GIMME SHELTER (1970)
In 1969, the Rolling Stones decided to give a free concert in California. The Golden Gate Park was unavailable so they opted for Altamont Speedway stadium, a venue unused to the demands of a rock concert. Their desire to get the logistics arranged at very short notice led to one of the most infamous concerts of modern rock history for the wrong reasons. The Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin were there to film the gig for a documentary and were the unfortunate recorders for posterity of sickening violence as well as the reactions of the bands and fans.
The film of GIMME SHELTER is played out with different layers on-screen at the same time. For the first half, we cut between footage of the Stones’ live Madison Square Garden show (recorded for their live album ‘Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!’) and the band as well as the film-makers watching it on an editing bay. We also see them observing themselves at work in Muscle Shoals studio in America, laying aroung and listening to playbacks of ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Wild Horses’ approvingly. An extra layer is provided by an over-dub of a live radio phone-in after Altamont where one of the Hells Angels’, Sonny Barger, who defends his people, claiming that his sacred bike was touched and arguing that since the organisers had given the group beer in exchange for crowd control, that’s exactly what he was going to do. This was a cataclysmic error of security judgement. At the end of his account, drummer Charlie Watts remarks with gentle sarcasm: ’Well done, Sonny’
Later, Melvin Belli, the band’s lawyer is on the phone to the venue management of Altamont who is resistant to the concert on the grounds that he knows rock bands tend to trash venues disrespectfully. This is smoothed out, and the road crew management assure Belli and the Stones that they can set up the concert at speed since they did the same successfully at Woodstock.
The second half of the film focuses on the gig itself. We hover over the scene with the Stones in a helicopter; the film crew brilliantly capturing the stunning turn-out of fans. There are miles of cars snaking along the roads leading to the stadium, which is encircled by an enormous cloud of fans with vans and other vehicles. Clearly, the number of fans coming to this impromptu rock mecca would be wildly under-estimated. The expectation for the show is enormous...
Even without knowing the awful events, the expert editing of the day’s footage tells you from early on that the atmosphere is tense; prickly like an anticipated grudge between two old rival football teams. Fans keep crowding the stage. Many people are already showing symptoms of acid and booze excess, clambering over each other and disregarding the road crew’s continual already-weary warnings with abandon. The Hells’ Angels, who as aforementioned were employed as free security in return for all the beer they could drink, are taking full advantage of the liquid refreshment and, alarmingly, wielding pool cues. Surely a recipe for disaster, slowly simmering as the heat and excitement rose. What were the organisers thinking? Surely this could only have been the result of over-hasty decisions made without the benefit of time for smart and safe planning.
Jefferson Airplane, who opened for the Stones were like test lions thrown to the wolves. Their co-lead singer is knocked out by one of the Angels. Paul Kanter jokes to the bikers: “I’d like to thank you for that”. Santana as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash play (not shown) and the Grateful Dead wisely opt out, sensing the brewing trouble that has already begun erupting. This is all before the main act comes on. Initially as Jagger and the guys leave their caravan, they have no idea what awaits them – but it doesn’t take long to get them up to speed. After they open with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, they begin ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ when violence breaks out between fans and the Angels, who mercilessly solve their problems with bludgeonings. The irony of the song subject isn’t lost on Mick. ”Whenever we play that song, something funny always happens” he muses. To be fair, the volatility is not entirely the Hells Angels’ fault, especially when you see the chemical/alcohol-induced state of many of the other revellers. The song becomes increasingly ragged as fans circle (always a bad sign) around a spate of fighting. This happens roughly four times during the Stones’ set. More than once, Mick gives up singing to plead ineffectually with the fans: “Cool out. Why is anyone fighting?” while Richards, Watts and the others plug manfully on, underscoring his well-meant but impossible task. He is King Canute before the crashing waves of a tanked-up audience.
The most notorious moment of the show, pinpointed in detail by the documentary team, is the sickening murder of 18 year-old black youth Meredith Hunter. During another tragically ironic song title, ‘Under My Thumb’, after failing to scramble up onto the stage, he responds to a bouncer attack from the Angels by drawing a gun. In an incendiary environment like this, it was the worst and the last thing he could do. We witness him being stabbed by one of the gang members as he disappears from view. Just so that we’re sure of what we see so fleetingly, one of the Maysles brothers asks for a rewind and freezes the image to clearly show us and Jagger that Hunter is brandishing the fire-arm in the air and the knife of his killer is visible. Having never seen GIMME SHELTER before but hearing varying accounts of the inciting incidents, this was a shocking moment for me. Far from excusing his harrowing murder of course, it simply compounds how out-of-hand the evening had become. The Stones should be given credit for attempting to stay on stage as long as possible and ride out the unfolding concert’s carnage at some considerable potential threat to their own safety.
Mercifully, it’s not long before they head for the safe haven of the waiting chopper…
We then return to the editing studio where a sombre mood breaks up the session between the Maysles, Zwerin and the band. GIMME SHELTER ends with a freeze-frame of Jagger’s sober expression. There is nothing that can be said.
Altamont became a symbol of the end of the 60’s dream for many - as powerfully as the shocking Tate-La Bianca murders perpetrated by the Manson Family the same year. GIMME SHELTER is a shattering experience, superb and compelling. It’s not so much a concert movie (each Stones’ song hopelessly collapses amongst the chaos), but more of a warning. Hopefully, lessons would be learned for the future about the dangerous folly of hastily-prepared re-stagings of mass public concerts.