Songs in the year 1968


On March 17, 1968 British actor Vanessa Redgrave, having addressed a huge anti-Vietnam War protest in London's Trafalgar Square, visited the US embassy in Grosvenor Square to deliver a protest letter. She was accompanied by thousands of protestors chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, we will fight and we will win!"

Mounted police attacked, answered by protestors' rocks and smokebombs, with some demonstrators managed to break into the embassy grounds. The event has become a part of British far-left history, somewhat mythologised: between 8,000 (BBC radio report) and 80,000 (Socialist Worker report) participated.

Among those present was the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, an example of what Tariq Ali says of 1968: "politics and culture were united". Celebrities these days adopt causes as a publicity gimmick to divert attention from their lavish selfishness.

A 1968 secret intelligence report assessing the international student revolt released in 2000 warned the British cabinet that a "destructive explosion" was to be expected "in the fairly near future". British student groups were "frighteningly radical, badly lacking in theory, but dead-set on violence", it said.

The perfume of revolution was in the air and important artists responded.

The Beatles trail blazed the international marketing of pop music in the early '60s. Their combination of brilliant music, personal charm, intelligence and canny management created a unique phenomenon.

They influenced the radical Bob Dylan to extend his artistic range. Dylan was world famous for his inspiring, politically charged folk music. Expanding into the space created by the Beatles, he echoed his audience's quest for personal meaning in a barren capitalist landscape.

Dylan was out of action for over a year following a 1966 motorcycle accident. His late 1967 single "All Along the Watchtower", drenched in imagery from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, forebodingly speaks of two horsemen approaching a fortress guarded by princes. In Isaiah the horsemen announce the fall of Babylon; the song ends as the wind begins to howl, an analogy for what was coming in 1968.

Following the Grosvenor Square event, Jagger and the Stones spent two months recording "Street Fighting Man", releasing it on their Beggars Banquet LP in August 1968. It marked a decisive musical step forward for the Stones, with its contrapuntal drumming and howling, evocative singing.

While brilliantly referencing "Dancing in the Streets", it stated Jagger's rebellious feelings and his doubts about England's revolutionary possibilities: "Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy/Cause summer's here and the time is right/For fighting in the street, boy/But 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/Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution/But where I live the game to play is compromise solution."

The song was immediately banned by the BBC. Jagger answered the ban by giving his hand written lyric sheet to Black Dwarf, a revolutionary newspaper edited by Tariq Ali, for publication.

Sixties bands responded to each other's songs, producing a cultural debate on radio playlists. The best example of this was Aretha Franklin's cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" when she not only turned his sexist lyrics back on him but outshone his performance, demonstrating that women were to be reckoned with as equals.

Within weeks of "Street Fighting Man's endorsement of the youth revolt, the Beatles released "Revolution" opposing it. Written by John Lennon, the Beatles recorded three versions, including the related spoken word "Revolution 9", in one of which Lennon registered his own ambivalence by adding after the line, "But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out" the word "in".

John Hoyland, a Black Dwarf columnist, slammed Lennon: "Recently your music has lost its bite. At a time when the music of the Stones has been getting stronger and stronger... The Stones have understood that the life and authenticity of their music — quite apart from their personal integrity — demanded that they take part in this drama — that they refuse to accept the system that's fucking up our lives."

Lennon wrote back: "Listen to all three versions then try again. Instead of splitting hairs about the Beatles and the Stones — think a little bigger — look at the world we're living in and ask yourself: why? And then come and join us. Love John Lennon. PS — You smash it — and I'll build around it."

It is hard to imagine today's rock stars debating like this in the revolutionary press.