The Rolling Stones’ 40 best songs

An all-star cast pick the greatest cuts from Jagger, Richards and co

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Let It Bleed album track, 1969

IAN McCULLOCH: It’s fantastic, it’s mega, absolute genius. From that intro to that chorus, the vocal on it – they’re genuinely brilliant. Also the backing singing is fantastic. It’s spooky. You can play it to death, you can dance to it and you can play it in the dark, just get totally tranced out by it.
IAN ASTBURY: This period of time was definitely a sense of crisis and again the Stones documented it perfectly. On this track you could feel their energy and their sensuality. With The Beatles it appealed in the head, whereas the Stones appealed to anyone taking drugs or having sex. And this is a track you can definitely lose yourself in. This has such an incredible, sensual sound. I remember it used to get played at an old goth club in London in the early ’80s.
MIKE SCOTT: Rock’n’roll dives headlong into the end-of-the-’60s abyss and still feels great.
RICHARD HAWLEY: This track makes me move every time. Cocaine paranoia is pretty much summed up with this one. “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” – maybe not that paranoid, although it does make me want to fuck, fight and drink! Maybe I’ll just have a lie down instead.
BOB HARRIS: The whole thing that was happening in the late Sixties, the idea of idealism hitting a wall with Altamont, the demonstrations in 1968, “Gimme Shelter” really locks that period of time together.
FRANK BLACK: This song would have to be Number One in the pantheon of amazing rock recordings. The rock spirit is so strong, the mood is tough and cinematic and the first piano chord that kicks in is so dramatic it leaves me speechless. It’s completely untouchable.
JIM SCLAVUNOS: The Stones never really embraced hippie idealism – they were always too dark. But this song publicly marked their disillusionment with youth culture. I was also coming into my puberty and groping around for the kind of answers young men seek, so it seemed to sing out to me in all its sweeping, evocative glory and epic paranoia.
GUY GARVEY: I adjusted the recording level on a tape of this tune to make it kick in harder when the drums came in. I love it, and think it inspired scores of bands, including ourselves and Primal Scream.
TERRY MILES: The greatest drug song ever written by a band that isn’t The Velvet Underground. Gospel.
NICK HASTED: What music ever evoked such concrete devastation? It’s hard to separate from the Mayles brothers’ sweeping helicopter shots of the hippie tribe entering the Altamont slaughterhouse, from Stanley Booth’s description of a stoned, naked girl being brutalised by Hell’s Angels as the Stones play it, stunned and scared. Listen, and the mood’s the same: ghost train harmonies, a guitar figure of mournful dread, then a harmonica honking like a beast at your back, and a black girl shouting blues in the night – “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away.” “Love, sisters, it’s just a kiss away,” Jagger softly amends, but the kiss didn’t come, the shelter wasn’t found.
JEFFREY LEWIS: It’s the best rock recording ever, on the best rock album ever. It gives me chills just to think about it, and sometimes if I mentally recite it I get tears in my eyes. Musically and lyrically it sums up the pure distilled heart of human terror and hope. “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away/Love . . . it’s just a kiss away.” Fuck, now I’m crying. Seriously.
DAVID STUBBS: The song that provided the title to perhaps the greatest of rockumentaries. Always unconvincing hippies, the Stones caught the grim, sour moment here in 1969 when everything came down, a moment in which they themselves were so often central – Altamont, the death of golden child Brian Jones, Vietnam, Manson. With Richards once again churning up a dirty storm, and Jagger’s closing falsetto wail fluttering away into an uncertain beyond like one of the butterflies he let loose at Hyde Park, this was The Rolling Stones’ finest and darkest hour.
MICHAEL J SHEEHY: This song has a great outlaw feel to it, and the mixture of harmonica and slide guitar is just magic. People talk about Charlie Watts’ unique drumming style, but I’ve always admired his dress sense and his wit in interviews.
ROB HUGHES: Forever twinned with Altamont, a great dirty blast of noise. Keith’s spidery intro collapsing into a ground-in-the-earth tremble around Jagger’s bluesy howl and banshee gospel of Mary Clayton. Archetypal grit-under-the-fingernails Stones sound – oppressive, earthy, alive.
