For most of the 1960s, the Rolling Stones weren't really a political band. During the years when other artists contributed rallying calls and anthems for the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests, the Stones mostly steered clear. They offered no direct comment on the political unrest that was inspiring other artists, such as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Sam Cooke, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, and Buffalo Springfield. By the spring of 1968, though, it was pretty hard to ignore all that was going on. Rollingstones.com describes it this way: "1968 was the year that flower power turned nasty. The previously peaceful 'counter culture' ran out of control. Students started rioting in the streets of Paris and the joy of youthful self-realisation turned to anger and aggression. Everywhere, the ceremony of innocence was drowned."
That may sound a bit dramatic (especially that bit about the "ceremony of innocence" drowning), but these protests really were a big deal. Mick Jagger saw that. He took on the issues of the day in "Street Fighting Man," on the Rolling Stones' album Beggars Banquet. That album, according to one commentator, sets up Jagger as "the demonic king of a new kind of rock that both draws on and reflects this year's violent political events – and in so doing, force the Beatles from the pop throne they have occupied for the past five years." No big deal.
Released as a single in the U.S. in August 1968, "Street Fighting Man" climbed to #48 on the Billboard Hot 100. It might have gone higher, but some radio stations were afraid of fanning the revolutionary flames, and refrained from playing it. The Stones pushed the envelope in terms of radio airplay before: for example, "Satisfaction" (1965) was considered too sexually suggestive, and "Mother's Little Helper" (1966) was criticized for its look at domestic drug use.
Nevertheless, the reaction of radio stations to "Street Fighting Man" was curious: a half-century later it's still unclear what Mick Jagger was advocating, and it's still unclear if the Stones regretted or appreciated their distance in London from the revolutionary front lines.
Protests in England and France
"Street Fighting Man" really started when Jagger attended the March 17, 1968, march on the United States embassy in London. Protesters went from Trafalgar Square to Grosvenor Square, gaining momentum along the way. The crowd of around 10,000 people included stars like actress Vanessa Redgrave, activist Tariq Ali, and, of course, Jagger himself. Why were all those young Brits were marching toward the U.S. embassy? The answer is simple: the Vietnam War. They were unhappy with the fact that their Labour party government had given verbal support to American policy there, despite refusing to send British troops.
The March 17 protest had been coordinated to mirror the early 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, during which forces from North Vietnam attempted to occupy the U.S. embassy in Saigon. The protesters in Britain decided to try to get into the U.S. embassy in London to draw attention to their dissatisfaction with the war, and their government's support of it.
The trouble began as the crowd convened in Grosvenor Square, where the embassy is located. British police turned back the protestors as they approached the embassy grounds. Mounted police (yes, on horses) stormed into the crowd. All in all, more than 200 people were arrested, and more than 70 were sent to the hospital, some with serious injuries. Eyewitnesses report being scared. One attendee recounts his experience as such: "I remember being terrified at being chased down by what seemed like scores of mounted police with truncheons flailing about while the square was blocked off so that none who found themselves on the inside could get out." Mick Jagger was swept up in the spirit of the moment, and he reportedly suggested that protestors bring their own cavalry in the future.
But we thought London town was "no place for a street fighting man"? Well, not compared to France.
In March 1968, a group of students seized a campus building at the University at Nanterre, near Paris. They had a lot of complaints, many of which were aimed at university restrictions on student life and housing, and the social injustices they saw plaguing French society. The students peacefully surrendered the building after just hours, but tensions simmered until May when campus authorities decided to close the university. That decision, unsurprisingly, triggered a huge protest. Some 20,000 students and supporters marched through the streets on May 6. When the Paris police tried to disperse the crowd, rioting ensued. The students built makeshift barricades and tore up the cobblestone streets for their makeshift armory (something discontented Parisians have a history of doing).
Within a few days, the student revolution had spread to the factories. Workers walked out in part to support the students, but also because they had their own complaints about the government, ranging from low wages to workplace discrimination. The workers added numbers to the front lines and blue-collar skills—they taught the students how to build better barricades. On May 13th, a million people marched through Paris in opposition to a wide range of government policies. By this point, several million striking workers had brought the economy to a standstill. (You can see some great photos of these Paris protests here.) French President Charles de Gaulle eventually managed to restore order and win a vote of confidence in the June elections. But for a month, the country seemed on the verge of revolutionary collapse – "my name is called Disturbance," indeed.
The Nuances of "Street Fighting Man"
While Jagger may have been hot for revolution on the spot, it seems he cooled off a little on the way to the studio. "Street Fighting Man" isn't really an unequivocal call to arms – in fact, it doesn't tell people what to do at all. Instead, it expresses both an eagerness to get in on the action and make some changes, and an almost defeated recognition that London isn't the place to do it. But he also seems to be making a statement about the power of popular music: "what can a poor boy do," Jagger asks, "except to sing for a rock and roll band"? Basically, he can't be out on the streets, but he can be making rock and roll music, and that seems like the next best thing.
So, Jagger saying that he wished he were in Paris or the US where the real action was? Or was he mocking all the revolutionary action by reducing it to summer fun, just a more violent variation of dancing in the street? Was he trying to make the most difference he could with only his music? Was he ridiculing the radicals by filling their mouths with worn out slogans better suited to a different century? "I'll shout and scream, I'll kill the king, I'll rail at all his servants." Or was he now condemning the use of violence to achieve change by other street fighting men and women?
Jagger has done little to clear up its meaning in the decades since. He told Rolling Stone in 1995 that "at the time" he thought all the "disruptions" around the world were "a very good thing" (Rolling Stone, 14 December 1995, 60). But following 9/11, he denounced terrorism and stressed that he "never believed in violence" as a means of achieving political ends. Moreover, he explicitly said that this belief was compatible with "Street Fighting Man," suggesting that he felt the same way about violence when he wrote the song—"The people that believe in it—I have no time for them whatsoever, no time for the romantic notions that surround them" (Rolling Stone, 25 October 2001, 30).
With yet another classic Keith Richards riff anchoring the song and a galvanizing opening line, the subtleties within the song and Jagger's perspective may not have mattered too much in its enduring popularity. Like a lot of popular music, it's easy to grab onto the phrase "street fighting man" and take it from there, even if you don't listen too carefully to the rest of the lyrics. For legions of protestors and revolutionaries, student radicals and labor activists, "Street Fighting Man" was embraced as an anthem and alternative to peaceful protest. Tariq Ali, the prominent activist who attended the protest in London, actually thought the song was "very ultra-left actually," saying that at the time he thought "it's a bit far out even for us."
Make of the song's politics what you will – or just enjoy the music.