Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
The political turmoil of 1968 stretched around the world—even to the small island nation of Jamaica.
In 1968, there were political upheavals in several nations and dozens of cities. These didn't just occur in large, industrial nations. In Kingston, Jamaica, students took to the streets in October when they heard that a popular professor at the University of the West Indies, Walter Rodney, had been denied readmission to the country.
Professor Rodney was a socialist, and an advocate of pan-African unity and Black Power. He left the country to attend a conference in Canada, and when he tried to go back to Jamaica, authorities refused to let him re-enter. The riots that ensued—attended by university students and common citizens alike—caused extensive property damage, and took several lives.
'Cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
Little did Mick Jagger know, he would one day be singing the original version of this line with David Bowie in a gem of a 1980s music video.
Does this line sound familiar? It should. It's based on a line from Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 "Dancing in the Street," a Motown hit: "summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the street." Jagger and Bowie did their cover in 1985 for the charity Live Aid concert, and it was a huge hit.
Funnily enough, both "Dancing in the Street" and "Street Fighting Man" were used at rallies and protests, although "Dancing in the Street" was written as a song to dance to, not as a comment on the civil rights protests going on at the time it was written. "Street Fighting Man," though, was directly inspired by protests.
'Cause in sleepy London town
There's just no place for a street fighting man
London may have seemed sleepy compared to other cities at the time, but it was hardly asleep.
Although London was more politically sleepy than other major cities, there were political protests and riots in Britain's capital. In fact, Mick Jagger was partly inspired to write the song by a protest at the United States embassy in Grosvenor Square on March 17th, 1968.
On that day, more than 10,000 protestors marched on the embassy. They were protesting America's war in Vietnam, and demanding that the British government withdraw its verbal support for the war. British authorities turned back the protestors using police mounted on horses, leading to the injury of more than 70 people and the arrests of more than 200. Jagger was there, and reportedly suggested that protestors should prepare for future rallies by training their own cavalry.
The London event was violent, but it was still small compared to the political crises in other cities, which were more frequent and sustained. In France, hundreds of thousands of students and workers took the streets to protest a wide range of social and political issues. These protestors erected barricades and battled police with cobblestones torn from the streets. (Tearing up cobblestones is something of a tradition there: those pavés, as they're called in French, also played a large role in the street conflicts of the French Revolution.)
Well, what can a poor boy do
We know, we know: he can sing for a band. But what about the poor girls?
Perhaps Mick was just thinking of himself in this song, which we can't blame him for, but we wouldn't want you to think that there were only street fighting men out there. It's an easy mistake to make, perhaps: the BBC's feature on participants' memories of the events includes either one or no women (one gender is unclear), although one man speaks of attending the rally with his pregnant wife.
One of the standard-bearers at the protest was also a woman. Actress Vanessa Redgrave and three other demonstrators were allowed inside the embassy to deliver their protest formally, and she also spoke in Trafalgar Square, where the march began.
Hey, think the time is right for a palace revolution
'Cause where I live the game to play is compromise solution
Is Mick Jagger talking about something specific here?
Most of the lyrics in "Street Fighting Man" offer a pretty general political commentary, but these lines can be read more specifically.
In 1968, Britain's ruling Labour Party had struck something of a compromise with the United States government regarding the Vietnam War. The British refused to send troops to Vietnam to support American objectives, but the government did issue verbal support for American policy. Many of the liberal members within the Labour Party objected to this "compromise solution," leading critics like Jagger to argue for ousting the Labour leadership and electing a new batch of Labour leaders who would terminate all support of American policy.
This sort of internal revolution is referred to as a "palace revolution." Technically, a palace revolution occurs when a member of the ruling family overthrows the existing monarch, but the phrase is used more broadly these days to describe a revolt within the ranks of a party or government, leading to the elevation of a new group of leaders.
There's just no place for a street fighting man
Was Jagger really a "street fighting man," or was this just another musical part that he played?
In 1968 alone, Jagger introduced himself as "a man of wealth and taste," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and "a street fighting man." So, should we take him at his word for any of those?
On the one hand, Jagger was indeed present at the March 1968 antiwar protest that partially inspired the song. He reportedly responded to the arrival of horse-mounted police by declaring that the antiwar movement needed to train its own cavalry. He also told Rolling Stone later on that "at the time" he believed all of the "disruptions" around the world were "a very good thing." (Source)
But Jagger also distanced himself from political violence in a 2001 interview, saying that he "never believed in violence" as a means of achieving political ends, and he denounced those who embrace it. "The people that believe in it—I have no time for them whatsoever, no time for the romantic notions that surround them". (Source)
Moreover, even if Jagger was more willing to accept violence as a political tool in 1968, he didn't use violence himself. After the March protest at the U.S. embassy, he didn't participate in any significant way in the movement. (And no, he never did form that cavalry.)