'Gimme Shelter' at 50: How The Rolling Stones Got Conquered By America

Fifty years ago this Sunday, the Rolling Stones released Gimme Shelter, the infamous documentary that started as a look at the final days of the British bad boys’ legendary 1969 tour, leading up to the disastrous free concert at Altamont Speedway. It ended up becoming the ultimate rock & roll horror movie. Directors Albert Mayles, David Mayles and Charlotte Zwerin’s time capsule is always a trip to revisit, but especially now — after nine months without live music, even Altamont looks tantalizing. It’s tough to watch the film in 2020 without musing, “I would totally risk a pool-cue flogging from acid-crazed bikers for a few minutes of the Jefferson Airplane.”

Released in December 1970, Gimme Shelter is really two movies in one. The first half is the Stones wrapping up their U.S. tour, from Madison Square Garden to Muscle Shoals. The second half is Altamont. The first half is sex, the second is violence; the first half is a band making history, the second is history striking back at the band. The secind half is the main reason this rockumentary is a classic. But the first half is more fun, and a better movie with far wilder music. In a way, it’s also more shocking — how could any live band hit such heights? The best moment is after the Stones rip up “Honky Tonk Women,” with Mick Jagger prancing in his skintight catsuit and red scarf. “I think I burst a button on me trousers,” he confides to the crowd. “You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do ya?”

The crowd, it’s safe to say, has no problem at all with the idea of Mick losing his trousers.

The Mayles brothers missed most of the tour, only joining in late November for the New York City shows. (Zwerin came in during editing.) But they capture the Stones in their full crossfire-hurricane majesty. “We’re gonna have a look atcha!,” Mick leers to the fans as the film begins. “We’re gonna see how beautiful you are. Oh, New York City, you talk a lot … let’s take a look at you!” Keith Richards sprawls on a couch at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Studios, blissing out to the playback of “Wild Horses,” mouthing along with Mick’s voice — “I’ve had my freedom, but I don’t have much time” — looking impossibly young and pure. Keef and Mick listen to a rough mix of “Brown Sugar” in a hotel room, dancing like giddy kids. At a press conference, asked if he’s found “Satisfaction,” Mick proclaims himself “financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, philosophically trying.”

He also explains why the Stones want to climax the tour with a free festival on December 6th, in the hippie homeland of the Bay Area. As he says, “It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.”

Well, not quite. Everybody knows how the story ends: The show gets moved to the squalid Altamont Speedway, on just 36 hours notice. The Hell’s Angels take over the stage, armed with pool cues, beating fans to a bloody pulp. Mick pleads for peace: “Brothers and sisters, come on now! That means everybody just cool out!” A speed freak up front waves a .22 Smith & Wesson handgun. He gets stabbed to death by the bikers, on camera, a few feet from where the Stones are playing “Under My Thumb.”

Two days before Altamont, the Grateful Dead debuted a great new song at the Fillmore West, about their utopian dreams for the new hippie tribes. It was called “Uncle John’s Band.” It’s surreal to imagine an alternate timeline where they played it at Altamont — Gimme Shelter could have had a scene where Jerry Garcia sings “Are you kind?” to the rampaging bikers. But the Dead heard about the violence and goddamn-well-I-declared their asses out of there. Instead, there’s a backstage scene where Garcia and Phil Lesh get told about the carnage. Jerry says, “Whoa, bummer.” Phil adds, “That doesn’t seem right, man.”

The Dead played the key role in bringing the Angels to Altamont, a detail the movie politely skips over. (Their manager Rock Scully told the Stones, “The Angels are some righteous dudes. They carry themselves with honor and dignity.”) But when the vibes got bad, the Dead hopped into the nearest helicopter and split. As a result, there was a two-hour gap with no music before the Stones went on, adding to the tension. Official Dead chronicler Dennis McNally, in his classic book A Long Strange Trip, reports that the band spent the getaway chopper ride looking at the stars and discussing astrology.

One of the weirder elements in the Dead’s history was their fixation on male bullies and their eagerness to get pushed around by tough guys, both in and out of their organization. Altamont came from their collective man-crush on the Angels, which they firmly believed was requited. But they blamed it on the Stones’ karma. “The Stones, man,” Scully told Rolling Stone. “They wrote the script. They got what they paid for. Let it bleed, man.” Within weeks, the Dead were playing a song about it, “New Speedway Boogie.” Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics, wasn’t there; he blew off the festival to go see Easy Rider, the sanest decision anyone made all day.

Gimme Shelter has groovy live footage of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. (Santana and CSNY also played; a young George Lucas was in the camera crew.) Early in the Airplane’s set, the thugs attack singer Marty Balin and knock him out cold. “You gotta keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love,” Grace Slick says in a dazed speech, blaming both the Angels and the fans. “Both sides are fucking up temporarily.” (An early manifesto of both-sides-ism, proving Slick could have had a sideline writing New York Times headlines.)

When you get a chance to see the movie in the theater, there’s one scene that never fails to get a massive laugh, even amid the horror. Yes, I’m talking about the dog. The Stones are in the middle of “Sympathy for the Devil,” they can see their festival degenerate into open warfare, then suddenly a German Shepherd hops onstage and wanders past the band. Poor Mick. He’s trying to get cosmic here, he’s just reached the Russian Revolution, but now here’s this dog turning the whole thing into a Monty Python sketch.

For years, this dog held the record for the all-time greatest canine performance in a movie about the 1969 California nightmare. Until last year, when the crown got claimed by Brad Pitt’s pooch in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino really should make his own version of Gimme Shelter — given his flair for counter-historical fantasies, he could do a Altamont movie where Keith Richards saves the day by transforming his guitar into a flame-thrower and yelling, “Anybody order fried sauerkraut?”

One of the most fascinating figures in the film: Melvin Belli, the Stones’ West Coast lawyer. His phone calls and press conferences are some of the movie’s funniest scenes; when someone complains music festivals are a pain in the ass, Belli replies, “Don’t turn me into a proctologist. Just tell me what I can do here.” Belli was a showboat who loved publicity, appeared on an episode of Star Trek (He was the villain Gorgan in “And the Children Shall Lead”), and always denied being an ambulance chaser, because “I always got there before the ambulance.”

But Belli had an curious habit of showing up for big moments in history. Mick Jagger merely sang about the Kennedy assassinations — “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’” — but Belli was deeply involved in the aftermath of those events, far more than the average Stones fan might have realized. When Jack Ruby went on trial for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, Belli was his defense attorney. In a remarkable coincidence, Belli was also Sirhan Sirhan’s defense attorney after the RFK assassination. (Needless to say, Ruby and Sirhan were both found to have acted alone.) He had a long history with the establishment forces that the Stones were supposedly against. Naturally, that’s raised questions about his agenda at Altamont, especially considering he’s the one who made the last-minute deal to move the festival to the speedway, the decision that guaranteed the show couldn’t fail to be a disaster.

Gimme Shelter has kept the Altamont legend alive all these years. Many concerts have gotten uglier than Altamont — I’ve seen worse, and probably so have you. (Hell, Woodstock ’99 not only had death and destruction, it had a set from Jamiroquai.) Any Seventies NFL game had worse drunken violence, especially Patriots games; Schaefer Stadium led the league in parking-lot stabbings. But none of these other disasters had a film like this to chronicle the moment.  It may not be the greatest concert movie ever — my vote goes to the late D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, by a mile. But Gimme Shelter manages to capture both sides of the rock & roll dream, the dizzy highs and the crushing lows. The first half is as inspiring as Monterey Pop; the second half is more like Night of the Living Dead. But both halves are unforgettable. Let it bleed, indeed.

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