There are very songs in existence that can be identified quicker than ‘Street Fighting Man’. Within the first half of a second, the track instantly resonates with its adrenalised dose of rock ‘n’ roll. While relatively simple in its creation, as with most of The Rolling Stones’ material, there is so much assured attitude to the playing that it twists the sound with a bravura swagger that registers it unmistakable.
The attitude, on this occasion, captures the riotous ways of society. It was 1968, and the world was experiencing a period of tumult, turmoil and resultant musical triumph. Mick Jagger was in the heart of this ruckus when the lyrics to the song came to mind. The gyrating frontman was making his way through London with Vanessa Redgrave when he happened upon a demonstration against the Vietnam war in Grosvenor Square.
The protest eventually besieged the American embassy building. In the resultant clash between police and the crowd, 200 people were hospitalised, and a further 246 were arrested. Jagger never made it to the embassy; he gave up on the protest and returned to his home at Cheyne Walk. However, the fractious tension that day left an indelible mark on the rockers psyche, and he set about immortalising it in song.
Jagger and the band would later abscond to France and record the album, and as he recalled: “It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions. I wrote a lot of the melody and all the words, and Keith and I sat around and made this wonderful track, with Dave Mason playing the shelani on it live. It’s a kind of Indian reed instrument a bit like a primitive clarinet. It comes in at the end of the tune. It has a very wailing, strange sound.”
Keith Richards himself had already started working on the riff for the song in late 1966 but could never get the desired sound that the melody required to really drive it home. In the end, it was achieved by overdubbing acoustic strumming over and over again. As Richards recalled: “‘Street Fighting Man’ was all acoustics. There’s no electric guitar parts in it. Even the high-end lead part was through a cassette player with no limiter. Just distortion. Just two acoustics played right into the mic and hit very hard. There’s a sitar in the back, too. That would give the effect of the high notes on the guitar.” The result was a wail of violent musicianship that fits the context of the song and the fiery zeitgeist of the times.
Notably, the lyrics of the track are primarily apolitical as the rest of the back catalogue would remain thereafter, but this first foray into direct protest music represented a turning point for the band. The result, however, was pivotal in ensuring that the venture into politicism would remain fleeting as many radio stations in America refused to play the track upon its release, and it suffered commercially as a result.
As Mick Jagger later recalled regarding mainstream hesitancy: “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!”