The Rolling Stones had a reputation as the great cynics of rock ‘n’ roll, the band that flipped over the peace-and-love bromides of the ’60s to expose the nasty side of power and sex. “Gimme Shelter” is where they proved it: its title is a demand, not a request. Released as the decade was collapsing under the weight of its violence and broken promises, the song builds from Keith Richards’ prickling, sky-darkening guitar introduction to a cascade of horror. Mick Jagger sings with an air of snarling condescension: “War, children — it’s just a shot away.” Every few seconds, the band ratchets up the tension; every blues trope they toss into the mix makes the song that much more unnerving. What pushes it over the top, though, is guest singer Merry Clayton, who wails along with Jagger as if she’s sending a warning, then briefly takes over the song to howl about rape and murder before Jagger rejoins her to pretend that the whole thing was nothing more than a seduction.
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