Rolling Stones – Street Fighting Man

The tone of this track is ominous. What a powerful statement The Stones were making in this song. With me growing up in the late 70s and 80s I didn’t grasp what the song was getting across when I first heard it. We didn’t have the turmoil that was going on during the sixties happening at that time.

Now the tone…something about the sixties that is missing today is the low fi experimenting. Keith Richards started developing this song in late 1966 but had a hard time getting the sound he was after. The breakthrough came when he bought a Philips cassette recorder and realized he could get a dry, crisp sound by playing his acoustic guitar into it and overloading it. The only electric instrument on the entire song is the bass. The guitar you hear is coming from an old Philips cassette recorder.

Philips Cassette Recorder

Charlie Watts used a 1930s toy drum kit called a London Jazz Kit Set…it was something close to this…

The song was released in 1968 and was on Beggars Banquet. The song peaked at #48 in the Billboard 100, #21 in the UK, and #32 in Canada.

From Songfacts

This song deals with civil unrest in Europe and America in 1968. There were student riots in London and Paris, and protests in America over the Vietnam War. The specific event that led Mick Jagger to write the lyric was a demonstration at Grosvenor Square in London on March 17, 1968. Jagger (along with Vanessa Redgrave), joined an estimated 25,000 protesters in condemning the Vietnam War.

The demonstrators marched to the American embassy, where the protest turned violent. Mounted police charged the crowd, which responded by throwing rocks and smoke bombs. About 200 people were taken to the hospital and another 246 arrested. Jagger didn’t make it to the embassy: before the protest turned violent, he abandoned it, returning to his home in nearby Cheyne Walk. Jagger realized that his celebrity was a hindrance to the protest, as his presence distracted from the cause.

This was the first Stones song to make a powerful political statement, although with an air of resignation. Jagger opens the song declaring “the time is right for fighting in the street,” but goes on to sing, “But what can a poor boy do, ‘cept sing in a rock and roll band.”

This sense of hopelessness in the face of atrocity may be why the Rolling Stones became apolitical, focusing their efforts on songs about relationships and rock n’ roll. In the process, they became very rich and beloved by members of all political persuasion.

In the US, this was released as a single on August 31, 1968, just a few days after the Democratic National Convention, which took place August 26-29. The convention was marred by violence, as Chicago police clashed with protesters. When the song was released, every radio station in Chicago (and most in the rest of the country), refused to play it for fear that it would incite more violence. There was no official ban in America or Chicago, but stations knew it was in their best interest to shun the song, which accounts for its meager chart 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!”

The original title of this song was “Did Everybody Pay Their Dues?” It had completely different lyrics and therefore altogether a different and rather strange meaning, with Jagger singing about an Indian chief and his family. The music however was basically the same (slightly alternative mixes exist), but the lead guitar over the chorus was omitted on the final mix of “Street Fighting Man.” Fairly listenable versions have appeared on various bootlegs.

Keith Richards created a distinctive guitar sound on this track using a technique he also used on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” where his acoustic guitar was overdubbed several times. Said Richards: “‘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 mike, and hit very hard. There’s a sitar in the back, too. That would give the effect of the high notes on the guitar. And Charlie was playing his little 1930s drummer’s practice kit. It was all sort of built into a little attaché case, so some drummer who was going to his gig on the train could open it up – with two little things about the size of small tambourines without the bells on them, and the skin was stretched over that. And he set up this little cymbal, and this little hi-hat would unfold. Charlie sat right in front of the microphone with it. I mean, this drum sound is massive. When you’re recording, the size of things has got nothing to do with it. It’s how you record them. Everything there was totally acoustic. The only electric instrument on there is the bass guitar, which I overdubbed afterwards. What I was after with all of those – Street Fighting Man, Jumping Jack Flash – was to get the drive and dryness of an acoustic guitar but still distort it. They were all attempts at that.”

Dave Mason did session work on this track. He played the shelani, an Indian reed instrument, which comes in near the end of the song. Mason went on to form the group Traffic, and has played guitar on albums by Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Fleetwood Mac.

Mick Jagger said of this song: “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.” 

This was recorded on an 8-track machine with one track devoted to the cassette recording Richards and Watts made together. Richards added more acoustic guitar on another track, Watts put some bass drum on another, and the rest were filled out by Jagger’s vocal and the other instruments: Jones on sitar and tamboura, Dave Mason’s shehnai, Nicky Hopkins on piano and Richards on bass because Bill Wyman wasn’t around. There is a great deal of stereo separation in the mix.

In the US, the single was originally released with a picture on the sleeve of police beating protesters in Los Angeles. The music was different on this version, with different vocals and more piano. This single was quickly pulled by the record company and is now a rare collectors item.

The studio recording, with acoustic guitars and sitar, is impossible to replicate live, but the group came up with an electric arrangement that packed plenty of punch when they performed it. The song remained a concert favorite throughout their run.

The Stones released this the same month The Beatles came out with “Revolution,” which was their first blatantly political song.

A number of sources claim that this song was inspired by the radicalism of a young student leader Tariq Ali, who was active in revolutionary socialist politics in Britain in the late ’60s. In an interview with the April 19, 2007 edition of the Galway Advertiser, Ali, who is now a writer and filmmaker, confirmed this. “Yes, its true. Jagger was/is an artist. He writes and sings what he wants.”

In the UK, this wasn’t released as a single until July 1971, but it still made a strong showing on the chart, reaching #21.

Rod Stewart covered this on his 1973 album Sing It Again Rod. Rage Against The Machine covered it on their 2000 album Renegades

Mick Jagger said in 1995: “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.” 

