McMillian on the Beatles, Stones, and Politics – Part 2

Continued from the first part here.

by John McMillian


“America, with its ears turned to its transistors, has been following what it imagines to be an ideological debate between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” observed a British radical. Although both bands were culturally influential in ways that are hard to quantify, the supposed ideological differences between them were superficial and hard to discern. Their albums were not—to borrow Greil Marcus’s slick phrase—“wax manifestos.” They were more like Rorschach inkblot tests, upon which youths projected their own interpretations. Although Jagger allegedly developed a leftwing critique of capitalism when he was a student at the London School of Economics (LSE), a friend observed that later, “he grew rather fond of capitalism as first one million, then the next poured into his bank account.” Jagger’s supposed “radicalization” by his drug arrest seems equally specious; after all, he apparently attended only part of one demonstration in his life. In 1968, the Stones agreed to be filmed for Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil—a confusing documentary that blended shots of the band working in the studio with clips of Black Panthers spouting nationalist rhetoric—but on their 1969 tour they refused to allow the Panthers to appeal for funds from their stage. In hindsight it is hard to regard the Rolling Stones’ radicalism as anything but faddish; after all, the band had already been mod during the mid-’60s, and psychedelic during the Summer of Love; in the late ’70s, the Stones would enter a brief disco phase.

Meanwhile, Lennon’s political thinking in the late 1960s and early 1970s can only be described as muddled. Not long after “Revolution” came out, Lennon launched a series of avant-garde, peacepromoting protests with Yoko Ono—beginning with their March 1969 “Bed-In” in Amsterdam—that seemed to endorse pacifism and flower power. But the following year, after the Beatles broke up, he told Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner that he resented “the implication that the Stones are like revolutionaries and the Beatles weren’t.” In the same interview he disavowed his previous belief that “love [will] save us all” and professed (whether literally or metaphorically) to be wearing a Chairman Mao badge. “I’m just beginning to think he’s doing a good job,” Lennon said.5 For a short time thereafter, Lennon seemed to look more favorably upon the New Left, and in 1971 he went so far as to place yet another phone call to the Black Dwarf ’s Tariq Ali, this time to play for him a new song called “Power to the People” that seemed to directly refute “Revolution.” (“We say we want a revolution / Better get on it right away.”) Later he changed course again. “The lyrics [in ‘Revolution’] stand today. They’re still my feeling about politics.… Don’t expect me on the barricades unless it’s with flowers.”

Despite the evident confusion and half-heartedness with which the Beatles and the Stones regarded the exigencies of their day, both bands held such clout over young music fans that their songs, lyrics, behavior, and mannerisms continued to provoke robust debate. Even those who turned against the Beatles after “Revolution” never doubted their influence. This stirred another complaint: why didn’t they do more? “They could own television stations,” remarked John Sinclair, the notorious Detroit radical. “They could do anything they want to. They are in a position to propose and carry out a total cultural program, the effects of which would be incredible,” and instead they frittered away their energy on things like Apple Boutique, a trendy retail store in downtown London. “I think it may be safely said that they have more power and influence over the ‘revolutionary’ generation… than anyone else alive,” said another young writer. If they “really wanted to change the world, the world would feel it.”

Instead, the Beatles’ politics lagged. “For a long time the Beatles were oracles for our generation,”said one wistful youth. “Whatever the state of the world was, they seemed to be able to make their music expressive of it; when we began to look analytically at our society they began to tell us what we saw.” In fact, there was very little social criticism to be found in mid-’60s Beatles lyrics, but by late 1968 one could plausibly argue that the group had fallen out of step with radical youths. “Revolution” was “probably an honest statement,” rock critic Richard Goldstein remarked. “They probably don’t really understand what we mean by ‘revolution.’” Recalling that the Beatles had received MBE (Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) awards from Queen Elizabeth in 1965, another writer called them “confirmed institutionalists” and quipped, “[they] may yet become the Walt Disneys of the day.”

