It’s 1969, and the Beatles perform together for the last time on the roof of Apple headquarters in London as the US military begins a clandestine bombing campaign in Cambodia. It’s four years since the US officially entered Vietnam, and President Richard Nixon vows to begin withdrawing ground troops by September. Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon. Members of the Manson Family murder Sharon Tate and friends at the Benedict Canyon mansion she shares with husband Roman Polanski, as the US National Guard contains anti-war demonstrators with rubber bullets and skin stinging spray following the arrest of the Chicago Eight. Moratorium marches erupt across the US. Journalist Seymour Hersh publishes details of the My Lai massacre and the Rolling Stones record Gimme Shelter with Meryl Clayton singing a last-minute backing track that lifts the song through the roof.
Mick Jagger called Gimme Shelter an end of days song, a bleak and foreboding mirror to the insanity of the Vietnam War, race riots, anti-war riots, activists and anarchists and revolutionaries of all persuasions clashing with police from Chicago to Paris to New York. It’s a slow build, with Keith Richards picking a careful path through the overture before Meryl Clayton’s haunted vocal sweeps in like a fog, a mist, a darkening of something, a brewing, the helicopters in that scene from Apocalypse Now backlit by the sunrise, the moment before a scare, an explosion, a gunshot, the sound cranked out of old Triumph speakers to give it a bit more grunge, like something put together on the fly, the run, fleeing from something with good reason because they’re coming and they’re coming for you! Then Charlie Watts steps in with two snap reports on the tom and away we go.
Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away
Keith Richards, who actually wrote the song, doesn’t recall being infused with the same social outrage or conscience as Jagger, but it’s sure as hell infused with something. Gimme Shelter packs all the heft of an anti-war song, but unlike Sunday Bloody Sunday or Edwin Starr’s War, it’s rarely pulled out by filmmakers to soundtrack peace rallies or brand a sentiment. There’s something about Gimme Shelter, a menace, that lends itself equally to a helicopter gunship flying low over the Mekong Delta or the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the post-war diaspora of Vietnamese refugees that literally took to the sea. Seeking shelter. And many of those refuges travelled south down the Indonesian archipelago to Australia, where they were resettled without being interned in detention camps or issued with Temporary Protection Visas. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died in March 2015. At his funeral, members of the Vietnamese community attended to pay their respects carrying banners and placards applauding him as a champion of humanity. Their appeal for shelter has not been answered in the same way since.
Gimme Shelter appeared on the 1969 album Let It Bleed. On December 6 of that year, during a promotional tour of the US, the Rolling Stones held a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. The local chapter of the Hells Angels was asked to provide security. They were reportedly paid in beer. In a documentary of the event, aptly named Gimme Shelter, Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old arts student from Berkeley, is seen lunging towards the stage with what appears to be a gun. He is stopped by members of the Hells Angels armed with weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains, then beaten to the ground, and stabbed five times in the upper back. Meredith Hunter died at the scene. He was one of four to die that day at Altamont, an event promoters tried to sell as an alternative Woodstock but is now viewed by many as the symbolic end of an era. The Sixties. However the Sixties is seen, lost and remote to some, remembered by others as the most colourful, violent, ground-breaking decade of the century, it was the first time in history where the universe seemed to align in such a way as to create a space for thousands of people across the globe to stand up and in one voice say: What binds us is stronger and more valuable than what divides us. The anti-war movement. Feminism. Civil Rights. Gay Pride. In some ways, the anti-establishment movements of today have their roots in the Sixties. And behind every banner, every charge at the barricades, every Molotov cocktail and upturned car, what motivates the anger and passion and theatre and violence can be found in the last refrain of Gimme Shelter sung loud from the rooftops and pavements of Chicago, Paris, New York.
I said love, sister,
It’s just a kiss away
It’s just a kiss away….