At the time that “Gimme Shelter” was written the world was falling into chaos. Not long before both Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and more importantly the disaster that was the Tet Offensive. All of this heavily influenced the Stones when they were writing this song. Keith Richards, the guitar player, said in his memoir, Life (2010):
“I wrote ‘Gimmie Shelter’ on a stormy day, sitting in Robert Fraser’s apartment in Mount Street. Anita (Pallenberg) was shooting Performance at the time, not far away… It was just a terrible f-ing day and it was storming out there. I was sitting there in Mount Street and there was this incredible storm over London, so I got into that mode, just looking out of Robert’s window and looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell. And the idea came to me… My thought was storms on other people’s minds, not mine. It just happened to hit the moment.”
This imagery of a rising storm is a very powerful one and it is very accurate of how things in the world were churning out of control at that time in history. In his book, Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones, Stephen Davis “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” This seems to apply especially to this piece.
In an interview with NPR in 2012, Jagger showed how this song still resonates with people today, in reference to Hurricane Sandy, when he said “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.”
I think that a good rout of research for my paper would be to look into the Tet Offensive and how this changed the world’s perspective on the Vietnam War. It might also be good to look at the weather patterns of the jungles of Vietnam to see how the imagery of a rising, life-threatening storm might not just refer to the dangerous state of the world, but also how it might have resonated with what the soldiers were going through in Vietnam.