STEVE WYNN: When Dream Syndicate were recording our Medicine Show album in San Francisco in 1984, I would go out each night and drive around the city blasting Let It Bleed from my cassette deck and building up a healthy steam of attitude and anger before tracking down one of the many liquor stores in the Tenderloin, buying a half-pint of Jim Beam and taking it all back into the studio to cap off an evening of musical mayhem. This song was so dark, so diseased, so foreboding, and it raised the bar so that it was hard for anything else to sound anything but wimpy by comparison. It’s one of those songs that’s both daunting and inspiring at the same time. And if this song didn’t invent Altamont, it was certainly the perfect soundtrack.
DUKE ERIKSON: Nothing rocks more than this, and Jagger had never sounded so urgent and desperate before. It’s classic Stones with Mary Clayton wailing until her voice breaks and Mick and Keith going back and forth between the guitars. It’s very hard to make great art that reflects the time it’s in so well and still stands up decades later, but “Gimme Shelter” manages it. This was how we felt then, and I guess it’s how we feel now.
SIMON GODDARD: “Gimme Shelter” is dark in a perturbed, almost spiritual way as opposed to the affected Satanic vaudeville of “Sympathy For The Devil”. A staggering rock’n’roll song, yet one almost entirely devoid of optimism. Like musical voodoo, the melodic manifestation of a Biblical curse or Romany hex, Mary Clayton’s sobbing witch-at-the-stake vocals beautifully underscore the apocalypse at hand. Jagger’s lyrics are a prayer for the dying, those of a man resigned to eternal damnation for whatever sins he has or hasn’t committed, sinking into a quagmire of impending misery a mere piss away. This even sounds like the end of the Sixties – the Summer Of Love now over, “Gimme Shelter” marks the charcoal grey hurricane ushering in the bitter winter of discontent that followed. Self-flagellation from a band with the blood of Altamont on their hands. But first and foremost just a phenomenal riff.
MARC ALMOND: There’s just something about the chord changes in it, and the connotation­s, the whole Altamont thing and this whole darkness that goes around the song. What does he sing at the end? “It’s just a shot away, just a kiss away.” There’s just a great feeling about it.
ADAM SWEETING: Further evidence of the Stones’ gift for creating terrifying atmosphere through ostensibly simple means – the sneaky, insidious guitar introduction, ominous rumbles of piano, and a bit of that percussion gadget that sounds like a turkey having its neck wrung. As the track progresses, the pressure builds inexorably until the ensemble sounds like a freight train clattering towards Armageddon, as Jagger and Mary Clayton wax apocalyptic with images of war, rape and murder. Much credit owing here, presumably, to producer Jimmy Miller and engineers including Glyn Johns and regular Doors collaborator Bruce Botnick. Spine-chilling, even now.
ARTHUR BAKER: This is such an epic song that everything they’ve released since pales in comparison. From 1969 to 1972 no one could touch them, and everything after that just seems like a bad parody of the Stones we grew to love.
MIKE JOYCE: I was always influenced by punk but through Johnny Marr, the influence of the Stones sort of bled onto me. Rather than being just a time-keeper, Charlie Watts always went with what Keith was playing, which always stuck in my mind. In The Smiths, I always tried to play off Johnny in the same way. “Gimme Shelter”, though, has to be the Number One Stones record, just for the intro alone. It’s just beautiful. And from a guy that doesn’t even play six strings on his guitar.
JIM REID: I was thinking about the first time I heard “Gimme Shelter”. It was round about the punk days, William and me were really into punk rock and the raw energy of that, but then he played me “Gimme Shelter” and it was just . . . just fantastic.
CHRIS HILLMAN: This means a lot to me in a couple of ways. I love the song, the darkness of it. At the other end of it, I played at Altamont with The Flying Burritos, and “Gimme Shelter” tied into the whole of that… It was a very oppressive day, you knew something was happening. There was very much something in the air that day. From the minute we left the hotel to drive out to the site, things happened. It felt very bad. We had a car accident, and then we barely got in – I had to argue with the Hell’s Angels to get onto the stage with my bass, they were so out of their minds. And it really wasn’t the Stones’ fault for that situation. It was really that The Grateful Dead had gotten the Hell’s Angels to do security and it was a nightmare. It was a day that was oppressive and dark – the sky was dark, the mood was dark – and the ending was the worst scenario you could imagine. I mean, I love “Gimme Shelter” as a piece of music, but it also reminds me of a real interesting time in my life. I thought that day was the end of the Sixties – it had come from the wonderful innocence of The Beatles and Gerry And The Pacemakers to this… The Burritos’ country-style music actually calmed the crowd down that day. I remember talking to David Crosby, because Crosby, Stills And Nash had just played, and he was saying, “Boy, there’s something real strange going on here.” But once we got on to play, we actually got a brief moment of sanity. People actually stopped. Maybe it was the change of rhythm, but suddenly there was a more positive thing going on. We got a very good reception that day. And as soon as we were done, I gave the bass to the