By contrast, the Stones were briefly thought by radicals to be more authentic than the Beatles. “I don’t dig hero cults,” sniffed Dave Doggett, editor of Jackson, Mississippi’s, Kudzu, “and the Beatles are beginning to smell of that sort of thing.” Jon Landau maintained that the Stones “strive for realism in contrast to the Beatles’ fantasies.” Another writer observed that Beatles songs were frequently elliptical—one had to search for meaning—whereas, “When you hear a Stones song, there is no question in your mind as to what they are trying to accomplish.” “The Stones sing to and for the ‘Salt of the Earth,’ reflecting their backgrounds,” added a clueless Fifth Estate writer. Meanwhile, “the Beatles live in their beautiful, self enclosed Pepperland.”6

But the Stones’ bloom was brief; soon radicals charged them with elitism and aloofness, especially during their 1969 U.S. tour, when they played in gargantuan arenas, and gouged fans with exorbitant ticket prices.7 This was a new thing; until then, the world’s most popular bands often played halls that held less than a thousand people, in part because the equipment and expertise necessary to put on large stadium shows did not yet exist.8 Oftentimes the Stones kept fans waiting until late in the night before they started their show, and the best seats for their concerts weren’t even available for fans; they were “reserved for music industry bigwigs.” Youths who believed they shared some commonality of outlook and purpose with the Stones were quick to register their frustration.

After the Stones played in Philadelphia, they were denounced in a lengthy, humorous front-page Free Press article.“A small band of daring fast-moving bandits… pulled off
one of the cleanest and biggest hauls in recent history at the Spectrum.… Operating before almost 15,000 eyeball witnesses, the bizarrely dressed gang… made a clean getaway with cash and negotiable paper believed to be worth in the neighborhood of $75,000.” The paper revealed embarrassing details of the Rolling Stones’ contract (remarkable for its “sheer audacity”) and complained that little of the economic activity around the Stones’ show redounded to the community’s benefit. What’s worse, the Stones acted like prima donnas, refusing interviews and traveling with a rough security team (“goons”) who made sure fans kept their distance. According to biographer Philip Norman, “Promoters in almost every city attacked them for the huge percentage [of the gate] they had taken, [and] their egomaniacal Rock Star arrogance.… To amass their two million gross, it was suggested, the Stones had systematically and callously ripped off teenagers all across America.”

In 1970, editors at Chicago’s Rising Up Angry completely revised their opinion about the Stones. The previous year they had written, “Unlike the Beatles and their passive resistance with ‘All You Need is Love’ and [‘Revolution’], the Stones take a different look at things. They know you can’t love a pig to death with flowers while he kicks the shit out of you.” Though “only a rock group,” the Stones address “real life and how to deal with it, not meditation and copout escape.” But fallout from the 1969 tour convinced them that the Stones deserved more critical scrutiny. “They should no longer be able to sing about revolution and give clenched fist salutes, making money hand over fist unless they actively support what they sing about.”

To give an example, when the Stones were in Chicago, Abbie Hoffman went backstage to see them. He talked to Mick Jagger and they both congratulated each other on their accomplishments. Abbie then asked Jagger if he could donate money to the Conspiracy (trial defense). Jagger said they had trials coming up too. After the uneasy moment, Jagger told Hoffman to ask their business manager, who said no.

“If the Rolling Stones are part of the family,” Todd Gitlin asked, “why don’t they turn their profits into family enterprises?” Even Liberation News Service—which had once run an article headlined “LNS Backs Stones in Ideological Rift with the Beatles”—turned on the Stones with a lover’s fury. “[C]lapping hands, cutting up, busting loose, fucking, blowing weed, and breaking windows is a far cry from seizing state power,” they observed. “And a lot of the Revolution so far is just a hip ego trip. What do groupies, pimps, PR men, and ticket-takers have to do with Revolution. Mick Jagger is… a halfassed male chauvinist prick.”

Having recorded songs like “Under My Thumb,” “Yesterday’s Papers,” and “Stupid Girl,” the Stones were overdue for condemnation on the sexism charge. But for many Movement politicos, it was the Altamont disaster that precipitated their final break. Nettled by criticisms about all the money they were making, the Stones boasted that they would express their gratitude to American fans by headlining a hastily organized “free” outdoor concert at Altamont Speedway, some sixty miles east of San Francisco. (In fact, they hoped to cash in indirectly since they knew their performance would be featured in the forthcoming concert film Gimme Shelter, directed by Albert and David Maysles.)

