I am going to tell you what makes this song so great. I am not going to go into Greil Marcus territory and lay out some whole context — real or imagined. We all know everything about the sixties by now. Its arc is perhaps the most-documented six-year era ever. It goes something like this: crooners, doo-woppers, beatnicks, Elvis and sub-Elvis teen idols carry over from the 1950s. Kennedy. Beatles. Dylan. Stones. MLK. RFK. Woodstock. Altamont. In other words, everything you ever learned about the sixties, you learned from “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Good shit happened. Then bad shit started to happen. As with Dylan the Stones had smelled it turning, the malevolence, the distrust, the inevitable human frailty of it all, and the band had already positioned themselves as the harbingers of bad shit; the counterculture’s counterpoint; the dark to the Beatles light. Beggar’s Banquet was just that, a veritable banquet of dark, stark, almost James Dickey-like Appalachian folk-evil, the kind that envelopes the hills… Sorry, starting to sound like Marcus. Gotta rein it in before we get into Harry Smith and that “weird old America” stuff.
But yeah, listen to “Street Fighting Man,” from Beggars Banquet (1968), the oft-cited cynical, sarcastic urban musical answer to Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 Motown smash, “Dancing in the Street.” I mean, it’s hard to ignore; right there you have it, the direct point/counterpoint of the sixties, an archly ironic answer to a happy song about, literally, dancing in the streets. Much had changed in the four years between the releases.
But the Stones always seem to have it both ways, at least. (if there are more ways, they take them too). They knew that, for example, the irony of “Sympathy for the Devil”‘ was not going to be clear to all listeners. They were tweaking everyone except those in on the joke. Everyone else likely questioned whether it was Mick confessing his allegiance to Satan. The Stones enjoy it on those two levels. Plus, the bonus third way, which is just gravy: the love from those true Satanists (whose who later signed up to be Knights In Satan’s Service, Sabbath fans, and Jimmy Page) who do enjoy the song on that level. “Cool, Mick likes Satan as well.”
“Gimme Shelter,” the opening salvo from Let it Bleed (1969) is only sort of like that. But here is fey skinny-ass Jagger reaching deep into his diaphragm and his psyche to belt out a bellowing, urgent alarm. A storm is threatening. They’re no longer tweaking the flower children. There is no sarcasm or irony. They are instead musically consistent with a horrible message about war, rape, murder. Now it feels like the walls are really closing in. Indeed, rarely has the band been so direct and so earnest in socio-political commentary. So, the performance seems to have no other level. There is an apparent directness of purpose. But the Stones also know that the song just works on a musical groovy, funky, and sexual way. It is as if it’s a challenge: get off on this nihilistic deathwish trip. We are going to lay out what sounds like the musical representation of sex, and layer it with a post-hippy news flash. “Eve of Destruction?” “Ball of Confusion?” Wait till you hear this. As noted on Wikipedia: “In his 2001 Stones bio, Stephen Davis said of the album “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” Indeed, the day after its 5 December release is the date of the infamous Altamont Free Concert. ”
I would go even further and say that no one rock song, before or since, has so completely captured that sense of dread.
Every minute of this song offers something new. Let’s listen.
0:01 This guitar riff that starts this is an archetype in and of itself, from the master of riffs. It is a clean, but dark and reverby guitar with a deep tremelo dynamic. Already it disorients us. Producer Jimmy Miller has a little slap back echo off to the other side. The riff is like a stick of butter sliding around in a pan, melting, turning brown. Is that a labored analogy? Because that would have been my video treatment.
0:07 Two tom hits and Charlie brings in the band, with a halting stop-and-start beat on the kick and snare drum, leading in Keith’s second guitar, which plays all those slightly overdriven bluesy leads throughout the rest of the song; backing vocals singing those haunting horror-movie “ooh’s” layers on; and that heavy percussion scratches its way in.
The secret ingredient that makes this recording so great is the percussion, a Jimmy Miller trademark. The American Miller brought Southern and Latin American percussion to Brit rock starting with Spencer Davis (“Gime Some Lovin'”; “I’m a Man”) and Traffic, and from then on the Brits got funky. “Lola,” for example, uses this muscular percussion, with the same sort of mix of acoustic and electric guitars. On “Gimme Shelter,” Miller has maracas, a shekere — a big gourd with beads on the outside — and a güiro, another gourd that you scratch with a stick to get that almost drunk cicada sound, the rhythmic ratchet that drives this arrangement. It makes the song.