Engineer Eddie Kramer recalled to Uncut in a 2016 interview: “The beginning of Street Fighting Man? My recollection is that Jimmy Miller brought in a Wollensak – a cassette machine with one mic built in – stuck it on the floor, pressed ‘Record’ and the band just make a circle round it. And that was the basic track. Now, of course, Keith says it was his idea and his tape machine, but I don’t remember it that way.”

Keith Richards lists this among his favorite Rolling Stones tracks, and feels the message rings true. “When people feel that mad about the way they’re being run, you should go to the streets,” he said. “America wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for people going to the streets.”

Street Fighting Man

Ev’rywhere I hear the sound
Of marching charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right
For fighting in the street, boy

Well now, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man, no

Hey think the time is right
For a palace revolution
But where I live the game
To play is compromise solution

Well now, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man, no. Get down.

Hey so my name is called Disturbance
I’ll shout and scream
I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants

Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man, no
Get down

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

39 thoughts on “Rolling Stones – Street Fighting Man”

  1. I remember reading about the recording session and the small drum kit. It’s a super sound all round and a nice reminder that the success of a track hardly ever depends on the instruments. I would have corroborated your backstory here using the bible (rolling stones gear!) but unfortunately I’m only up to 1964!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lol… I love the cassette tape part. Who would have thought that? Keith mentioned now they have a limiter in the cassette tape machine and it won’t overload.


  2. I always admired the way The Stones made a political statement. To me they took a very down to earth approach to it. They witnessed it from a more working class point of view, not that they were opposing social revolution, but they were celebrating the people who has the most to loose from it, or in this case, the anarchists who are always in the state of rebellion.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It didn’t last long but it was an effective way they went about it…to bring it to the masses. A lot of unrest in 1968 with Street Fighting Man and Revolution released.

      The Stones and Beatles in those two records mirrored the early Dylan folk songs…acting as newspapers passing along the message.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow. that’s a neat story, especially the way they recorded it and the odd instruments. gotta like it when bands will try new things like that.
    One of their better rock songs, and one that’s (apparently) easily over-looked given how low it charted and how rare it is to hear on classic rock radio that otherwise LUV the Stones.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What blew my mind is Jumpin’ Jack Flash…it’s main riff is an acoustic overload also…at least that is what Keith said in his book.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Song was clearly written from a conservative perspective and postulates the undesirability of any changes. Not my position, but at least there is a positional reference to which you can relate, and there is also enough musical drive, so that there is a certain amount of listening pleasure.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The way it was recorded makes it all the better. They always talk about The Beach Boys and their Pet Sounds for innovation, but this is right up there with them. How does a mind come up with this music and lyrics? These guys are musical icons!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes they are…I love the primitive approach they used for this. People today would do well learning from the past bands. If it sounds good…do it! It doesn’t have to be digital and perfect to be good….quite the opposite.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes! The Stones had that until after Tattoo You and the Beatles had it until Abbey Road. Dylan and Young…ALWAYS have it.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Jagger had a pretty cool knack at opening lines that would grab you by the ear. This being one and Jumping Jack Flash’s opening line is the other amongst many.
    Clever Lyricist never gets his due.
    I think you will dig my post on Sunday!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah for sure and impressive that in this day and age they can still drop some new music.
        Pretty cool thing actually. Why more bands aren’t putting out stuff to generate something is beyond me since the current climate of touring is no existent.

        Not sure if you are aware of Sloan but they just out out a Live show on Bandcamp today for 10 bucks and it goes directly to them so I’m getting that as soon as I’m done typing this as I have met them the past 3 times through town here and they are solid guys.
        They never charge for meet n greets as they come out after there sets and sign stuff and hang and chat.
        It’s the least I can do to support em.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I never heard of them but I will. That’s why I blog in the first place… I’ll check them out. The one album I haven’t so far is Stakk Attack… not yet!

        More bands need to be like that and be common people. Yea right now everyone has a captive audience!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Dude! that is my kind of music. I had a feature a few months back I ran called “Powerpop Friday” and would feature 3 songs by unknown and known bands. I WILL use one of their songs coming up in a newer one.
        That is awesome!
        Love any band that plays Rickenbackers.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. That is what I”m remembering it on also.
        Do you remember China Beach? Is that what it was called?


      2. I remember China Beach but, never watched it. It wasn’t gritty enough to me. What few times I viewed an episode, it struck me as more like a soap opera. It may have been a show about Vietnam but, it certainly didn’t feel or look like Vietnam. I still have no interest.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I just remember the show…I don’t know if I watch an entire episode.
        What you just said is what I think of a lot of Hollywood westerns after watching the Eastwood triliogy. Nothing seemed gritty or real enough after watching that.

        How was that for a change of subject?


      4. Ken has a habit of critiquing what he’s watching (remember the spoiled little boy raised in a five-star…high ideals). I keep telling him “It’s Hollyweird. You have to play along or you will drown in disappointment.” Hollyweird is not known for churning out truth anymore than governments are. Unless it is a (rarely) factual documentary, everything in Tinsel Town is “art”…therefore, fluid…therefore, an “imagining”. Hell, you can’t even get the local news to project actual real life. News anchors/reporters are just actors in a different format. They’re all Norma Desmonds to me.

        I can shift gears, too. I do it all the time in my Frontier. LOL!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. They love to dramatize everything I know. For the news…ALL I want is someone reading the facts off of a paper…thats all I want. I don’t want their opinion or slant…but we will never get that.

        Sometimes things are interesting just as they happen..but they dont’ get that. Instead of a movie about Queen like last the last one…I would rather see a good documentary…using that as an example.


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