This song seems surprisingly upbeat for its subject matter. It almost sounds playful – this is no Clash singing about an imminent apocalypse, even though the song is inspired by real-life violence and unrest. At the same time, it's no "A Change is Gonna Come," lifting you up with its grand melodies and bittersweet optimism. The sing-songy tune of "Street Fighting Man" might mirror a little bit of the ambivalence that the lyrics seem to convey, about whether or not fighting in the street is actually going to get people anywhere.
In terms of instrumentals, "Street Fighting Man" is driven by Keith Richards' guitar riff and the drumming of Charlie Watts. Tinny and hollow-sounding, both the guitar and drums were recorded in an unusual way. Richards was always experimenting with new ways to get the kind of distortion he was looking for. On "Satisfaction," he used a Gibson fuzz box. On "Street Fighting Man," he got more creative. He used only miked-up acoustics for all the guitar parts—even the lead—and he recorded these first on a small cassette tape player. Once Richards had the guitar tracks recorded, he ran his small Philips cassette player through a small extension speaker and then onto studio tape through a microphone.
Charlie Watts matched Richards's cassette trick by whipping out an old 1930s practice drum kit. Small enough to be squeezed into a suitcase, the kit was designed for the drum student on the go. The drums, mounted on small brackets, were only the size of tambourines, but when miked-up, they produced a big, although hollow, sound.
In the summer of 1968, when the song was recorded, Brian Jones was still participating in the sessions, but his role was diminishing. He did, however, contribute the sitar and tamboura tracks.
The identity of the speaker in "Street Fighting Man" is one of the hotly debated issues in Rolling Stones music. The easy answer is that the speaker is Mick Jagger. He wrote the song's lyrics in response to the tumultuous events of 1968, particularly in France and Britain. He, in fact, participated in the antiwar demonstrations at Grosvenor Square on 17 March 1968 that ended when mounted English police stormed through the crowd. Jagger had not been all that politically active prior to this, but according to one of the event organizers, Tariq Ali, Jagger emerged from the experience full of revolutionary zeal. "Mick Jagger said, 'Well, you know, it's obvious what we have now got to do. We've got to have our own cavalry. So why don't we train people to fight on horseback against the mounted police?'"
But Jagger assumed a lot of different personas in his songwriting in 1968. He played not the just the part of a "street fighting man." In "Sympathy for the Devil" he introduced himself as "a man of wealth and taste" before taunting listeners to guess his devilish name. In "Jumpin' Jack Flash" he told a different life story, "born in a cross-fire hurricane . . . raised by a toothless, bearded hag." And like these personas, Jagger shed his "street fighting" identity pretty quickly after the song was recorded. He did not play any further role of significance in British antiwar politics. In fact, aside from "Gimme Shelter," which is more an apocalyptic prophecy than a protest song, Jagger did not weigh in on world politics until 2005 when he wrote "Sweet Neo Con."
Furthermore, people are quick to assume that singers singing in the first person are singing about their own lives, but this is usually an oversimplification. Singers are often simply storytellers, and they don't have to be telling their own stories for their songs to be compelling (see our module on Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" for an interesting discussion about truth and fiction in rap music). So instead of spending too much time contemplating whether Jagger himself is the "street fighting man," we should probably try to figure out what kind of man this street fighter is.
And actually, the street fighting man doesn't seem to be much of a fighter. He notes that London doesn't seem very welcoming to things being shaken up, so he accepts his fate as a singer "for a rock and roll band." He doesn't really seem very frustrated, and he doesn't really try to go against the grain. This ambivalence about street fighting, rather than real pent-up frustration, seems to be the driving force of the song.