Gimme Shelter Has a Darker Backstory Than Its Lyrics

“You get lucky sometimes,” Keith Richards said of the Rolling Stones’ haunting hit Gimme Shelter, which happens to be the greatest song he ever wrote. “It was a shitty day. I had nothing better to do.” There’s a lot to be said about the song, but in a nutshell, Richards wrote it when he was busy moping over Anita Pallenberg’s romance with Mick Jagger.

Merry Clayton / Mick Jagger / The Rolling Stones / The Rolling Stones, Hell Angels.
Source: Getty Images

Gimme Shelter ended up representing much more than jealousy and heartbreak, though. It symbolized things much darker, like rape, murder, and the death of the spirit of the 1960s. And those powerful backing vocals? Singer Merry Clayton had a tragic reason for why she couldn’t listen to the song for a long time.

In Career Hell, Depressed Over His Girl

In 1969, the Rolling Stones were still trying to get back on their feet after their 1967 album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, left them in career hell. It wasn’t easy, though, considering that Brian Jones, the other founder-member guitarist, kept falling further down into oblivion (he died in July 1969).

A photo of Mick Jagger performing with The Rolling Stones.
Photo by Larry Ellis/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The band’s final hit with Jones, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, was their only chart single for the last 18 months. Then there was the whole love square with Anita Pallenberg, who started out as Jones’ lover, only to be “stolen” by Richards a year later and, who by 1969, was filming sex scenes with Jagger for his movie debut, Performance.

One Stormy Day in London Town

Richards was all doom and gloom at this point. One stormy autumn day in 1968, he sat in gallery owner Robert Fraser’s Mayfair apartment, snorting you-know-what and thinking about you-know-who. Next to him was his guitar and surrounding him were Tibetan skulls, tantric art and Moroccan tapestries.

The Rolling Stones pose for a portrait lying down on the floor.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In the smoke-filled room, Richards started strumming away as the room lit up as lightning flashes covered the London sky. “It was just a terrible f***ing day,” he wrote in his memoir, Life, looking out at the storm. “I got into that mode – looking at all these people… running like hell.”

Six Months Later…

Ooh, a storm is threatening

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Ooh, yeah, I’m gonna fade away

With his first chords, Richards sang to himself, “Oh, a storm is threatening, my very life today.” He continued, adding the next line of lyrics. It took six months for that stormy day’s creation to come to life.

An image of a dense crowd at The Rolling Stones concert.
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By the spring of 1969, the Stones reconvened to start working on their next album, Let It Bleed. And the song from that rainy day back in the fall – now titled Gimme Shelter – was one of the first Richards and Jagger began working on with their producer, Jimmy Miller.

Meanwhile, the Boys Were Suffering

Gimme Shelter, the song that would sum up the Stones’ essence, was chosen as the album’s opening track. Let It Bleed took the band another six months to finish. Meanwhile, the boys were going through the most chaotic (stormy, if you will) period of their career.

A portrait of Brian Jones.
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Less than a month after Jones was officially kicked out of the band, in June of ‘69, he was found dead in his home’s swimming pool. Despite the tragedy, the band went on with their already scheduled free concert in Hyde Park. Besides, they had a new guitarist on the lineup: Mick Taylor.

Finding the Missing Piece in Merry Clayton

The band was also going to embark on their first US tour in November. But first things first: they had to complete their next album. Producer Miller argued that something was missing from Gimme Shelter. He felt there was a missing piece that could turn a good song into a great one.

A dated portrait of Merry Clayton.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It turns out, that missing piece came in the form of a 20-year-old backing singer named Merry Clayton. Clayton was young but known for her duets and vocals for Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach and Elvis Presley, to name a few.

Midnight, Pregnant, and in No Mood

Clayton recalled how she was about to go to bed in her LA home when she got the call. It was from the Stones’ assistant Jack Nitzsche. “It was almost midnight. I was pregnant at the time, and I thought, there’s no way in the world I’m getting out of bed to go down to some studio in the middle of the night.”

A photo of Merry Clayton.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

She told him no at first. Nitzsche then tells her, “There are some guys in town from England. And they need someone to come and sing a duet with them, but I can’t get anybody to do it. Could you come?”

Her Husband Talked Her Into It

It was her husband, jazz saxophonist Curtis Amy, who managed to talk her into taking the gig of a lifetime. Her husband grabbed the phone out of her hand and said to Nitzsche, “Man, what is going on? This time of night you’re calling Merry to do a session? You know she’s pregnant.”