0:25 Bill on bass. Pulsing half notes. Organ chirps intermittently. Piano lays in with heavy whole-note bass chords.
0:40 With two more snare beats, Charlie kicks it into a backbeat. The song carries away, driving through the ominous fog. Piano still laying in low heavy bass chords.
0:50 Mick enters in a rarely featured low and guttural register of his voice. His lead vocal is double tracked in unison, which was also pretty rare for the Stones.
1:08 Backing vocals enter — Mick’s harmony and Merry Clayton in two more parts. Merry lingers as lead comes in at…
1:30 …with a nice rest before it, then a short guitar line. Now Mick is singing about the red coal carpet, Merry singing harmonies on many of the lines. The Vietnam War is the subject here. Into the next chorus.
2:04 The big-ass shaker comes up front; blues harp howls; piano clangs; a throbbing drone on this single chugging/churning chord that forms the verse section of the arrangement.
2:19 Keith’s lead breaks the tension and the band rocks into the chorus progression. The music is all tension and release. The piano sounds like a honky tonk upright, played by Nicky Hopkins. It is in the background, playing off of Keith’s parts,
2:42 Mick comes in with an ad lib “hey-yayyay,” like he is signaling to the band. But it is Merry who takes the solo vocal here, an absolute classic vocal performance, with an otherwordly timbre even before her voice cracks at 3:01. Everyone knows that voice crack. It sends shivers down your spine every time you hear it. But there is a little crack in the voice on the line that precedes it, at 2:58. You get the feeling that she felt it a buckle a little on that first one, and it surprised her, and she made a split-second instinctual decision to push the next line even harder, rather than retreat when she felt that crack. She almost consciously knew that by taking the chance to push it even more would result in something that would convey her emotion even more effectively. It’s called soul. I am trying to define “soul.”
After her shiver-inducer, you can hear Mick off mic exclaim, “WOOH!” And she does it again to lead out of this section at about 3:06. It sounds like the Wilson sisters of Heart almost templated their whole career on the quality of Merry’s voice as it lingers out into 3:10 and beyond.
Until recently, I felt that the “WOOH!” from Mick mentioned above must have only been a coincidental moment in the recording inasmuch as it seemed like a real-time reaction to Merry’s legendary shriek. Jagger was known for leading singing live with the band, setting down a “guide vocal” while in the “live room” as the basic tracking went down. The result is that you often hear that original Jagger guide track bleeding into the final mixes of songs as he seeped into all the “open” mics capturing the guitar amps and, especially, the drums. That’s what I always took that exclamation to be. And I had always assumed that Merry would have laid her track down as a later overdub, singing alone. But then I found this amazing gift to humanity:
And so you can hear, it seems to have happened at the same time, at the same microphone, on the same track. It is difficult to say for certain, as this might just be a sub-mix of all the vocal tracks from various takes. But the Stones often laid down tracks at the same time, especially as early as 1969 when tracks were limited, probably to just eight. Regardless, this isolated track just makes you appreciate the power of her performance even more. (all sorts of rumors can be read online, including one that she miscarried after this take, later on that same day). And then you hear another “whoa” at 3:15 the end of her last line of that solo, one that is not as audible in the full mix (blown out by the harmonica). Like Mick still could not believe what he just heard. True church. And reverb that would make My Morning Jacket drool.
3:19-3:30 Charlie’s drum sound like a monster here, and on this whole song. No, I mean really like a snarling, sweaty, limping monster. He is laying in to that low-tuned kick and snare beat
3:40 Ghostly Merry backing vox
3:46 Extended verse, it’s just a kiss away, a solution. Earnest expression that love can save, man.
4:07 The band jams into the fade. Fuzzed-out harp; barley in-tune upright piano. Fade.
I was only three when this record came out. I can not imagine what it would have been like to put the needle down on side one of Let it Bleed and hearing these four minutes and thirty seconds. I think I would be scared. And then I would replay it.