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Jagger vs Lennon: London's riots of 1968 provided the backdrop to a rock'n'roll battle royale

Forty years ago, the world was on the brink of revolution. But while Mick was urging insurrection on the streets of London, John was preaching peace and love. In a series of incendiary, rediscovered interviews, Jagger and Lennon reveal themselves as never before or since: battling one another for the soul of rock'n'roll

Leo Burley
Sunday 09 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Please allow me to introduce himself, Michael Philip Jagger, a 24-year-old man of wealth, taste and immaculate timing as he strides towards the American Embassy in London's Grosvenor Square on Sunday 17 March 1968. He is at the height of his dark powers, and the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet is about to confirm his place as the demonic king of a new kind of rock that both draws on and reflects this year's violent political events – and in so doing, force the Beatles from the pop throne they have occupied for the past five years.

It's a story that has been told before, but never in such detail. Researching a South Bank Show documentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the Grosvenor Square riot, I gathered stories from the writers, poets, artists and musicians caught up in street battles and political protests in Europe and America in 1968 – including two extraordinary, long-forgotten interviews with Mick Jagger and John Lennon.

The coup by which the Stones dethroned the Beatles is to be played out against an extraordinary backdrop. In 1968, much of the world seems on the brink of a revolution. The student rebellions of Paris and the Prague Spring will rise above the tumult as the year's most titanic struggles. Yet there are many places where protesters are challenging the establishment, to be met with determined, sometimes brutal resistance: in Berlin, Mexico City, Brazil, and across America in response to the ongoing Vietnam War and the deaths that year of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

It is a protest against the Vietnam War that those who gather outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square are attempting to stage. They have arrived there in their thousands from a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. It swiftly descends into chaos. Mounted police charge the demonstrators, smoke-bombs explode, rocks are thrown and hundreds are arrested. The Grosvenor Square riots are a footnote in the story of 1968. But, in the Stones and the Beatles, Britain has given rise to the two biggest bands in the world, and rock'n'roll has become an immensely powerful medium – a medium best understood by the young and the angry, the very people who are revolting the world over.

In March 1968, John Lennon is far away from London, meditating in India under the guidance of the recently deceased Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The previous year, the Beatles' "One World" broadcast of "All You Need is Love" had reached a global audience of 350m people. The live satellite link showed Jagger sitting at the Beatles' feet, dutifully singing along to Lennon's plea for a worldwide revolution of the heart. The two men are friends, though few would hesitate at this point to pick Lennon – a working-class hero to Jagger's middle-class rebel – as the more significant artist of the two.

Jagger began 1968 still recovering from the Redlands drug bust of the previous year and his subsequent imprisonment. At this point, his band's most-recent album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, has been dismissed by many critics as a poor man's Sgt Pepper. Thanks to that album in particular, the Beatles are at the height of their fame and Lennon's notorious 1966 claim that the band are more popular than Jesus now seems a statement of fact.

But the summer of love is long over now, and Lennon will end 1968 divorced, busted for drugs, attacked by the left for his ambivalent position on violent revolt and depicted in the media as a fading talent in comparison with Jagger's strutting, street-fighting rock star.

The North Vietnamese Tet offensive of January 1968 and the American response have created a special kind of outrage among the young; it is this that Jagger is feeding on as he and thousands of others approach the mounted police at Grosvenor Square.

"He was there because he felt angry and rebellious but he had no way of formulating this, of giving it any kind of structure, and in a sense he was looking for anything to rebel against," says Barry Miles, the journalist and author who met Jagger on the march. "I don't think he had a carefully worked-out policy against Vietnam; I mean, he had a moral outrage against the war and that was about it."

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Miles, a key figure of the London counterculture, had met Jagger before, at John Lennon's house, and shortly after Gros-venor Square he asked to interview the Stone for the countercultural newspaper International Times. The encounter took place over "cups of tea" in the journalist's kitchen.

Jagger: "See, if you haven't got any policemen it's weird, because then they don't know what to do. I'm talking about... these students. That's a mistake the authorities make... they never ought to have police there at all. If they had no police there, there wouldn't be trouble... It's just cos they are there. It's the only outlet you can get... It's the only symbol there."

Miles: "People like Tariq Ali think that, by attacking symbols of authority, you're attacking authority itself." '

Jagger: "Not at all, not at all, you won't do anything. If we really want to be anything we MUST try and bypass the police. And if we want to demonstrate we have to meet them on their own ground. If they want to use horses, we'll have 10,000 people on horses. And that's what I thought when I was there. That's what it should have been!" says Jagger, in so doing dismissing the aims of Ali and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign that had organised the demonstration and suggesting that what one of the bloodiest civil disturbances since the war lacked was a cavalry charge by the protesters.