A dated image of Merry Clayton posing for a portrait.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As Clayton started falling back asleep, her husband nudged her: “Honey, you know, you really should go and do this date.” Clayton didn’t know of the Rolling Stones at the time, but in that moment, it was an opportunity she realized she had to seize.

Then Jagger Handed Her the Lyrics

Clayton remembered that on that night, she was wearing “these beautiful pink pajamas,” and her hair was up in rollers. “But I took this Chanel scarf, wrapped it round the rollers so it looked really cute, went to the bathroom and put on a little lip blush.”

A photo of The Rolling Stones at a recording studio.
Photo by Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There was no way she was “going to the studio other than beautiful!” Wrapping herself in a fur coat, she headed to the studio and showed up as a professional, “ready to work.” She later admitted to being taken aback when she read the lyrics Jagger handed to her.

Rape? Murder?

Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away

Clayton, the daughter of a Baptist minister, who grew up singing in her father’s church in New Orleans, said, “Rape, murder…? You sure that’s what you want me to sing, honey?” But Jagger and Richards were just laughing.

Mick Jagger claps his hands during a performance.
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And so, they began their late-night recording session. Instantly, it was working. “You listen to the original tape, you can hear Mick whooping and hollering in the background,” Clayton said. Jagger later told NPR about the making of the track, specifically about how they got Clayton on board.

She Nailed It in the First Takes

The guys were in LA to record, and they suddenly realized they needed a woman’s vocals. Jagger explained how they got the idea that “it’d be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse, or chorus or whatever you want to call it.”

An image of Merry Clayton performing on stage.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

So, they “randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night.” Once in the studio, in her curlers, she nailed it in one or two takes. “She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric.” Despite her apprehensions over the dark lyrics, “she really got into it, as you can hear on the record.”

The Night That Ended in Tragedy

Clayton sang her part with such emotional force that her voice was cracking. (“I was just grateful that the crack was in tune,” she later admitted.) Yes, it became an epic track and Clayton’s vocals were hauntingly remembered.

A photo of Clayton performing on stage.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But that famous performance of her career turned out to be a tragic one for the singer. Shortly after leaving the studio, she suffered a miscarriage. While it can’t be officially stated what exactly caused the loss of her baby, it was generally assumed that the stress from her performance in combination with the late hour led to the miscarriage.

She Couldn’t Listen to It for Years

“We lost a little girl,” Clayton solemnly recalled years later. “It took me years and years and years to get over that.” She actually recorded her own version of the song the next year for her 1970 studio album, yet it took her a long time to listen to the Stones’ version because of how closely it was associated with losing her baby.

A photo of Merry Clayton at a recording studio.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“It left a dark taste in my mouth. It was a rough, rough time.” The song was simply too painful for her to hear. “That was a dark, dark period for me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986.

Merry Clayton’s 2014 Accident

She was best known for her singing with the Stones, but she also sang with Neil Young, Carole King and Lynyrd Skynyrd (she sang the chorus on Sweet Home Alabama). She was only 16 when she got to be the lead female singer in the Ray Charles Orchestra.

Merry Clayton attends an event.
Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

Clayton has faced her share of tragedies. Adding to the list was a horrific car crash in Los Angeles in 2014. Her injuries were so bad that she had to have both her legs amputated at the knees. For most musicians, it would mark the end of their career. But Clayton carried on.

The ‘60s Dream Became a ‘70s Nightmare

There were other bleak facets of Gimme Shelter that can’t be ignored. At the turn of a new decade, the song became a symbol for the moment when the ‘60s dream turned into a ‘70s nightmare. According to author Ian Rankin, the song “reflected the times, the end of the ‘60s and the hippy-dippy idealism.”

A photo of The Rolling Stones during a concert.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Stones were around to see the world turn darker than people thought it would – the Vietnam War, the birth of the serial killer, and politicians being assassinated. “The world seemed to be going to hell and a lot of that is reflected in the lyrics, as well as the sound.”

A Day Before the Deadly Altamont Festival

Let It Bleed was released a day before the Stones’ Altamont festival, on December 5, 1969. And for anyone who knows a thing or two about rock history, Altamont was a dreadful concert. The ill-fated festival saw the death of teenager Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels.

