalist Mick Jagger and guitarist
Keith Richards, the lyrics portray and define the vulnerability and fear for
life in the late 1960s. We can draw parallels between Gimme Shelter and the
counterculture, racism, new technology, world events and youth culture that was found at the time.
Although The Rolling Stones are a UK rock band, the album as a whole, and
specifically my chosen song, depicts the desperation for shelter in the USA in 1969.
begin with the Vietnam War. ‘Fifty-nine thousand soldiers were killed and over
three hundred thousand were debilitated’ (USA
National Archives, n.d.) throughout the lengthy conflict and
‘over half a million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians’ (Abbott, 2016) are still being identified to this day.
The horror of this conflict is unimaginable for most, especially those who
weren’t alive at the time. However, through music we can begin to understand the
true nature of just how horrific the war was. For example, the first two lines
of the first verse ‘Ooh, a storm is threat’ning, my very life today’. This,
according to Jagger is a metaphor for the Vietnam War and his feeling that ‘the
world was closing in on you’ (NPR, 2012, p. NPR). This can be
justified as man-made warfare paired with natural disasters at the time forced
fear into the hearts of the public and it was common belief that death was
‘just a shot away’.
parallel we can draw between Vietnam and Gimme Shelter is through the line ‘The
fire is sweeping’. Vietnam was particularly horrific due to the nature of
weaponry used against a developing opposition whose technological warfare was
certainly not up to the same standard. This reference specifically refers to
the devastating ‘napalm, herbicide poisoning and bombings’ (Robert, 2016) that destroyed huge areas of the
Vietnamese jungle. The idea of ‘spreading’ can be juxtaposed with the napalm
strikes, as it represents the ‘anger and protests that gained national
prominence in 1965 over the violence and expense’ (Williams, 2010) of the conflict.
can compare race riots the war on the streets of the USA and the UK with the
war in Vietnam. Race played a huge part in 1960s culture. In the UK in 1968, just
months before the recording of Gimme Shelter, a controversial speech was made
expressing the ‘concerns over mass commonwealth immigration’ (Powell, 1968), also referenced on the Beatles song
‘Get Back’. Due to the changing times
and culture, this ultimately led to Powell’s sacking from the government. The
USA had and still has problems of its own when it comes to race. In the 1960s,
African Americans were experiencing ‘extreme public violence’ (Coop, 1992) which saw brutal
beatings by police officers as well as white politicians encouraging
segregation with political bills such as the Southern Manifesto. Again, we
experience the need for ‘shelter’, as at the time our own streets were not
safe. Rock music and especially the
music of The Stones was a way of integrating races, with white youth listening
to what was known as black music. It’s well known that The Stones’ biggest
influence is blues music, the same can be said for the whole of rock and roll. Live
performances, such as those given at the time by the Stones, were places where
everyone from any background could come together and listen to good music.
wasn’t the case when it came to the Altamont Free Concert at the Altamont
Speedway in 1969. The invention of new technology as mentioned with weaponry
earlier has a huge effect on how society functions, the new weaponry overseas
was killing thousands, while at the same time new inventions were also causing
problems in the western world. A perfect example of this in the 60s is the
invention of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide
(LSD). Many 60s rock bands were heavily influenced by this creation.
‘The Doors, The Beatles and The Grateful Dead’ (Wikipedia, 2015) are examples of this. These bands
almost encouraged the use of mind altering substances and this filtered down
into the 60s counterculture. Unfortunately, the concert at Altamont is renowned
for its extreme violence and the untimely death of a young African American man,
Meredith Hunter who was stabbed by a member of the white biker group the Hells
Angels. This was accompanied by three accidental deaths, one of which was LSD
heavy use of LSD went hand in hand with youth culture at the time. It was
almost ‘religious symbolism’ (Wikipedia, 2015) to be under the influence of such drugs
at 60s rock concerts. Young people, however, were responsible for many positive
points I have mentioned above. Anti-war protests were mainly attended by young
people who believed it was time for change. This can still be seen now with
‘more than half of those aged 18-24’ (Holder, et al., 2017) wanting a more free
and liberal society. The hippy movement in particular, which began in San
Francisco in the early 60s, wanted a free and integrated society. This
accompanied with psychedelic substances made for a brilliant sub-culture that
is common today.
to the violence, uncertainty and vulnerability of the times, Richards has said
his inspiration for this song came from watching people ‘running for shelter
from a sudden monsoon’ (NPR, 2012).
This is interesting as it differs from Jagger’s perspective. However, you can’t
help but compare the sight of people running from a storm from the civilians
escaping the napalm strikes in Vietnam. This just highlights the thoughts of the
world at the time, as Richards goes on to say how the lyrics ‘Rape, murder’
naturally came to him while watching the situation play out.
marry the hippy movement, new technology, young people, race and world events
with Gimme Shelter, I’d like to highlight the outro to the song. ‘I’ll tell you
love, sister, it’s just a kiss away’. This line is Jagger and Richards way of
saying it’s easier to love one another than it is to fight. Instead of death
being ‘a shot away’, love is ‘just a kiss away’ (Jagger & Richards, 1969).