By now it’s commonly accepted that Street Fighting Man was inspired by Tariq Ali, a British radical of Pakistani background who first became famous as a student activist and became a leader of the British and global left. The song was released during the radical protests of summer 1968. Students were rioting in Paris and there were demonstrations all across the United States when Jagger attended an antiwar rally at the US Embassy in London led by Ali, Vanessa Redgrave, and others.
(Tariq Ali has appeared on The Zero Hour several times.)
The song’s lyrics are fiery, but they may or may not be quite as revolutionary as they first seem. Sure, the attitude is tough enough in spots:
“Ev'rywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy/’cause summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.”
Those were electrifying words for many students that summer, even one who was just about to turn fifteen. (Me, of course.) So were these lyrics:
“Said my name is called disturbance (I heard it as ‘raw disturbance,’ which I like better)/I'll shout and scream, I'll kill the king, I'll rail at all his servants.”
But then there’s the chorus:
“Tell me what can a poor boy do/’cept to sing for a rock 'n' roll band/'Cause in sleepy London town/There's just no place for a street fighting man”
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As Keith has said, the song has “ambiguity.”
What makes the song unambiguously revolutionary is Keith, who tuned his guitar to an open tuning — still unusual in rock and roll — and played it into that Philips recorder at a higher volume than its tiny circuitry could handle. It made Keith’s acoustic guitar sound meatier than most electrics. Then there were the uniquely Keith-style rhythmic emphases The title gave the song some swagger, while the guitar seemed unearthly and visceral at the same time. Jagger’s lyrical nuances only mattered to the most politicized of listeners.
As for Tariq Ali, his impact on the rock stars of the time was not limited to the Stones. He had a written difference of opinion with John Lennon that’s been covered extensively elsewhere (and which Tariq writes about here). That exchange led to a casual friendship. Tariq can be seen in a John Lennon documentary, registering shock when John tells him he has a new song called “Crippled Inside.” (We now understand that to be an ableist phrase, but Lennon’s blunt use of language was unheard of at the time and arguably prefigured punk, which came only seven or eight years later.)
Their exchange of letters inspired Lennon to write “Power to the People,” a song as radical as its title. The song includes the word “worker,” a rather socialist-sounding vocabulary choice for the time. Lennon even chides his “comrades and brothers” for their sexism at home.
Earlier, Lennon showed Jagger-like ambiguity when he recorded “Revolution” with the Beatles (‘don’t you know that you can count me out/in’). In that song, as in the Stones’, the real revolution was in the guitar tone. But Lennon wasn’t playing anymore. Lennon and Ono later recorded an album of exclusively left-wing songs and, while their last album was apolitical, Lennon’s political trajectory was never linear.
We can’t know, but I suspect there would have been more musical and street politics from Lennon had he lived. Maybe he would never have used the word “revolution” again, since it makes so many people uncomfortable nowadays. But maybe he would have. Martin Luther King, Jr. used it in 1968. Bernie uses it today. For every person who’s embarrassed by it, it seems, there’s somebody else who embraces it.
But then, revolution is a strange and unpredictable phenomenon. It can appear in unexpected places. It can be found in a resistance movement that suddenly succeeds after decades of failure. It can be found in an exchange of letters in a now-defunct magazine. It can even be found in an old tape recorder in a Madrid flea market.
That’s the thing; you never know where you’ll find it. And when you think it’s lost, sometimes you find it again.
Crossposted from Absolute Zero