Why The Rolling Stones’ video for ‘Undercover of the Night’ was banned
In 1983, The Rolling Stones were no longer the craziest cats around and they were no longer depicted as wild young men who caused chaos in every town they visited. Punk had come along and ruffled feathers in a way that The Stones no longer could. However, that didn’t mean they weren’t still rearing their heads whenever they could and the band needed to prove to the doubters that they still had their edge.
The change in reputation had slowly happened in the preceding decade, the dangerous image that they had previously played up to had almost entirely been eradicated and they were teetering on becoming yesterday’s news. The dynamic of the band had also shifted in this time, it was no longer The Glimmer Twins running the show and Mick Jagger had taken up almost full creative control while most of the band battled substance abuse. Thankfully, Richards had beaten his heroin addiction and was now ready to dive back in with two feet for 1983’s Undercover but Jagger wasn’t quite yet ready to listen. He knew what he wanted to create and lead single ‘Undercover Of The Night’ was something he felt compelled to make.
The track arrived as the lead single from the return record, Jagger was still struggling to take both hands off the proverbial wheel and had tunnel vision in his creation. The frontman knew every minute detail of what he wanted the song to be and he wanted it to cause a visceral reaction from fans. He later made sure of this by commissioning a video directed by Julien Temple that was designed to rock viewers to their cores.
The video, which was shot in Mexico City, featured Jagger in the starring role as a detective helping a woman who was played by Elpidia Carrillo. They follow the kidnappers of her boyfriend (who Jagger also plays) and Richards as the leader of the gang, a figure who eventually shoots Jagger. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, deemed to be too violent for MTV, the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority.
Jagger later revealed that the song, as well as the video, “was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, a free-wheeling novel about political and sexual repression. It combines a number of different references to what was going down in Argentina and Chile.”
Jagger later boasted in 1984 that it was the song’s anti-establishment context that saw it shunned: “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.”
The video was the way of making sure that listeners didn’t miss out on the serious political message of the song and they did this by being as direct as possible. Around the release, Temple and Jagger appeared via link-up on Channel 4’s music show The Tube in order to promote the song but, instead, ended up spending the whole segment attempting to defend the graphic video to presenter Muriel Gray. After being asked why they chose to put such graphic scenes in the video, Jagger fiercely stated, “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.”
Temple then delivered a plethora of facts and figures which he believed made the film’s graphic nature vitally important, “Let me tell you that the average kid in America when he gets to the age of 21 has seen 65,000 killings on TV and that devalues the meaning of killing.
“It makes people immune to it. If we’d made a documentary for six weeks in El Salvador, all the kids who might see this would have turned it off. This film is about the song, about what is happening in parts of the so-called civilised world.”
Jagger was passionate enough to write about this issue and it was the first time that he had shown this keen political side since ‘Street Fighting Man‘. This was a song and a message that the frontman wanted to use his platform in order to shed as much light on as possible, and he almost definitely knew the hostile reaction the video would cause. It proved to be all the more reason for going ahead for it.
If The Stones had released a toned-down video for ‘Undercover Of The Night’, taken the safe route and provided some MTV fodder, then there would not have been the furore about the violent content and, in reality, the discussion around the events in South America wouldn’t have been as prevalent. While the song has rarely featured as part of the band’s ultimate canon of revered work, and Jagger’s political side has been kept largely at bay, ‘Undercover Of The Night’ shows that when he puts his mind to it, Mick Jagger’s artistic eye is as keen as anyone’s.