Culture / History / Politics

‘Making socialists want to vomit’

StreetFightingMan-sleeve2You’ve always got to have good tunes if you’re marching. But the tunes don’t make the march. Basically, rock ‘n’ roll isn’t protest. And never was. It’s not political.
Mick Jagger (1980)

Saturday 16 June will see ‘Labour Live’ at White Hart Lane Recreation Ground – ‘a brand new one-day festival of music, art and politics that brings together our incredible movement’, according to the event’s website. Alongside Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and journalist Owen Jones, a select number of musical artistes are promised. Apart from the Magic Numbers, this humble reporter has never heard of any of them, but I’m sure they are all good, wholesome stuff, and that they’ll uncritically praise Jezza to the hilt.

By coincidence, another lumbering old beast that constantly replays its greatest hits to a credulous fan-base is also making their way through various British sports stadia at the time of writing. But the Rolling Stones won’t be dropping in for a guest slot at Labour Live, and probably wouldn’t be welcome if they did. With Corbyn’s ambiguous stance on leaving the European Union, perhaps the Labour politburo decided not to invite the old boys when they heard Sir Mick Jagger’s excruciating, Brexit-inspired single, ‘England Lost’, which stormed to #49 on the French charts last year:

I went to find England, it wasn’t there
I think I lost it in the back of my chair
I think I’m losing my imagination
I’m tired of talking about immigration
You can’t get in and you can’t get out
I guess that’s what we’re all about.

Hardly Bob Dylan in his prime, and highly unlikely to inspire any revolutionary behaviour, ‘England’s Lost’ (which features grime artist and rapper Skepta*) does, however, bring to mind Jagger’s history of timely opportunism when commenting upon the political zeitgeist. And as commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the global protests witnessed in 1968 are now in full swing, it is surely time to look back to that venerated year and to Jagger’s appearance in Black Dwarf – Tariq Ali’s and Clive Goodwin’s then-newly launched Marxist organ of the underground press.

artwork-street-fighting-men2


Jagger made his way on to the pages of Black Dwarf, issue 7, on 27 October 1968, the day of the second large anti-Vietnam War protest to be staged in London that year. Indeed, he had attended the first demo in March, though he was there by all accounts, rather more as an observer than a participant. So why did he attend? Answering this question in 2008, author Barry Miles (the main figure behind the underground press’s flagship paper International Times) suggested:

He was there because he felt angry and rebellious but he had no way of formulating this, of giving it any kind of structure, and in a sense he was looking for anything to rebel against. I don’t think he had a carefully worked-out policy against Vietnam; I mean, he had a moral outrage against the war and that was about it…

It is quite possible that Jagger was still angry at his persecution by the British state the previous year, when the infamous Redlands bust ended in Keef and him spending a few nights at Her Majesty’s pleasure, prompting the ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel’ leader in The Times by William Rees-Mogg (father of our own dear Jacob). In any case, Jagger was certainly riled at authority in general and the police in particular. In an interview for International Times, he commented upon this anti-authoritarian stance, arguing that,

if we really want to be anything we MUST try and bypass the police. And if we want to demonstrate we have to meet them on their own ground. If they want to use horses, we’ll have 10,000 people on horses. And that’s what I thought when I was there. That’s what it should have been!

In witnessing the events of the day, Jagger was inspired to write the Stones’ classic ‘Street Fighting Man’, and delivered the lyrics to Black Dwarf (in hand-written form) in time for the second anti-Vietnam march. They revealed an ambiguity: was he for violence, or not? Perhaps he was, just not in London?

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
’Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band?
’Cause in sleepy London Town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man.

The words are certainly more poetic than ‘England’s Lost’, but again a theme of dissatisfaction with the country is evident. He expanded upon this in the IT interview: ‘this country’s so weird, you know, it always does things slightly differently, always more moderately, and always very boringly, most of it, the changes are so suppressed. The people suppress them.’

Despite Jagger’s observations on the nature of radical protest in Britain, Ali printed the lyrics to ‘Street Fighting Man’ in Black Dwarf. In his memoir Street Fighting Years, he recalls:

We photographed the sheet of paper and I threw the original into the wastepaper basket. No one in the office thought this sacrilegious. The cult of the individual is always the substitute for collective action. Jagger sang well and he was being helpful. That was all.

But Black Dwarf’s readership were not exactly happy with the young rock star’s inclusion – particularly as the Jagger lyrics featured on the same page as Fat Freddy Engels’s writings on street fighting. Consider, for example, one reader’s response in the following edition:

In your Vietnam edition you devote space to some doggerel from Mick Jagger, an unfortunate nothing whom the world could do well without, and more disgusting still, you couple his name on your front page alongside Marx and Engels; something which will surely make any sincere Socialist want to vomit.

The incorporation of Jagger into the paper, and the subsequent response, only serves to highlight the divide within what Richard Neville of Oz magazine termed the classic New Left/psychedelic left dialogue’. Basically, the far-left ideologues had little time for frivolities such as rock music and the counterculture. Indeed, the practice of rock stars mingling with revolutionaries was soon to be discontinued. Black Dwarf contributor John Hoyland later explained why the paper tried the crossover in the first place:

We took ‘Street Fighting Man’ very seriously. It seemed that the Rolling Stones were a genuinely progressive band, in political terms. In retrospect, it’s ridiculous, because we were so wrong, Jagger was merely dabbling with the idea of becoming a revolutionary. He was actually a home counties Tory, and he has been ever since.

Jagger was not to appear in any radical publications again. Within a couple of years, the Stones had set in motion the ‘rock stars in exile’ fad, as they disappeared to the sunnier climes of the South of France, leaving ‘sleepy London Town’ and the rest of Britain to fend for itself. And of course, as they abandoned any countercultural leanings they made have had, they grew enormously rich, played a huge part in the commodification of rock, and are now national treasures.StreetFightingMan-sleeve

Black Dwarf folded in 1971 after some inevitable sectarian in-fighting. Tariq Ali, though, is still out there fighting the far left’s battles, and has turned out to be quite a fan of our Jezza. Perhaps they can join up at Labour Live for a duet of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’.


* Skepta probably wouldn’t be welcome at Labour Live either. He spurned the #Grime4Corbyn initiative, and commented later that, during the 2017 general election campaign, ‘everybody that mattered started to fucking support politics and tell people to vote for people. They’re fucking saying “Vote for this person, check politics and shit out”. I’m like, “Are you lot fucking stupid, brother?”’


see also Ben Finlay’s own blog:
Underground Culture: The Legacy of the Late 1960s


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