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Grosvenor Square, London

Street Fighting Man by The Rolling Stones

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What can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock 'n' roll band? Read full Lyrics
Grosvenor Square Garden
(thanks Bill Harrison)
“They told me that 'Street Fighting Man' was subversive. 'Course it’s subversive, we said.”– Keith Richards

On March 17, 1968, an air of revolt hung over London, England. Thousands of people, most of them students, gathered in Trafalgar Square to protest the Vietnam War. The atmosphere of the rally was initially good humored, and it remained that way as the crowd elected to move to Grosvenor Square where actress Vanessa Redgrave, one of the leaders of the march, would deliver a letter of protest to the American embassy. Once the crowd arrived, however, the easygoing feeling quickly disappeared, and something very different began to take over.

Police surrounded the scene. At least one witness recalls that they seemed just as frightened as the demonstrators were. London had been very tame in terms of the protests when compared to places like France or the United States. No one was exactly sure what to expect. No one was exactly sure what to do. Somewhere along the way, things went wrong.

No one is entirely sure what caused things to tip over the edge, but chaos soon engulfed the square. Police charged on horseback swinging truncheons, while demonstrators hurled stones, firecrackers, and smoke bombs. The fighting spilled out into the city. One "copper" was beaten repeatedly in the back of the head with a stick as he clung in defense to his horse. Students were thrown to the ground and knocked over by the horses. By night’s end, more than 200 people were arrested. Casualties were heavy on all sides. The Saint John Ambulance Brigade treated 86 for injuries. Of the 50 people taken to hospital, 25 were protestors and 25 were police officers, a pretty even split, all things told.
A path within Grosvenor Square
(thanks, Basher Eyre)
A young Mick Jagger was present at the Square during the melee. One witness recalls seeing him standing in a doorway, watching the violence coolly. Not long after, Jagger would witness a similar scene in Paris’s Left Bank. He was present at events that preceded the violent May 1968 student protests. All of these things lodged deep in his mind, psychic stuff being subconsciously churned into music.

The rock and roller took all the revolutionary energy he’d been sopping up back to the band. He and Keith Richards had been working for some time on a song tentatively titled “Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?” They liked the music, but the lyrics just weren’t working, and production had stalled. Jagger suggested they needed to imbue it with some of the revolutionary events happening around them.

As the new direction for the song brewed, Richards thought of the line "What can a poor boy do?" Jagger answered at once, "Sing for a rock ‘n roll band." And just like that, the classic "Street Fighting Man" was born.

The song is a rare example of a work of art that went on to influence the very times that inspired it. It was borne of '60s rebellion, and it became an anthem for '60s rebellion. The whole situation is sort of amusing, really, because while the song’s general emotion meant to mimic the political resistance of its time, it didn’t actually have any particular political message. In fact, it was, if anything, decidedly unpolitical. In 1969 Keith Richards made this clear when he said, “I don't think (people) understand what we're trying to do, or what Mick's talking about, like on 'Street Fighting Man.' We're not saying we want to be in the streets, but we're a rock and roll band, just the reverse... Politics is what we were trying to get away from in the first place.” Despite this fact, the song was a big part of the counterculture soundtrack for the coming years.

Musician Chris Butler (The Waitresses) recalls "Street Fighting Man" playing on May 3, 1970, on the Kent State University campus. It was the eve of the May 4 massacre, and things were already boiling over. “There was a march of about 200-300 students Sunday night, May 3rd,” Butler recalls. “They sat down at the front gates of the campus, corner of East Main and South Lincoln, with the Guard and cops across the street. The students wanted to speak with Robert I. White, prez of the university. Stalemate. Then some guy with a bull horn started running between the factions, supposedly working out a negotiated disengagement. No one in my circle knew who he was. At one point he convinced the crowd to get up and turn around and head back to their dorms, but that's when the Guard charged with tear gas and fixed bayonets, which sent a couple of kids to the health center with stab wounds. Helicopters swooped in with searchlights, and with the gas and lights and noise...it was a fantastic, surreal thing to observe. As I was running south on South Lincoln, I passed where Bob Webb was living - an apartment above Haircut City, a shop across from the Science Building and a few hundred feet away from the intersection. Bob put his stereo speakers in the window and blasted "Street Fighting Man," which echoed off the Science Building and added to the chaotic scene. Cops ran up the outside stairs to Bob's apartment, pushed the speakers out the window, and dragged him by his hair down the stairs, arresting him (I believe).”

Entrance to Grosvenor Square Millennium Hotel London Mayfair
From Grosvenor Square, England, to Kent State, United States, and beyond, "Street Fighting Man" was part of the front lines of the '60s anti-war movement. Again, this is somewhat ironic, as Jagger and Richards have both stated that they felt the violence of the movement was sometimes pointless and sometimes straight-out immoral. In 1987 Jagger stated, rather eloquently, “I don't think violence is necessary in this society to bring about political change. I was never supportive of the Weathermen or anything like that. I NEVER believed that the violent course was necessary for our society. For other societies perhaps, but in ours, it's totally unnecessary. It's just morally reprehensible. And that's what I'm saying in ('Street Fighting Man'), really. However romantic the notion of manning the barricades may seem... I mean, that romantic ideal actually brought down a government very close to (England) - the de Gaulle government in France. And in America, you had the rioting at the Democratic convention in the same year. So there was a lot of street violence going on, for very ill-defined reasons. I'm not quite sure what all that was really about, when you think about it now.”

In a way, the saga of "Street Fighting Man" is a microcosm of the whole '60s/'70s music scene. The music helped drive the revolution, but most of the musicians weren’t dedicated in any serious way, or in any way at all, to the cause. They were simply artists whose psyches were plugged into the times, giving the people what they wanted and trying to get rich doing it. The mostly socialist-leaning counter culture was being fueled by anthems created by capitalists. If one stops to think about it too long, they’re likely to break down in tears or laughter, or both.

Jagger has commented that "Street Fighting Man" feels humorous and somewhat ridiculous to play for modern audiences. The age of fighting police in the streets in protest is over for the vast majority of Americans and English. To the middle aged and the young, the whole historical period is nothing more than grainy newsreel footage and parents' worn-out stories. The energy of that era, however, with all its bitter anger and hopeless idealism, fearless naiveté and reckless wisdom, is all right there in the song. From the first exquisite crack of Keith Richards’ guitar to the very end, all the madness of the '60s is in that tune. If you close your eyes and listen very closely, you may be teleported back there, even if only for a short time. The song is a call to rebellion that will long outlive its creators are gone. Rebellion against what? Well, what have you got? And, in the end, who f*cking cares? Let’s rock and roll, baby.

~ Jeff Suwak

Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.
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Comments: 1

  • Obster from PhillyGrosvenor Square is also mentioned in the opening line of the Grateful Dead song Scarlet Begonias.
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