Gimme Shelter : The Counter Culture is Alive and Well.


I have been reading Keith Richards’ biography Life over the last week. It is a 400 page report from the trenches, an insight into the incubation and rise of the Rolling Stones. At the same time I have been rehearsing long and hard with the Lizard Kings as we prepare a tribute to the music of The Doors for the Nelson Winter Festival.

Reading about the Stones and drilling down into the music of The Doors has been a sharp reminder that both bands were prime architects of the counter culture and how that legacy can still be felt in the 21st century. I have been thinking again about music as a weapon, a gesture of resistance, How the making of music, especially rock music, is a political act.

For The Stones and The Doors the journey into music was uncharted. It was oppositional; rock musicians were the Other. The life styles of the new breed of musicians were at odds with the Establishment.  A whole generation of hippie kids encouraged each other to take up Timothy Leary’s mantra :“turn on, ,tune in, drop out”.

1970s youth culture was fuelled by resistance and resentment (and drugs). The generations were at war. Governments, teachers and the police saw youth as the enemy. In the shadow of the escalating Vietnam war came the ultimate generational confrontation when four protesting students were shot by National Guard troops in the Ohio Kent State killings in 1970.

 The soundtrack to all of this was Dylan’s “Masters of War”, Jim Morrison’s “Unknown soldier” and the Stones singing “War, children, it’s just a shot away…” on Gimme Shelter. The music galvanised a generation. Rock music was politicsed .

Forty years on rock music is still political for our kids. By choosing certain genres, wearing the tee shirt, adopting the handshake, walking and talking the attitude of the musicians they lionise, they make a political statement.  They represent the subculture and the value system that they align themselves with.

The music industry is not for the fainthearted.  More and more kids are looking to the music industry for a career. Thankfully the current NCEA music curriculum teaches the range of skills required to succeed in the music business. There is also the Music Commission’s Music Mentor in Schools programme, diploma and degree courses offered by polytechnics and universities, and competitions such as the Smokefree Rockquest and Play It Strange all of which provide real opportunities for emerging musicians to begin careers.

It takes more than industry training however to have a stellar career as a songwriter or musician. That requires being resilient and being conscious – being aware of the world at large and how you might provoke new thinking and, perhaps be a change-maker.

The convergence of music with the cell phone, television, the internet and social networking, means that students now have almost unlimited research tools. In all of these technological domains new music is flourishing.

We should encourage the urge to be different even when we don’t fully understand.  For better or worse the counter culture is alive and well. Our kids are still turning each other on, tuning in to the global drumbeat and many are dropping out of the mainstream to create alternative lives.

Richards and Morrison kicked down the doors of the establishment. Two generations on, post-Clinton and post-Bush, our kids still have much adult-generated junk to deal with; much to unravel. Our job as parents and teachers is simple: Listen. And admire our kids’ passion for using music to express new ideas about relationships and how we might live.

It takes courage to think outside the square.

Liam Ryan can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.