Altamont was a dirty, bleak space for a rock festival, almost completely lacking in amenities for the three hundred thousand concertgoers. Asked to guard the stage, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang went on a drug-and-booze-soaked rampage, assaulting countless hippies with weighted pool cues and kicks to the head. “Their violence united the crowd in fear,” one journalist remarked. When the band played “Under My Thumb,” the Angels set upon an African American teenager, Meredith Hunter. While trying to escape a brutal beating (possibly a stabbing), Hunter whipped out a pistol and held it high over his head; in an instant, the Angels stabbed and beat him to death.When the Stones next toured the U.S., in 1972, they no longer seemed to be preaching revolution; Jagger enmeshed himself in the apolitical, high-society jet set, and bandmembers made a special point of flaunting their licentious behavior before gaping journalists.9


What happened next happened gradually, then suddenly. Of course, rock had always been a popular and a performative art— based in part on the commercial exploitation of blues music—and even the most ostentatiously “radical” rock acts of the 1960s understood this. But the controversies and discussions generated by bands like the Beatles and Stones remind us that there was a time when rock’s artifice was frowned upon, and its commercial logic was muted. To 1960s rock fans, the idea that the Rolling Stones would go on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars playing giant stadiums under corporate sponsorship, as senior citizens, would have seemed unfathomable. Nor could they have easily imagined that someone like Michael Jackson would purchase a considerable chunk of the Lennon-McCartney songbook and authorize “Revolution” to be used for a Nike commercial. As music writer Fred Goodman observed, “Just a few decades ago rock was tied to a counterculture professing to be so firmly against commercial and social conventions that the notion of a ‘rock and roll business’ seemed an oxymoron.”

As the rock constituency that fueled the New Left and the counterculture faded into a memory, so too did the radical newspapers that once printed such clamorous rhetoric. In their place arose the “alternative press,” today’s network of weekly newspapers that are normally distributed for free in metropolitan vending boxes. Unlike the underground papers, these new metropolitan weeklies were always meant to be commercially successful; the “alternative” label they embraced was in fact a transparent bid for respectability, meant to underscore their distance from political radicalism that supposedly sullied the underground press. In return for advertisements in these papers, record companies regularly receive flattering articles, record reviews, and concert listings promoting their bands. Meanwhile, market-savvy researchers and niche advertisers have helped to shape a rock audience that is not only older but increasingly heterogeneous and sheeplike. As a global phenomenon and a multibilliondollar industry, rock and roll holds considerable capitalist clout, but today no one thinks of it as a generation’s lingua franca.

Of course, youths will always turn to rock and roll as an outlet for their energies, frustrations, rebellions, and desires, and as a way of making sense of their lives. But the rainbow-splashed pages of the underground press remind us just how much the audience for rock music has changed. Perhaps, though, we ought not be so cynical. No matter how fractious the New Left may have seemed in the late 1960s, many radicals and hippies continued to regard rock and roll as their one common denominator, the single force around which they could unify and extend their communal culture. In this context, even the era’s most tepidly political rock heroes could present themselves as avatars.✯


5 Lennon was famously cranky in this interview. About the Stones he remarked,“They’re not in the same class, music-wise or power-wise. Never were. And Mick always resented it. I never said anything, I always admired them because I like their funky music and I like their style.… [But Jagger] is obviously so upset by how big the Beatles are compared to him, and he never got over it.” Lennon was particularly angry that the Stones seemed to copy the Beatles. “I’d just like to list what we did and what the Stones did two months after, on every fuckin’ album and every fuckin’ thing we did, Mick does exactly the same. He imitates us.”

6 The fact that the Beatles had briefly been disciples of the pacifistic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967 did not help their reputation with new leftists. Probably the young militants would have turned apoplectic had they known that around the same time, the Beatles considered buying a remote Greek island, where they planned to build four high-tech homes, connected by underground tunnels to a central glass dome.

7 According to promoters, the high ticket prices were necessary because the Stones demanded so much money up front. Most tickets ranged from $4.50 to $6.50, which would amount to between $20 and $33 today. By contrast, average tickets for the band’s 2005 U.S. tour were $134, and at some shows, prime seats went for $377.

8 The Beatles’ huge outdoor shows in 1965 and 1966 were the exception; their music was piped through existing P.A. systems, and to the extent that anyone could hear them play, they must have sounded terrible.

9 The band’s 1972 tour was nicknamed the S.T.P. tour (for “Stones Touring Party”). Truman Capote and Terry Southern were among the notable journalists who were invited to travel with the group, and at one point the band took a four-day respite at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. According to one writer, Robert Frank’s unreleased documentary film about the tour, Cocksucker Blues, is notable for showing “just how adroit the Glimmer Twins are at concocting and manipulating their outlaw reputations.” The film features shots of flagrant cocaine and heroin use, Mick Jagger masturbating, a naked groupie pleasuring herself while spreadeagle on a hotel bed, and the beginning of an apparently staged orgy involving members of the band’s road crew. In perhaps the film’s most clichéd moment,Keith Richards and saxophonist Bobby Keys hurl a television set off a hotel balcony… but not before checking first to make sure no one is standing below.

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