A photo of The Rolling Stones at Altamont.
Photo by Jeff Hochberg/Getty Images

Of course, the Stones could never have predicted such an outcome, but the concert only added to the ominous tone of Gimme Shelter, which was also the name of the band’s 1970 documentary. The song, and the album, came at a time when the world was, well, bleeding.

The Song With an Apocalyptic Feel

Gimme Shelter has a very apocalyptic feel. “It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit,” Jagger said of the song. “It was a time of war and tension, so that’s reflected in this tune.” Stephen Davis, author of Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, said…

A photo of Mick Jagger singing on stage.
Photo by Jeff Hochberg/Getty Images

“No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” Decades later, the song is still played when big storms happen. “It’s been used a lot to evoke natural disasters,” Jagger noted.

Richards Knew Pallenberg Was Having an Affair With Jagger

In his memoir, Richards wrote that Gimme Shelter’s apocalyptic mood had matter-of-fact roots. Going back to his heartbreak at the time, he was dwelling over the fact that his girlfriend was out romping with his fellow band member for a movie.

Anita Pallenberg helps Mick Jagger with his make-up on a filming set.
Photo by Andrew Maclear/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was getting high by himself while she was out filming her most celebrated role alongside Jagger in the film Performance, released in 1970. Richards just knew that the love scenes weren’t fake and that Pallenberg and Jagger were surely having an affair. He wrote all about it in Life.

She Was No Typical Groupie

He spent six pages making a point that he wasn’t upset by Pallenberg’s infidelity. But he was also calling director Donald Cammell “a pimp,” and Performance “third-rate porn.” He even called out Jagger and his “tiny todger.” This coming from a man who wasn’t bothered by it all? I don’t buy it.

A dated portrait of Anita Pallenberg.
Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images

For those who have yet to learn about Anita Pallenberg, she was an electrifying woman – one who spurred conflict, especially among small-knit groups of men. She looked like the typical ‘60s groupie – a model and groupie, no less.

They Were Scared of Her

But Pallenberg wasn’t some piece of decoration for the band during the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was a force of nature to be reckoned with. They all seem to have been terrified of her. “She scared the pants off me … you were taking on a Valkyrie,” Richards confessed.

A dated photo of Pallenberg and Richards.
Photo by Michael Webb/Getty Images

As for Jagger, he professed, “she nearly killed me,” decades later. Jones, who didn’t live to tell his personal opinion of her, was abuse to her. She was subjected to his drunken violence but didn’t take it lying down. She beat the living daylights out of him.

She Changed the Way They Dress and Made Music

Her influence on the band was strong, even impacting the way they dressed. Richards, in particular, started dressing like her with big hats, fur coats, and jewelry. “I started to become a fashion icon,” Richards noted, “for wearing my old lady’s clothes.”

A photo of Mick Jagger during a performance.
Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

Pallenberg was well-educated and well-connected (she knew Andy Warhol before ever meeting the Stones) and managed to change the internal power dynamic of the band. They respected her opinion about their music, too. Story has it they remixed their 1968 album, Beggars Banquet, after Pallenberg criticized it.

The Beast of Burden

Pallenberg inspired other Stones songs. Take 1978’s Beast of Burden, for example, written by both Richards and Jagger. In 1977, Richards wrote a demo track with all of the music but only some lyrics. Jagger then had to fill in the rest.

A picture of The Rolling Stones during rehearsal.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Even when it came to recording the song in the studio, the lyrics were changed, which is partly why both band members later admitted to not even remembering its original meaning. But they did leave a trail of hints, which pointed to not only Pallenberg but Marianne Faithfull, another woman who rocked the Stones’ boat.

Just Pallenberg or Women in General?

I’ll never be your beast of burden

My back is broad but it’s a-hurting

All I want for you to make love to me

I’ll never be your beast of burden

Jagger sang the lyrics but many believe it was Richards who wrote the song with Pallenberg in mind.

A photo of Michèle Breton, Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger.
Photo by Andrew MacLear/Getty Images

Am I hard enough?

Am I rough enough?

Am I rich enough?

I’m not too blind to see

It’s also thought that Beast of Burden wasn’t written about just Pallenberg, but about Jagger and Richards’ relationships with women in general.

The Story Behind Angie

There’s another song by the Stones whose inspiration is not officially known. Well, Richards did reveal a thing or two about it in his memoir, specifically why the name of the 1973 song is called “Angie.” He stated, for the record, that the name of the track has nothing to do with his daughter Angela, whom he had with Pallenberg.

