The same month that the Beatles put “Revolution” out as a single, the Rolling Stones released “Street Fighting Man.” In the summer of 1968, revolution was clearly very much in the air — as the song says, everywhere you could hear “the sound of marching, charging feet.” In the US, we saw demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, the rise of black nationalism in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the galvanization of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and protests at the Democratic National Convention leading to the arrest of the Chicago Eight. In France, tensions were even more pronounced: in May, universities and schools were closed as students took to the streets and clashed with police, and then a massive general strike led to protests where more than a million people marched through Paris, threatening a violent overthrow of the government. And in Czechoslovakia, the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring incurred a Soviet backlash in which 2,000 tanks and 200,000 troops invaded and occupied the capital.
In London, however, things were somewhat quiet by comparison. There were youth protests, to be sure, but nothing like what was seen in the US or France, let alone Eastern Europe. Maybe things simply weren’t so bad in Britain — Harold Wilson’s Labour government was progressive and effective. “Street Fighting Man” is a fantastic document of Mick Jagger’s ambivalence toward “sleepy London town” in 1968, where instead of launching a “palace revolution,” everyone seemed content to play the game of “compromise solution.”
I love this track, especially for the paranoid atmosphere that Keith created in the backing tracks. There are no electric guitars here, just a pile of close-miked acoustics, as well as sitar and tamboura in the background. Charlie isn’t even playing a full drumkit — just a suitcase, also miked tight; and the weird sound at the end is Dave Mason playing an Indian oboe called a shehnai. We might contrast the production here to what we hear on “Revolution,” a song about sitting out the revolution which The Beatles incongruously play at a blistering volume. Here, instead, we have the sound of a pressure cooker seething, a seismic explosion waiting to happen, just as the lyric suggests.
But the real treat for me is the dense irony of Jagger’s lyric. What exactly is he trying to say here? Does he really believe that there’s no place for a street-fighting man in “sleepy London town”? Is “singing in a rock’n’roll band” really the best he has to offer? Is he maybe beating himself up for opting out of the revolution? Could it even be that he’s taking a stab at Lennon for sticking his head in the sand? Maybe, but it sounds to me like he’s not opting out at all, and this is meant to be a call to arms for Londoners to join in the revolution. London, after all, is no more a “sleepy town” than Mick Jagger is a “poor boy”…