Rolling Stones

Hear Keith Richards sing Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ on rare demo

For a track as apocalyptic and violent ‘Gimme Shelter’, the roots of the song are relatively benign. Outside the purview of his bandmates, Keith Richards wasn’t thinking about war or famine or even death when he first started strumming out the iconic chords. Instead, Richards was taken with a sudden change in weather that sent people running for cover.

“I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down,” Richards recalled to Jeff Giles in 2017. “It was just people running about looking for shelter – that was the germ of the idea. We went further into it until it became, you know, rape and murder are ‘just a shot away’.”

“And those chords are Jimmy Reed inspired,” Richards also recalls in his autobiography Life. “The same haunting trick, sliding up the fretboard against the drone of the E. I’m just working my way up A major, B major, and I go, ‘Hello, where are we ending up? C-sharp minor? OK.’ It’s a very unlikely guitar key. But you’ve just got to recognise the setups when you hear them. A lot of them, like this one, are accidents.”

Richards had plenty of tumult in his life to pick from. The guitarist was starting to descend into heroin addiction at the time, which likely added to the moody atmosphere of ‘Gimme Shelter’. Additionally, while sitting in the London flat writing the song, Richards was acutely aware (or at least majorly suspicious of) of an affair going on between his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, and his bandmate, Mick Jagger.

“She had no fun with the tiny todger,” Richards infamously observed about Jagger and Pallenberg’s tryst. “I know he’s got an enormous pair of balls, but it doesn’t quite fill the gap, does it? It didn’t surprise me. In a way, I kind of expected it. That’s why I’m sitting in Robert Fraser’s flat, writing, ‘I feel the storm is threatening my very life today.’”

It’s hard to argue that the strife wasn’t worth it, however. ‘Gimme Shelter’ would end up being the opening track to 1969’s Let It Bleed, beefed up with ominous Latin percussion, a haunting piano line from Nicky Hopkins, and a co-lead vocal from Merry Clayton that just might be one of the greatest rock vocal performances ever put to vinyl. But in the beginning, it was just Richards and his guitar, preparing for the incoming storm.

Hear a rare final mix of the song combined with Richards’ demo vocals down below.

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