A 2011 poll of critics and musicians justifiably voted Gimme Shelter the number one Jagger/Richards composition of the Rolling Stones’ long, celebrated career. Despite that, it’s widely rumoured to have been written by Keith Richards alone in response to the pain inflicted on him by his partner Anita Pallenberg’s affair with Mick Jagger on the set of Performance.
Richards’ initial spark for the song was a sudden London downpour sending people scurrying for cover, observed from the window of a friend’s upper-floor flat. It was his distressed mind that filled it with the apocalyptically dark imagery that gives it its menacing power.
Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
Legendary engineer George Chkiantz has a more prosaic theory for Gimme Shelter’s punch:
“The Triumph amplifiers were the key to Gimme Shelter. What they discovered was that these amps would produce this amazing crunch once they’d just got to a certain stage of overheating, just before they’d turn themselves off or blew up or something, and you can tell by the dimness of the lights. As the lights dimmed – you had to have them at just exactly the right volume and they had had to be going like that for just the right amount of time – then suddenly the sound out of them would produce this extraordinary sound, the core to that track.”
In the end, the enduring brilliance of Gimme Shelter can’t be explained away by Keith Richards’ state of mind during its inception or by the amplifiers that were used during its recording. It’s a combination of these and other factors; Richards’ innovative guitar work, the precise conviction of Charlie Watts’ drum breaks, Mick Jagger’s caterwauling harmonica blasts and his vocals, brilliantly backed by Merry Clayton. But the ingredients for this recipe weren’t just a happy accident. Here’s what Keith Richards said about it in a 2002 interview:
“You write a song and then think, ‘Let’s see what the other guys think’, because that’s really part of the magic. You come up with an idea and pass it through the rest of the band and it’s what the band does with it that makes it magic.”
But that wasn’t the case with Gimme Shelter:
“It sounded like what I was hearing in my head as I was writing it.”