I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” but I could have been no older than 12. What I do remember is that I literally got chills and goosebumps when I heard it — the chord progressions, Keef’s haunting guitar, Mick Jagger’s even more haunting harmonica evoking everything from barroom fights to air-raid warnings, the powerful vocals of Mick and Merry Clayton (whose own cover of the song was disappointing in comparison), Nicky Hopkins’ pounding piano, the utter implacability of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman’s rhythm work — all added up to Bad News: A storm is threatening, ready or not, and no one is safe because rape and murder, children — from the Vietnam War to Altamont to race riots and assassinations to domestic violence — are just a shot, or a kiss, away. In “Sympathy for the Devil,” Mick Jagger adopted the persona of the devil, but this song is the one that made me believe.
Well, someone has gone to the trouble of un-mixing the song, breaking out the vocals, Keith’s first guitar track, Keith’s second guitar track along with the piano, the bass, and then the drums in separate tracks here. (There’s just enough bleed-through from other tracks on some of the individual tracks to give you an idea of where you are in the song, although the vocal track contains stretches of pure silence.)
I’m struck by the power of the individual tracks — for example, Micky and Merry’s vocals are heavily reverbed, of course, but Charlie Watts’s drumming sounds just as if you’re standing right next to the trap set while he plays. I’m also struck by some of the imperfections that were left in. Some of Wyman’s bass notes in the first 30 or so seconds are flat, for example. Would the song have been as powerful if it had been more technically precise? Hard to know and, 40 years on, harder still to care. Rush, after all, has recorded dozens of technically precise albums; I respect them, even like some of their work, but they don’t move me and never have.
“Gimme Shelter” always will.