Merry Clayton’s vocals in “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones transcended an ordinary musical performance. The listener’s ears are graced by one of the most extraordinary, soul-wrenching performances ever put on. Don’t believe me? Listen to the song, and by about three minutes in I’m sure you’ll be convinced.
While that song released as a single to the 1969 album, “Let it Bleed,” The Stones have included that incredibly powerful — I hesitate in calling them “backing” — vocal collaborations into later releases, with standouts including the exquisite track on “Exile on Main Street,” “Tumbling Dice” or even the live performances with Taylor Swift and Soloman Burke.
Yet, to my ears at least, the same magic felt in “Gimme Shelter” has resurged in the Rolling Stones’ newest single, “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.”
The single is stunning from start to finish, and the title is no joke — those sounds of heaven are bolstered by special guests Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder. Now, I must preface and admit that the Stones’ previous single “Angry” — as part of their upcoming album “Hackney Diamonds” — didn’t blow me away. The processed vocals and rather predictable guitar lines seemed rather tame for a Stones’ release; however, my faith in “Hackney Diamonds” is fully restored with “Sweet Sounds of Heaven.”
The production of the track is done by the talented Andrew Watt, and in a way, it mimics the bluesy, early Stones’ records produced by Andrew Loog Oldham. The substantial reverb and low piano riffs fill in the mix and provide an incredible feeling to the track. Similar production techniques — though within a far different musical context — can be found in “Confessin’ The Blues” on 1964’s “12×5.”
The song itself is dense with instrumentation, yet far from overwhelming. Keith Richards’ guitar is prominent, cranking out his famous twanging riffs while Ronnie Wood lays down a solid rhythm backing. Adding to this is Stevie Wonder’s marvelous keyboard performance. His melodic riffs compliment the guitars perfectly. Out of its entire discography, this song may be one of the strongest instances of the Rolling Stones’ roots in the blues merging with modern RnB.
Likewise, Mick Jagger’s voice is clear and sharp, energetically supplying the lyrics about “driftin’ down to this Earth” and encouraging everyone to “ stand up proud.” The best line may just be, “let the old still believe that they’re young” — what an incredible line to reflect the band’s continued enthusiasm since their early days in the 1960s.
I truly didn’t think anything could recreate that feeling of Merry Clayton’s performance of “Gimme Shelter,” but I was wrong. Lady Gaga’s performance here is one of the strongest performances on any Stones’ song. Her vocals climb in power gradually, and by 5:47, her vocals take center stage in the mix. Only getting more intense, from 6:00-6:17 her energy is absolutely incredible. Words cannot describe it, you need to just sit down with some headphones and take it in. The energy of Merry Clayton’s vocals is certainly present.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that two versions of the song have been released as part of the single, a full 7:22 cut, and a shortened radio version at 5:06. While both are solid, of course, be sure to listen to the full track; it is a seven minute journey you won’t regret taking. If you’re curious about Mick Jagger’s thoughts on the song, he has an in-depth interview by Apple Music on Youtube.
I really cannot recommend this song more, it is a wonderful, captivating song that has no doubt “fallin’ down to this Earth.” The full album “Hackney Diamonds” releases on Oct. 20, so be on the lookout. Paul McCartney, Elton John and original Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman will be highlights, including one track with Wyman and the sadly passed Charlie Watts making up the old Stones’ rhythm section. For any Stones’ fan or even just music enjoyer, these releases are must-listens.