A photo of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performing with the Rolling Stones.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Richards discussed how he wrote the song while in a rehabilitation clinic. “While I was in the clinic, Anita was down the road having our daughter, Angela,” he wrote.

The Name Came Out of Nowhere

Once he left the hospital, he had his guitar with him, and he wrote Angie that afternoon. He was sitting in bed as he started strumming, happy to see that he could move his fingers “and put them in the right place again.”

A portrait of Keith Richards during an interview.
Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

He added, “and I didn’t feel like I had to s*** the bed or climb the walls or feel manic anymore.” As for the name of the song, it came out of nowhere. “I just went, ‘Angie, Angie,’” he recalled. “It was not about any particular person; it was a name, like oh, Diana.”

It Was Fate, Perhaps

The name couldn’t have had anything to do with his daughter because he says his wife was giving birth as he was writing the song. “I didn’t know Angela was going to be called Angela when I wrote ‘Angie,’” he explained.

A dated picture of Keith Richards during an interview.
Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

In fact, he didn’t even know that the baby was going to be a girl. Their baby was initially named Dandelion, but since she was born in a Catholic hospital, the staff insisted she should have a name that was more “proper.”

How the World Responded

The ballad of Angie became a success, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it stayed there for 16 weeks. the British, on the other hand, were less receptive to Angie for some reason. Although Richards himself claims the name Angie “came out of nowhere,” many fans believe that simply just can’t be.

The Rollings Stones perform on stage.
Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

Anyway, it’s always fun to discuss theories over meanings of songs. One possible inspiration for the name Angie was the wife of David Bowie. From 1970 to 1980, Bowie was married to the American actress, model, and journalist, Angela Barnett Bowie.

Was It David Bowie’s Wife?

Angela, or Angie, was something of a fashion icon in the ‘70s. It was Angela herself who claimed to be the muse to the Stones song. Both Richards and Jagger, however, continuously deny her claim. A rumor went around that Angela once walked in on her husband, Bowie, in bed with Jagger, who was naked.

A dated portrait of Angie Bowie.
Photo by John Downing/Getty Images

She promised to keep it hush-hush, but on one condition: that they write her a song. Bowie was already known as bisexual and Angela was accepting of his lifestyle, so this story doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

Was It Angie Dickinson?

No one can forget the blonde bombshell actress Angie Dickinson, who was at the height of her popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was known for dating all kinds of famous men, including having affairs with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and (it’s rumored) John F. Kennedy.

A portrait of Angie Dickinson, smiling, wearing a backless yellow, glittering outfit.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

But Angie, Angie

You can’t say we never tried

Angie, you’re beautiful, yeah

But ain’t it time we said goodbye?

When Angie was released in 1973, however, Dickinson was married to Burt Bacharach. People have speculated that the actress, best known for the show Police Woman, inspired the Stones’ song.

Was It Marianne Faithfull?

The singer, songwriter and actress was with Jagger from 1966 to 1970, and it’s said that Angie was partly written about her. As many of the Stones’ songs were made, Richards wrote part of them and Jagger filled the rest in.

A portrait of Marianne Faithfull.
Photo by Davies/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Angie is one of the Jagger-Richards tunes that is widely considered to be mostly Richards’. Faithfull is said to have been the inspiration for Sympathy for the Devil, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Wild Horses, I Got the Blues, She Smiled Sweetly, Winter, She’s Like a Rainbow, 100 Years Ago, and Let’s Spend the Night Together.

Diving Into Sympathy for the Devil

Speaking of Faithfull and 1968’s Sympathy for the Devil, let’s dive into the meaning of the song a bit more. Some of you may even remember when the song was released, and with it the mayhem. The world came to meet Mick Jagger, aka the “Devil.”

A portrait of Mick Jagger wearing his stage costume.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Please allow me to introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

He essentially released the demon, and for those who truly believed he was Satan himself, the fact that Altamont happened the following year only attested to the fact.

When Jagger Became the Antichrist

Sympathy for the Devil became the band’s legacy. It was daring to present himself to world as the Antichrist, but if anyone could pull it off, it was Jagger. “Confessing” to being the wrongdoer of some of the worst events in history (the blitzkrieg raid and assassinating JFK) was a gag for the singer.

