On the occasion of my youngest daughter turning 20 years old last week, I found myself reflecting on my own 20th birthday. Isn’t that what parents do? It was 1986, and I was living in Hughes Hall at the American University in Washington D.C. I had a room at the end of the hallway on the 2nd floor, and I enjoyed coming home from class in the afternoon and playing some music to wind down my day.
Compact Discs were the new technology, and I was carefully using my hard earned money to buy CD’s to replace albums I had loved for years, and exploring music that was new to me as well. I had just bought Let it Bleed by The Rolling Stones, and as I sat on the window sill outside my room at the end of the long dorm room hall, a wailing guitar slowly faded in. The sun began to set.
During the mid to late 1960’s, monster rock bands were at the height of their creativity, and though each of them could have easily rested on their laurels and sold millions of albums earning millions of dollars, they pushed each other. The Beatles tried to outdo the Beach Boys with lush harmonies and instrumentation. The Rolling Stones tried to keep with the Beatles songwriting and creativity. The Who made their voice heard above all else with audacious, bombastic orchestral statements while The Kinks seemingly toiled away in the background making solid music while exploring different musical traditions and modes of storytelling.
Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. Revolver by the Beatles. Who’s Next by The Who. The Kink Kontroversy by The Kinks. Let it Bleed by the Rolling Stones. All albums released in just over a five year time span. All pushing the creative boundaries of the time. The bands are not copying each other, but they are letting themselves be inspired by one another. They are carefully listening, and trying to do more. Trying to bring more influences into their music. Trying to reflect more out into the world.
“Gimme Shelter” is the first track off the masterful 1969 Let it Bleed album by the Rolling Stones. Though not generally considered one of the Stones’ best efforts by fans and critics, the album beautifully showcases their inspiration and their creativity. From blues (“Love in Vain” and “Midnight Rambler”) to country (“Country Honk”) to expansive ballads (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) the album showcases everything the Stones had been, and would be. The album begins with the lonely cry of Keith Richards’ guitar playing a drawling lick. Mick Jagger sings.
“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away”
It is the end of the 1960’s, and the Stones and their fans are living through the Viet Nam war, civil rights protests, crime and violence in the streets. After the first verse, studio vocalist Merry Clayton’s voice comes in like a tornado alarm above Mick’s thundering lead vocal. We need to be paying attention to what is happening in the world around us. We need to be paying attention to her.
“War, children, it’s just a shot away.
It’s just a shot away.”
The song is all chorus. There are a couple of verses, but all we hear ringing in our ears is Merry Clayton’s breathtaking background vocals.
It’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away.”
In the history of recorded music, there are few performances like Merry Clayton’s “Gimme Shelter” background vocal. Called upon with no opportunity for preparation in the middle of the night, Clayton shows up in the Los Angeles studio, 8 months pregnant, and delivers a blistering vocal that demands attention. The song is a warning, a blaring alarm. Mick Jagger can even be heard on the recording to exclaim “Whoah” after Clayton’s voice comes close to cracking as she carries all the emotion, all the worry, all the love.
Sitting at the end of the hallway in my college dorm, watching the sunset on my teenage years as my adult life was beginning to roll out before me, I could not help wonder what the next decade would bring. Was I ready? Was I alert? Was I prepared? I knew I needed to be. All I could hear, over and over again…”It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.”
Written by Jagger/Richards
Performed by The Rolling Stones
Released December 5, 1969