The Rolling Stones have always had a reputation in the United States as anarchic hell-raisers out to cause chaos everywhere they went. It wasn’t an entirely unfounded concept; the group had done well to cultivate an image of danger as the perfect marketing tool. That said, notoriety also had its downfall, too. It also meant that the meaning behind their music was dissected to the ninth degree, unlike their peers.
The Stones had become a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic by the late sixties, thanks in no small part to the mayhem that would ensue every time that they stepped foot on stage. It was this, coupled with their more than liberal attitudes, that their songs embodied and, in turn, provoked such an intense feeling of freedom. With Americans already in a mild panic amid the Cold War fears, every new and strange entrant into the country was inspected.
However, the group’s 1968 political anthem ‘Street Fighting Man‘ was deemed too ‘subversive’ to gain airtime on American radio due to the progressive liberal school of thought that it pursued. Asking its listeners to take stock of the establishment and, in no uncertain times, to riot about it, Jagger and the band were playing a dangerous game. It was a strong enough message to see the powers of American radio come down hard on the group and remove the record from rotation.
The meaning behind the timeless track was deemed as a bit too close to home for the American audience station bosses who refused to play the record for their audience, fearing it may cause mass hysteria, or at least plant the seeds. Despite The Stones being one of the most cherished artists at the time and the record one of the most sought after, the bosses continued to keep it off the air. ‘Street Fighting Man’ discusses the civil unrest in Europe and America in 1968 due to the Vietnam War and is more than clear in its direction.
In 1968, student riots broke out 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. 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 inspired him to write the powerful track.
The song was deliberately released at a provocative time, arriving on August 31, 1968, just a few days after the Democratic National Convention which was tainted with violence that saw Chicago police brutally clash with protesters. It was a marketing ploy that the band had become known for and one which would see the furore around the new single reach fever pitch.
Due to this violence, when the song was officially released, almost every radio station in the US refused to play the anthem in case that it would lead to even more violence. Despite the song not being ‘officially banned’, stations knew to avoid it in case of the backlash that could potentially come their way. This, as well as a lack of promo around the song, meant that it landed on the charts at the underwhelming position of 48.
Mick Jagger later said: “The radio stations that banned the song told me that ‘Street Fighting Man’ was subversive. ‘Of course, it’s subversive,’ we said. It’s stupid to think you can start a revolution with a record. I wish you could!”
In the US, the original sleeve for the single had an image of police beating protestors in Los Angeles, but this was quickly pulled by their label and has become a rarity in the years since—one to look out for Stones fans, as it will undoubtedly be a real collector’s item.
Jagger revealed in 1995 that he believes the song was very much of its time and he doesn’t think it was still all that relevant. However, if you look at the global protests that have taken place recently in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, then perhaps the song’s essence feels more poignant today than ever.
The Stones frontman later said: “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. 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.”