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This song deals with civil unrest in Europe and America in 1968. There were student riots in London and Paris, and Vietnam protests in America. The specific event that led Mick Jagger to write the lyrics was a demonstration at Grosvenor Square in London on March 17, 1968. Jagger (along with Vanessa Redgrave), joined an estimated 25,000 protesters in condemning the Vietnam War.
The demonstrators marched to the American embassy, where the protest turned violent. Mounted police charged the crowd, which responded by throwing rocks and smoke bombs. About 200 people were taken to the hospital and another 246 arrested. Jagger didn't make it to the embassy: before the protest turned violent, he abandoned it, returning to his home in nearby Cheyne Walk. Jagger realized that his celebrity was a hindrance to the protest, as his presence distracted from the cause.
This was the first Stones song to make a powerful political statement, although with an air of resignation. Jagger opens the song declaring "that the time is right for fighting in the street," but goes on to sing, "But what can a poor boy do, 'cept sing in a rock and roll band."
This sense of hopelessness in the face of atrocity may be why the Rolling Stones became apolitical, focusing their efforts on songs about relationships and rock n' roll. In the process, they became very rich and beloved by members of all political persuasion.
In the US, this was released as a single on August 31, 1968, just a few days after the Democratic National Convention, which took place August 26-29. The convention was marred by violence, as Chicago police clashed with protesters. When the song was released, every radio station in Chicago (and most in the rest of the country), refused to play it for fear that it would incite more violence. There was no official ban in America or Chicago, but stations knew it was in their best interest to shun the song, which accounts for its meager chart position of #48.
Mick Jagger later said: "The radio stations that banned the song told me that 'Street Fighting Man' was subversive. Of course it's subversive, we said. It's stupid to think you can start a revolution with a record. I wish you could!"
The original title of this song was "Did Everybody Pay Their Dues?" It had completely different lyrics and therefore altogether a different and rather strange meaning: Jagger sings about an Indian chief and his family. The music however was basically the same (slightly alternative mixes exist) - but the lead guitar over the chorus was omitted on the final mix of "Street Fighting Man." Fairly listenable versions have appeared on various bootlegs. (thanks, Christopher - Vienna, Austria)
Keith Richards created a distinctive guitar sound on this track using a technique he also used on "Jumpin' Jack Flash
," where his acoustic guitar was overdubbed several times. Says Richards: "Street Fighting Man was all acoustics. There's no electric guitar parts in it. Even the high-end lead part was through a cassette player with no limiter. Just distortion. Just two acoustics, played right into the mike, and hit very hard. There's a sitar in the back, too. That would give the effect of the high notes on the guitar. And Charlie was playing his little 1930s drummer's practice kit. It was all sort of built into a little attaché case, so some drummer who was going to his gig on the train could open it up - with two little things about the size of small tambourines without the bells on them, and the skin was stretched over that. And he set up this little cymbal, and this little hi-hat would unfold. Charlie sat right in front of the microphone with it. I mean, this drum sound is massive. When you're recording, the size of things has got nothing to do with it. It's how you record them. Everything there was totally acoustic. The only electric instrument on there is the bass guitar, which I overdubbed afterwards. What I was after with all of those - Street Fighting Man, Jumping Jack Flash - was to get the drive and dryness of an acoustic guitar but still distort it. They were all attempts at that."
Dave Mason did session work on this track. He played the shelani, an Indian reed instrument. Mason went on to form the group Traffic, and has played guitar on albums by Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Fleetwood Mac.
Mick Jagger said of this song: "It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions.... I wrote a lot of the melody and all the words, and Keith and I sat around and made this wonderful track, with Dave Mason playing the shelani on it live. It's a kind of Indian reed instrument a bit like a primitive clarinet. It comes in at the end of the tune. It has a very wailing, strange sound." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
In the US, the single was originally released with a picture on the sleeve of police beating protesters in Los Angeles. The music was different on this version, with different vocals and more piano. This single was quickly pulled by the record company and is now a rare collectors item.
The Stones released this the same month The Beatles came out with "Revolution," which was their first blatantly political song.
A number of sources claim that this song was inspired by the radicalism of a young student leader Tariq Ali, who was active in revolutionary socialist politics in Britain in the late '60s. In an interview with the April 19, 2007 edition of the Galway Advertiser, Ali, who is now a writer and filmmaker, confirmed this. "Yes, its true. Jagger was/is an artist. He writes and sings what he wants."
In the UK, this wasn't released as a single until July, 1971.
Rod Stewart covered this on his 1973 album Sing It Again Rod. Rage Against The Machine covered this on their 2000 album Renegades. (thanks, rudi - melbourne, Australia)
Mick Jagger said in 1995: "I'm not sure if it really has any resonance for the present day. I don't really like it that much. I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; De Gaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing. Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
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