Music Interviews
2:47 pm
Fri November 16, 2012

Mick Jagger On The Apocalyptic 'Gimme Shelter'

Originally published on Fri July 26, 2013 10:24 am

In honor of The Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary, All Things Considered has been talking to the members of the band about standout songs from their catalog. Earlier this week, Keith Richards discussed what gives "Street Fighting Man" (1968) its distinctive guitar sound, Charlie Watts gave context to his drum part in "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" (1965), and guitarist Ron Wood skipped ahead in the band's history, settling on the funky, disco-inflected "Dance (Pt. 1)," from 1980.

For his pick, Mick Jagger went with 1969's "Gimme Shelter." NPR's Melissa Block suggests that the two talk over the song, to which Jagger jokingly responds, "Talk over it? Sacrilegious. I could rap over it."

In the original version that begins Let It Bleed, the Latin groove sets the pace and, as Jagger says, a "rock thing starts" with Keith Richards layering guitars throughout. Jagger coos in a high falsetto before he pronounces, "Oh, a storm is threatening." Then a soul singer comes in with that memorable refrain.

"When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, 'Well, it'd be great to have a woman come and do the rape/murder verse,' or chorus, or whatever you want to call it," Jagger says. "We randomly phoned up this poor lady [Merry Clayton] in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers and proceeded to do that in one or two takes, which is pretty amazing. She came in and knocked off this rather odd lyric. It's not the sort of lyric you give everyone — 'Rape, murder / It's just a shot away' — but she really got into it, as you can hear on the record. She joins the chorus. It's been a great live song ever since."

'War And Tension'

"Gimme Shelter" is downright apocalyptic, and a product of its time that still speaks to us today — especially in light of recent events like Hurricane Sandy.

"It was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit," Jagger says. "When it was recorded, early '69 or something, it was a time of war and tension, so that's reflected in this tune. It's still wheeled out when big storms happen, as they did the other week. It's been used a lot to evoke natural disaster."

The Rolling Stones will soon embark on a short five-date tour in London, New York and New Jersey. For someone like Mick Jagger, who jokes about not knowing his age — he's 69 — performing is a very physical act.

"What do I do to get ready? Well, I do what I've always done for the last forever years," Jagger says. "I have to get up the fitness level, sing a lot, practice, get in the mood, and generally do lots of rehearsal. Get your body and mind ready.

"You get in the idea that you're going to be out there onstage and crank up the ego a bit. I'm really making this up a little bit, but if you're totally prepared mentally and physically, then the rest of it will follow. You won't be worried about it. You won't be nervous."

One more thing: Wardrobe is key.

"It makes you feel good," Jagger says. "You've got to have fresh wardrobe. You can't just go out there looking like you did last time. That helps your transformation. You know, being in a rock band, you can't overdo the costume changes too much because everyone thinks, 'Oh, that's not a real rock band. Look how many times he changes costumes! That's not rock. Rock's about going on in a T-shirt and staying in it and getting it all dirty.' But that's not really my approach."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

MICK JAGGER: Hi, Melissa. This is Mick Jagger here. Nice to be on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BLOCK: What a way to end the week. Mick Jagger is the last in our series of chats with The Rolling Stones. The band is marking 50 years together. They have a new collection of greatest hits and are getting ready for a handful of shows. We asked each of The Stones to pick one song to talk about. So far this week, we've heard from Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and now Mick.

JAGGER: You want to talk about "Gimme Shelter"?

BLOCK: Do you want to talk about "Gimme Shelter"?

JAGGER: Not really, but I can. I'm very open to talking about "Gimme Shelter."

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: It was released in 1969, and we did follow-up versions of it, and it was very exciting.

BLOCK: Well, do me a favor. We have it cued up here. So let's play it.

JAGGER: Go on.

BLOCK: If you don't mind, talk over it as we're listening to it if that's OK.

JAGGER: Talk over it.

BLOCK: Yeah.

JAGGER: Sacrilegious.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: I could rap over it if you'd like.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Just tell us what we hear. So here's the opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: (Unintelligible) two versions of Keith over the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: Layered - two layers of Keith.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: And Jimmy Miller playing the scraper, and Charlie playing the drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

BLOCK: And that high vocal there?

JAGGER: That's me. Oh, that's Mick Jagger singing a high falsetto vocal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: Yeah. I was doing that the other day in rehearsal.

BLOCK: Yeah?

JAGGER: Yeah.

BLOCK: You could still get there?

JAGGER: Yeah, probably.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: I've got much higher ones than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: And then we - we leave the Latin groove behind, and then the sort of rock thing starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today.

JAGGER: There's old me and (unintelligible) me and me and me singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

STONES: (Singing) If I don't get some shelter, oh, yeah, I'm going to fade away. War, children, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. War...