equipment fella and got out of there. It wasn’t until later, when I was back in my room, that I saw that the guy [Meredith Hunter] had been stabbed. And it wasn’t a surprise.
JOHNNY MARR: Without a shadow of a doubt my Desert Island Disc. I first heard it on a weird, unofficial album – I think it was actually called “Gimme Shelter” – and
I remember hearing it at a friend’s house during school holidays. For me, it’s got everything I like about music, from the intro, which is white voodoo, to the riff, which has become an archetypal rock’n’roll riff, to Jagger’s vocal, which is real blues. It’s one of those examples of Jagger nailing a style which he made his own. It’s got a darkness to it and a true sophistication. For me, when the Stones get into that primal space, they are actually truly sophisticated. And Mary Clayton’s backing vocal is the most classic R&B wail of all time. It’s also the best guitar solo that’s ever been put on record. I think there’s about six notes in total in it, but it’s played with pure feeling, totally appropriate. This record to me sounds like a one-man agenda from a person who’s really onto something that no one else is.
ED HAMELL: Everybody in the United States will remember where they were on September 11 when they heard about the World Trade Center bombings. I was down in my basement, working in my studio. I didn’t come upstairs until 11am – two hours after the fact. I had no idea. I turned on the TV and stood, unable to sit, stunned. For a split second I thought it was a stunt – like Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds – but it was real, and I knew it. Now, weeks later, it’s still tough to get a grasp on. It is so surreal. And watching it on TV, then and over and over again, I’ve played “Gimme Shelter” as a soundtrack in my head. My wife criticises me for bringing all things “down to rock’n’roll”. It’s true, it’s a bad thing, particularly in conversations with people that don’t share your passion. They interpret your rock interjections as minimising something they feel is important. I don’t agree, but I understand. Rock’n’roll is not ‘down’ to me. I should backtrack here. I followed the construction of The Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame with great anticipation. It was on again, off again for years. When it was finally built, I waited impatiently to get there. I think I was recording an album so I was off the road and it was logistically impossible for me to get there. Finally I was on a tour of the mid-west. Touring in those days was me and all my gear, by myself, in a car. Driving for hours, hundreds of miles. (I once did 7,700 miles in 11 days and played 13 gigs in that time, with radio and in-stores. I called it the ‘Motel? I’m Driving It! Tour’). I drove 500-plus miles to arrive at The Rock’n’Roll Hall Of Fame at 4pm, an hour before they closed. I blasted through it. After years of waiting, I hadn’t expected my reaction. I was devastated. Disappointed, shocked, even angry. This wasn’t a testament to the visionaries, artists and soldiers of rock’n’roll! This was nothing more than a Hard Rock Cafe housed in a gorgeous piece of architecture. Saddened, I went to what I felt would be the most boring part, the Hall Of Fame itself. I was moved. Here was the tribute, particularly to those that might not have been financially compensated in their lifetime. Like Gene Vincent. Like Leadbelly. Howlin’ Wolf. They’ve since stopped it, but along with the signatures of the artists, they had still video pictures. When I got to The Rolling Stones, I watched the screen change. The Stones in ’63 with their matching leather vests, Ian Stewart and Brian Jones. In ’65, in Swinging London. In ’72 with Mick Taylor. In the Eighties with Ronnie. They let all the peripheral guys sign the wall too, like Bobby Keys. I started to tear up a little. (Admittedly I was fucking exhausted). I grew up with these fucking guys. They’re like really close friends I’ve never spoken to. I’ve only known 10 years of my life when these guys weren’t around, and I barely remember those years. When Keith dies (and he’ll outlive us all, but I need the example), I’ve got close friends who I’ll immediately call to mourn with. So what’s the point? Here’s the fucking point. I was alone on September 11 when I witnessed the horror. And when I played “Gimme Shelter” in my head I wasn’t bringing it ‘down’ to rock’n’roll. I think I just needed a friend.


Thanks to: Nick Johnstone, Rob Hughes, Simon Goddard, Neil Davenport, Sarah-Jane, Nigel Williamson, Gavin Martin, Chris Roberts, Michael Bonner, Stephen Dalton, Nick Hasted, Sean Egan and Damien Love


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