I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time in the autumn of 1970 in Frankfurt am Main. The show was incredible, but what I remember most vividly today is the scene outside of the place that they played-the Festhalle. As soon as concertgoers exited the streetcar, they were met with a line of police with dogs. The dogs were barking and yanking at their chains, which the cops held tightly. Various hippies stood around in small groups smoking hash and drinking wine, making drug deals, and looking for their friends.
Others, who were more politically inclined, distributed leaflets written in both German and English that decried the exploitation of rock music by big time promoters. Indeed, the price of the concert tickets was more than tickets for any other similar event. By today’s standards they were still incredibly cheap (10–12 DM or about $3.50), but they were at least 3 DM higher than people were used to paying. GIs, who made up a substantial portion of every rock concert crowd in Germany, mingled with the crowd, trying their best to forget their day job.
As I made my way towards the series of entrances a small skirmish broke out between the police and a group of people who were trying to crash the gates. The next thing I knew I was being squeezed between two cops and their dogs and a group of people with no place to run. I stuck my ticket into my pants pocket and tried to squeeze past the police. Just as I found an exit I felt the bite of one of the dogs on the bottom of my pants leg. With a burst of energy propelled solely by fear, I yanked my foot loose and ran toward the entrance gate. The police were busy with the gatecrashers and did not bother to chase me. The ticket taker took my ticket, tore it, and I made my way into the concert hall.
I was in! The revolution was on and here was the soundtrack. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones would be on the stage at any moment. They had left riots and rebellion in their wake the last three or four years and Frankfurt was no exception. I looked once again at my torn jeans for a validation of this fact. Fortunately the dog had failed to get any flesh in its grip and only the cloth was torn. I don’t remember too many of the songs the Stones played, but recall very clearly that they closed with “Street Fighting Man.” At the time, this was the song in the Stones’ repertoire that I wanted to hear the most. After all, it was a call to us revolutionaries-cultural and political-and it scared the establishment. Hell, the city of Chicago had banned radio stations form playing it during the battles between police and protestors at the Democratic Convention in 1968. Armed Forces Radio never played it, perhaps from some fear that it would rile up the GIs. Of course, this wasn’t the only song they had banned. The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song about the murders at Kent State, “Ohio,” was played no more than a half dozen times before some officer ordered the radio station to stop playing it. One of the DJs (a GI) played it after the ban and was removed from his job at the station. Just like today, the military brass was extremely afraid of soldiers getting any opinions that might contradict the official one.
As those of us who had made it inside left the concert, we were met by an increased police presence in the parking lot. Apparently, the skirmishes outside had erupted into a small riot during the concert and more police had been called in to put it down. As I headed towards a streetcar stop, I reveled in the scene and thought to myself that the Stones concert was everything I expected it to be, complete with a riot outside.
The next time I saw the Stones was in 1981 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. By this time, rock music was very big business and Mick Jagger was wearing Capri pants. His jeans and cape were gone, as were his rebellious fans. Sure, there were some fights and struggles with pushy police in the Candlestick parking lot, but no cultural revolutionaries decrying the exploitation of the culture or the $25.00 ticket price. The music was good, but the daring was gone. The Rolling Stones were mere entertainment now. Mick was a prancing rooster and the only remaining integrity left in the original group belonged to Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.
So, when I saw on the news that Mick had been knighted recently I wasn’t surprised. It is a logical progression after all. There are those Stones’ aficionados who have always insisted that Mick was never really the bad boy rebel he has been made out to be. Instead, say these folks, he is more like the three kings who appear in the apocryphal tale that Bob Dylan relates on the cover of his album John Wesley Harding: when asked how far they want to “go in,” the first king answers, “Not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there.” In other words, Jagger has always been more of a poseur than the genuine article. This isn’t to say the man doesn’t have convictions, it just that he does not seem to have a public stance from which he can’t retreat. Keith has his guitar, a bemused attitude and his rebellious core. Mick has a career.
But, you might say, Paul McCartney is a knight. My reply to that would be simply that Paul never pretended to be a rebel. He was always Paul McCartney, master songwriter and middle class guy. It was John Lennon, after all, who lobbied Paul and the other Beatles to reject their earlier knighthood as a protest against Great Britain’s support for America’s war in Vietnam. You don’t hear about Mick rejecting his knighthood to protest Britain’s groveling support for the current US war in Iraq. Indeed, you don’t hear Mick saying much of anything about the war.
Oh well, what can you expect from a culture that prostitutes itself to the highest bidder, whether it’s a car manufacturer or the Super Bowl? Even overtly political rockers have to make a buck, right? This is where the contradictions take center stage. How does a political rock band make a living within the system of corporate capitalism? Jefferson Airplane released its call to revolution, Volunteers, in 1969 on the RCA label. At the time, RCA was one of the nation’s top defense contractors. The Clash, who were punk rock’s most radical band (and actually had a political stance beyond nihilism), recorded for Epic, owned by Sony. The revolutionary rockers of the 1990s, Rage Against the Machine, also recorded for Epic. Sony, of course, is one of the world’s largest corporations and makes its money from any number of ventures, some of which are military-related. No matter what, its corporate board has little interest in the revolutionary hopes of either Tom Morello or Joe Strummer; little interest, that is, that can’t be measured in dollars.
Rock bands that eschew the corporate world of the big labels may remain pure to their artistic and political beliefs but, unfortunately for their art and the art of rock itself, most of their potential audience never hears them. This, then, is the dilemma of rebel music in a world of corporate profit. Of course, Sir Mick could help out by spending some of his millions on producing some of these bands, but what would the Queen think?
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org