The Rolling Stones have only used their voice for social justice causes on a handful of occasions throughout their career. When they speak on matters, it’s only when they genuinely believe in the topic they are throwing their weight behind. There’s no more remarkable example of this than ‘Street Fighting Man’.
Upon release in 1968, the song was deemed uber-controversial and considered to be too ‘subversive’ to gain airtime on American radio. This was, of course, due to the progressive liberal school of thought ‘Street Fighting Man’ pursued and the song’s support for the uprising. The world was in a state of flux around 1968, and people were clambering for change. Whether this was on the streets of Paris, London or New York, everybody was brought together with the same common goal.
‘Street Fighting Man’ is allegedly written about political activist Tariq Ali, which Ali himself has backed up. He is now an acclaimed author, and intellectual but back in 1968, he was the architect behind protests in London and got close with Jagger and John Lennon.
In 1968, student riots broke out over the Vietnam war across Europe in the metropolis’ of London and Paris as similar protests across America over the continuation of the Vietnam War – a conflict most people deemed avoidable at the very least – raged on across campuses.
Jagger himself had attended a 25,000 strong crowd who took part in a demonstration at London’s Grosvenor Square on March 17, 1968; what he saw that day inspired him to write the powerful track. Speaking with Jacobin in 2020, Ali stated: “Mick Jagger used to come to our demonstrations. He was quite intelligent, you know, and he was very ultra-left. The [Red Army Faction] people would have loved him, I’m sure they did.”
Adding: “Once in a private talk on a demonstration, he was extremely militant. I said, ‘calm down, already they’re attacking us for fighting the cops outside the US embassy.’ So he wrote the song and recorded it. The BBC of course refused to play it, so he sent me the tapes, the handwritten version of the song.
“And he said, ‘Here you are, my dear. You know the BBC won’t play it. Could you put it in the next issue of the Black Dwarf?’ So I said, ‘fine’. And that was an issue before a huge demonstration against the Vietnam War. So we put it on the cover, because we had an article from Engels as well. So we put: ‘Engels and Jagger on Street Fighting’, and he was really tickled by that. He liked it. So the song became part of the folklore.”
Jagger wasn’t far off the money when he said that the song would get banned from radio. Bizarrely, the song was released in the States in 1968, but stations refused to play it. It wasn’t until the summer of 1971 when ‘Street Fighting Man’ was finally released in the UK, and its delayed release might have something to do with the controversial subject matter.
The track forces the listener to take stock of the establishment and, in no uncertain times, to riot about its injustices. Reflecting on the ‘Street Fighting Man’ in 1995, Jagger commented: “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.”
Adding: “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.”
It’s safe to say that Mick Jagger is no longer the anarchist he fleetingly was during his youth, and although his left-leaning ways might have been a phase, at least it gave us ‘Street Fighting Man’, which is an anthem that unfortunately still feels poignant today. If only Jagger was correct when he said it had no resonance for the present day.