What is the greatest rock and roll song of all time? For many people it comes down to two iconic choices.
In recent years I accepted the opinion of most rock experts that “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin held the #1 position. But I was conflicted.
For one thing I never saw Led Zeppelin live. I was supposed to go to a concert a few years ago. But after opening in London, the band cancelled the rest of the tour.
Stairway is a powerful song that starts off softly, increases to a frenzied guitar riff and finishes quietly. The instrumentality is superb. It’s a miracle to hear Jimmy Page play the guitar and Robert Plant sing the lyrics. I love the title of the song and the vision of climbing stairs up to heaven at the end of my life.
A few years ago I had an epiphany. The other song deserves the top spot. It’s “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. I had a change of heart because I’m a huge fan of the Stones and have seen them many times in person. But also Shelter brings me back to my college years and causes me to reminisce about the problems in America at that time. I felt threatened by a tremendous storm and sought shelter during those tender years.
Shelter is an explicit and unfiltered reflection of what young people felt in 1969. The Vietnam War was going strong and all able men were being drafted to fight a senseless war prosecuted by maniacal US presidents. Over 50 thousand Americans died in combat. It was a revolutionary time as young people protested not only an immoral war, but also the plight of African Americans and other oppressed people. What came out of this era still affects us to this day.
It might be helpful for those readers, who were not born when the album debuted, to know exactly what transpired at that time. Even I was surprise when I came across this list researched by a person referred to as “Melinda from Australia” about a Stones Internet post.
Here are some of the important events that inspired Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to write the song. It was the jewel and first track of the “Let It Bleed” album.
- Robert Kennedy was assassinated
- Black Power salute by African American athletes at the Olympics
- Student protests that started the Polish political crisis
- The My Lai massacre in Vietnam
- London Grosvenor Square protest of Vietnam War, 91 people injured
- Student protest at Howard University
- Paris student riots
- Black Panther shootout with police in Oakland
- Martin Luther King assassinated
- Columbia University students shut down school
- Andy Warhol shot
- Anti war protests during Chicago Democratic Convention
Keith Richards sat down on a dreary day and wrote a dark and depressing song. Many bad things were happening in the world and to the Stones at that moment. The 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request” was panned and some said it would derail the Stones’ meteoric rise. And the group was dealing with the aberrant behavior of Brian Jones who died soon after.
Richards was also having love problems as Jagger had stolen away his current love interest. In his memoir Richards said “It was a terrible f—king day, this miserable storm hung over London. So I got into that mode- looking at all these people . . . running like hell.”
As Jagger and Richards were tidying up Shelter they felt something was missing in the song that would ultimately be glorified as “the greatest, most legendary, most daring and sophisticated dark and evil and sexy.”
The Stones summoned Merry Clayton, a 21 year-old African American woman who sang with Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach and Elvis Presley, to work on Shelter. It was about midnight when Clayton got a call to join the Stones immediately at their recording studio. Clayton was pregnant and tried to opt out, but was convinced to go by her musician husband.
She went to the session in a fur coat, pajamas, with rollers in her hair. The story is that Clayton did her part in three takes. She said, “I’m like, ‘Rape, Murder . . . ?’ You sure that’s what you want me to sing, honey?” It was, and Jagger and Richards were out of their minds ecstatic with her contribution to the song.
The key lyrics in the song include the following:
Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’
Our very street today
Burns like a red coal carpet
Mad bull lost its way
Rape, murder yeah!
The floods is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m gonna fade away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
Combined with the music played by Keith Richards on guitar, these lyrics present a portrait of the late sixties when war, riots and fear overwhelmed America and the rest of the world. There was no shelter at the time. It was a seminal moment in history.
This link will take you to one of my favorite renditions of the song. Unfortunately I do not know the name of the woman who sings with Jagger. She is incredible.
It doesn’t matter if you agree with my choice, and I, in no way am denigrating Stairway. It’s a fabulous song as well.
I have many memories of the 1960s that, to this day, define who I am. I was frightened about what was happening around the globe, especially in Vietnam. Circumstances caused me to grow up quickly to survive in those times as did most of my contemporaries. Every time I here Gimme Shelter I’m transported back to those memorable moments.