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A Better Class Of Riot

Posted: 08/17/11 04:11 AM ET

After last week's riots, Russell Brand writing in the Guardian owned up to having once been involved in such things. And a while back in the Daily Mail, right-wing columnist Peter Hitchens also owned up. Neither attempted to excuse their behaviour, but there was a slight suggestion that perhaps, in their day, compared with what we saw in Britain last week, there was a better class of riot.

The Hitchens riot became a part of rock history and spawned two hit records. It was in March 1968 and started out as an anti-Vietnamese war rally planned by Tariq Ali, publisher of the political newspaper Black Dwarf. He wanted 100,000 people to gather in Trafalgar Square. And he asked John Lennon to come.

It was the year the music press started drawing a line between pop and rock. Two years earlier the word 'rock' (without 'roll') had never been heard of; the trendy word was 'pop'. But by 1968 'rock' had become the new thing. The differences were vague. Pop was the instant hit - formulated - tidy like a snapshot. Rock was disorganised - less packaged. Pop was conformist. Rock was anti-social. Pop was a song. Rock was a lifestyle.

Several groups previously known as pop were now called rock. The Rolling Stones' moment of transition was when Mick and Keith were arrested for possessing drugs. The Who did it by developing a violent stage act; Pink Floyd by going psychedelic; the Yardbirds, whom I managed, by adding Jimmy Page on guitar. With Jeff Beck already in the group, they now had two of Britain's best guitarists blasting away from opposite sides of the stage.

But the Beatles never pulled it off. Their songs were too rounded, too perfect, too pop. Sergeant Pepper got them halfway there. "Ob-la-dee, Ob-la-da" sent them right back again.

Lennon found it galling not to be considered part of the new rock scene. He decided Tariq Ali's anti-war rally would be good imagery and wanted to go. But when he was told it might cost him his American visa he excused himself and went to India to meditate. Ali asked Mick Jagger instead.

After speeches in Trafalgar Square, the younger members of the crowd, about 20,000 of them, marched to Grosvenor Square to have fun hurling insults at the American embassy. They arrived to find mounted police and a phalanx of foot police, but managed to break through. With police horses galloping behind them, they charged towards the embassy. The riot was on.

With Mick Jagger beside him, Tariq Ali stood on a pillar and waved his troops forwards like Achilles at the gates of Troy. The rioters, mostly teenagers, fought the police, kicked their horses, and surged forwards screaming abuse.

Amongst them was a young Malcom McLaren: "We rolled hundreds of marbles along the floor at the mounted police... then, like Agincourt, we ducked down and people behind us had catapults and started firing gobstopper marbles at the windows of the American embassy."

After the riot Jagger spoke about it rather cluelessly: "They never ought to have had police... If they had no police there, there wouldn't be trouble..."

But the riot had impressed him. When he got home he threw away the song he'd been working on and started again. A few days later he had the result. "Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet. 'Cos summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street."

When it came out, Street Fighting Man moved the Stones to a new place - rock stars as revolutionaries.

John Lennon came back from India feeling rather left out of things. Hoping to regain the initiative he wrote Revolution, but there was a line he couldn't finish. "When you talk about destruction don't you know that you can count me......"

'In' or 'Out'? He couldn't decide, so he made a version of each.

So much for revolutionary idealism; he didn't even know whether he was for it or against it. He was simply trying to get a song out of it.

Tariq Ali's, Black Dwarf newspaper didn't rate it at all. "No more revolutionary than Mrs Dale's Diary," they sneered.

Lennon wrote back, livid. "Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? I don't remember saying Revolution was revolutionary - fuck Mrs Dale..."

What he didn't realise was...

The problem with the song wasn't the words, or the melody - it was just that Revolution was pop. Street Fighting Man was rock.

It was something Jagger could feel but Lennon couldn't. Something intangible.

Like the difference between riots then and riots now.