JAGGER: When we got to Los Angeles and we were mixing it, we thought, well, it'd be great to have a woman come and do the rape-murder verse or chorus or whatever you want to call it. And so we randomly phoned up this poor lady in the middle of the night, and she arrived in her curlers.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: No kidding?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

MERRY CLAYTON: (Singing) Rape, murder, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away.

BLOCK: This is the singer Merry Clayton.

JAGGER: It's Merry Clayton, yeah. And Merry came in pink curlers. I think Merry - Merry, I'm sorry, but - for so telling you on this. It wasn't a dressing gown. I think she got a dress by then. And she came in and knocked this off this rather odd lyric. It's not sort of the lyric you give everyone, you know, rape, murder, it's just a shot away, but she proceeded to do that in like one or two takes, and she's pretty amazing. And she really got into it, as you can hear on the record, and she, you know, she joins the chorus, and it's been a great live song ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

CLAYTON: (Singing) It's just a shot away. It's just a shot away. Rape, murder, it's just a shot away. It's just a shot away.

BLOCK: Her voice really, really cracks at the high point of the song.

JAGGER: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, she does a great job on this.

BLOCK: Who did what in writing this song?

JAGGER: Keith wrote the tune, and I wrote a lot of the words.

BLOCK: What were you thinking when you were coming up with the words for "Gimme Shelter"?

JAGGER: I can't remember really anymore, to be honest, but, you know, it was a very moody piece about the world closing in on you a bit. When it was recorded, like, early '69 or something, you know, it was a time of war and tension, and so that's reflected in this tune.

BLOCK: Kind of apocalyptic, really.

JAGGER: Yeah. Kind of, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: And, you know, it's still wheeled out when big storms happen, as they did the other week, you know? And it's been used a lot to evoke natural disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

JAGGER: Oh, that's my harmonica part there. Only two notes, but it shows what you can do with two notes.

BLOCK: Let's hear it. Let's crank that up right now.

JAGGER: Go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

BLOCK: It is just two notes.

JAGGER: It is just two notes.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: That's because of a crummy keyed harmonica...

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: ...anyways, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You shouldn't have told me about it. It just spoiled the whole illusion of (unintelligible).

JAGGER: I didn't spoil it. It just shows you what you can do with two notes.

BLOCK: There you go.

JAGGER: You didn't have to put - it is economy of style.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, you're getting ready to go out for a few shows, a couple in England and a few here. What do you do to get ready? It's such a physical thing that you do, and you're how old now?

JAGGER: I don't know.

BLOCK: Aha.

JAGGER: That's Charlie's line.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: But...

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: How old are you, Melissa?

BLOCK: I'm 50.

JAGGER: Oh, it's a nice age.

BLOCK: It's a round number.

JAGGER: It's a very nice age. What do I do to get ready? Well, I do what I've always done for the last, oh, forever years. You know, I have to get up the fitness level, sing a lot, practice, get in the mood and generally - and do lots of rehearsal. Get your body and mind ready.

BLOCK: How do you get your mind ready?

JAGGER: Well, you get in the idea that you're going to be out there on stage and crank up the ego a bit.

BLOCK: I bet that's the key part of it. You have to crank up the ego to do what you do.

JAGGER: Yeah. You kind of do, but you can't really - that's something that I don't actually really do, if you know what I mean. I mean, you do it, but you don't sort of - it's not part of the training. And there's the clothes, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: I'm not forgetting the clothes. That's a very important...

BLOCK: It's key.

JAGGER: ...part of the prep, totally key because, to be honest, you do have to because it makes you feel good. And you've got to have, you know, fresh wardrobe. And you can't just go out there looking like you did last time. And then you - that helps your transformation. You know, being in a rock band, you can't kind of overdo the costume changes too much because everyone thinks, oh, that's not a real rock band. Look how many times he changes costumes.

(LAUGHTER)

JAGGER: That's not rock. Rock is about going on in a T-shirt and staying in it and getting it all dirty. But that's not really my approach.

BLOCK: You know, none of the members of The Rolling Stones chose the song that I kind of hoped one of you would.

JAGGER: Which was what?

BLOCK: "Wild Horses."

JAGGER: Oh, lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD HORSES")

JAGGER: It's quite a favorite of mine to do as the ballad as we don't do that many. Being a rock band, we do - we've got lots of ballads, but we don't do many. And we could do a whole show of ballads (unintelligible) and everyone would brought to tears, probably. But, you know, we do only a couple per show, so we have to select them, and I quite often select that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD HORSES")

STONES: (Singing) Childhood living is easy to do.

BLOCK: Well, Mick Jagger, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

JAGGER: Nice to talk to you, Melissa, and I hope it all comes out for you well.

BLOCK: Thank you and likewise.

JAGGER: Bye-bye.

BLOCK: The new Rolling Stones collection is called "GRRR!". You can hear my interviews with the other three Stones at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD HORSES")

STONES: (Singing) You know who I am. You know I can't let you slide through my hands. Wild horses couldn't drag me away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.