Mick Jagger poses for a studio portrait.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The public wasn’t laughing along, though. But then again, the people can think what they want. At the end of the day, music is art and art is subjective. Just listen to the tune and bob your head. Or, you know, turn it off.

In the Hot Seat

In 1967, the Stones found themselves on the hot seat when the press, religious leaders, parent groups, and the government were all accusing the guys of moral corruption. The most extreme of the cases was the claim that the band supported Satanism.

An image of The Rolling Stones performing on stage.
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In support of this ridiculous claim was the fact that the Stones had just released Their Satanic Majesties Request. Then, when Sympathy for the Devil came out the year following, the guys were in trouble. But Jagger, who wrote this one, explained what the song was all about…

A Time of Turmoil

Jagger explained that he drew inspiration from a bunch of sources that he came across in 1968, when he wrote it. “It was a time of turmoil,” he started. “It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II.”

The press takes pictures of The Rolling Stones in a custard pie during a conference.
Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Stuck around St. Petersburg

When I saw it was a time for a change

Killed Tsar and his ministers

Anastasia screamed in vain

One known reference is the works of French poet Charles Baudelaire. Another more obvious influence is Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and the Margarita – a book Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, gave to him at the time.

Reverse Values and Confusion

Just as every cop is a criminal

And all the sinners, saints

As heads is tails

Just call me Lucifer

‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

A portrait of Mick Jagger at the time.
Photo by Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL/Getty Images

The book was acclaimed for his its fantasy and satire. All those reverse values and confusion in the book inspired Jagger, who wrote of cops as criminals and of “sinners saints.” Another influence is Bob Dylan. Jagger pulls a Dylan by referencing major historic moments (he referred to it as a “sort of like a Bob Dylan song”).

Richards Finds It an Uplifting Song

In more ways than one, Sympathy for the Devil is a lot like Gimme Shelter, showing the dark turn from the ‘60s to the ‘70s. Unlike Gimme Shelter, however, Sympathy was written entirely by Jagger. Richards’ main influence was assisting in the rhythm.

A dated picture of Richards and Jagger at a recording studio.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“I was just trying to figure out if it was a Samba or a goddam folk song,” Richards said in 2002. He even went on to say that Sympathy is “quite an uplifting song” – that it’s “just a matter of looking the Devil in the face.”

Then Anita Pallenberg Showed Up

Pallenberg made an appearance in Sympathy as well, but not in the lyrics. She happened to become part of the vocals. It was something of a happy accident. She stopped by the studio when the boys were recording.

A portrait of Anita Pallenberg.
Photo by NOA/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

After 32 takes of the folk version of the song, they tried using a Samba beat and Pallenberg sang along. She chanted “Whoo-whoo” in the booth. The Stones liked it and eventually recorded the “whoo-whoo” as a gang vocal with Palenberg, Richards, Jones, Bill Wyman, Faithfull and Jimmy Miller.

Bad Publicity Is Good Publicity

When Beggars Banquet came out in December of 1968, the world was a mess. Six months after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, both critics and fans were calling the band “devil worshippers” and “messengers for Lucifer.” Bad publicity is good publicity, as we know.

A photo of The Rolling Stones during a concert.
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It probably didn’t help that Pallenberg was seen wearing anti-vampire garlic around her neck and would keep voodoo-style bones in her dresser. Then there was filmmaker and occultist Kenneth Anger who wanted Jagger to play Lucifer in his next film.

Opening Pandora’s Box

As Richards told Rolling Stone once, “Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time.” After Sympathy, “they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil!’” Jagger was taken aback by the backlash. He said 20 years on, “It was only one song. It wasn’t like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back.”

Keith Richards attends an event.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

It’s been said that with the song, Jagger opened Pandora’s Box. Musician and occultist Kieran Leonard explained: “It kicked down the door for diabolism in the mainstream.”

The Stabbing Didn’t Happen When the Song Was Playing

We can’t ignore the fact that, at the Altamont festival (“rock’n’roll’s all-time worst day”) a teenager was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels. Popular lore, fueled by bad reporting, made everyone think the murder happened while the band was playing Sympathy for the Devil.

A photo of The Rolling Stones and Hell Angels at Altamont.
Photo by Jeff Hochberg/Getty Images

Sure, trouble started brewing during that song, but the murder actually took place a few songs later. Nevertheless, the song felt tainted and the Stones didn’t play Sympathy live again for several years.