The Rolling Stones have always roamed the tightrope when it comes to controversy. Their name was at one-stage shorthand for bedlam, and the group only worked to enhance this nefarious reputation.
This stigmatisation dates back to the tragic Altamont Festival in 1969, an incident that led to four people losing their lives, and it has forever been a weight on top of The Rolling Stones’ shoulders ever since. While the deaths weren’t directly to the fault of the band, a sense of notoriety followed them as a result and, in truth, they played into it.
Over a decade on from Altamont, the violent theme crept back into their work and led to The Rolling Stones being banned from MTV as they made a political point. ‘Undercover of the Night’ was a passion project for Mick Jagger in every sense, and he wanted to shine a light on the ghastly situation that was brewing in South America.
“Mick had this one all mapped out, I just played on it,” Keith Richards recalled about the track. “There were a lot more overlays on the track because there was a lot more separation in the way we were recording at the time.”
However, The Rolling Stones were understandably not given the same amount of leeway as other groups when it came to violence, and they knew the risk attached to releasing such a graphic track. In case the message of ‘Undercover of the Night’ was lost on listeners, the band accompanied it with a bloodshed-filled video filmed in Mexico City, which ultimately ends with Richards shooting Jagger.
Explaining his creative decision, he said: “When (‘Undercover of the Night’) was written it was supposed to be about the repression of violence in our minds, you know, ’cause we have so much of it. It’s also about repressive political systems — pretty serious stuff for top 20 material.
“It’s pretty risky to put out songs like that ’cause nobody’s really interested in that kind of thing. I mean, everyone wants to hear about the party all night long or just mumbo-jumbo. Nobody’s interested in anything real.”
Understandably, the backlash was significant. When Jagger appeared on Channel 4’s music programme The Tube in a bid to promote the release, viewers weren’t even allowed to see the video he was ardently defending.
He passionately said, “It’s a film which goes with our new single which is about political repression, violence. I notice we all got your reactions when the violent bits came. We never got a chance to see them ourselves, we were only allowed to see you shaking your head. We didn’t want to dress the song up in cliches, we wanted to do a video that was about the song.”
It wasn’t just Channel 4 that had an issue with the video, the BBC also made it clear that they wouldn’t be airing ‘Undercover of the Night’, and MTV was also reluctant.
In truth, the ban didn’t damage The Stones, and perversely, it turned out to be a marketing masterstroke. The anti-establishment success of the single restored their image as hellraisers and made a whole new generation warm to the group, making them relevant once again.