"That's what it should have been! That's our way out. Cause we love it! And it's our excuse, see? We can't be guerillas. We're so violent, we're violently frustrated. We haven't got enough violence, we've no opportunity... There's no guerillas, there's no... well, there's Welsh nationalists. You can go and join them, but what a joke! I mean, there's nothing in this country..."

"He didn't have a political reading of it," recalls Miles today, "he had a much more artistic reading. This was something that got his adrenalin going, that enabled him to create and, in fact, in the same interview, he was saying how he could never really create when he was happy or peaceful, he could write much more easily if he was up against a deadline or he was in the middle of an argument or there was some kind of really weird scene going on, then it would come pouring out of him. So to him, it was just perfect, it was a shot of adrenalin and the subject matter for a song.

After the battle, Jagger discarded a weak lyric entitled "Has Everyone Paid Their Dues" about a tribal chief and his squaws and wrote this:

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy

Cause summers 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

Well then what can a poor boy do

Except to sing for a rock'n'roll band

Cause in sleepy London town

There's no place for a street fighting man, no

Both a call to arms and an admission that in London, at least, fighting was pointless, the song echoes Jagger's confusion in the interview he gave Miles: "There's no doubt that there's a cyclic change, a vast cyclic change on top of a lot of smaller ones. I can imagine America becoming just ablaze, just being ruined..." says Jagger. "But this country's so weird, you know, it always does things slightly differently, always more moderately, and always very boringly, most of it, the changes are so suppressed. The people suppress them."

Miles defends Jagger staunchly, reminding us that he never made any claim to be a politician or a revolutionary: "I think 'Street Fighting Man' was simply posing the question of whether or not this was a valid response to the situation and he doesn't indicate whether he thinks it is or not. He hedges his bets but he recognises that there's the desire there to get out and fight, that things are not all cosy and British as they should be, that things need to change. How to change them is the question and he's simply posing that question."

Hey! Said 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 no place for a street fighting man, no

Tariq Ali had a different take on it as did many on the far left who adopted Jagger and the Stones as comrades: "Well, I thought they [the lyrics] were very ultra-left actually, when we heard the song and tried to sing it we thought, 'God, it's a bit far out even for us.' But it reflected the mood. This is a sleepy town, why aren't we doing anything!"

By the time "Street Fighting Man" was released at the end of August 1968, student revolts had spread across Europe and America and the BBC declined to play the record for fear of inciting more violence. Despite his dismissal of Ali's tactics at Grosvenor Square, Jagger sent the handwritten lyrics to Ali's radical Black Dwarf newspaper where they appeared in the November 1968 issue.

"We photographed the sheet of paper and I threw the original into the wastepaper basket. No one in the office thought this sacrilegious," recalls Ali. "The cult of the individual is always the substitute for collective action. Jagger sang well and he was being helpful. That was all."

Whatever the party line, it's clear that Ali was much more impressed with Jagger's commitment to the "revolution" than Lennon's in 1968: "We'd heard rumours that some of the Beatles were quite anti-war, but attempts to contact them failed and they never came on the demonstration [in March 1968] and later, after John had split from the Beatles, he said to me, 'One of the things I regret the most is that I didn't come on that march, I was desperate to come.' I said, 'Well why the hell didn't you come?' He said, 'Brian Epstein told us that if we went on that march we would not be allowed into the United States and we had a big tour lined up.' So I said, 'You caved in.' And he said, 'I'm regretting it now but Epstein scared us and, in retrospect, I wished we had been there.'"

In May 1968 the student rebellion in Paris made Grosvenor Square look like a teddy bears' picnic, and for a few weeks it seemed that a real revolution was taking place just across the Channel. Like millions of others, Lennon watched the violent scenes on television and responded with the Beatles' first overtly political song:

You say you want a revolution

Well, you know

We all want to change the world

You tell me that it's evolution

Well, you know

We all want to change the world

But when you talk about destruction

Don't you know that you can count me out/in

Don't you know it's gonna be all right

Musically, the record was unlike anything the Beatles had created before. But it was Lennon's ambivalent lyric which excited the most attention. As Lennon and the Beatles laid down the first version of "Revolution" – for what would come to be known as "The White Album" at Abbey Road – Jagger and the Stones were across town at Olympic Studios recording "Sympathy for the Devil", for many the high point of Beggars Banquet. Both albums were widely considered to be the best of an extraordinary year for rock music.

Jean-Luc Godard, the rebel star of French cinema's new wave, had been offered access to film both bands through a chance meeting with the agent Mim Scala in Paris. "All over Europe there was this student turmoil going on," recalls Scala, a key member of the London scene in the late 1960s. "France had it, we had a mini riot in Grosvenor Square which was just sort of token really. But in the middle of that, there was this wonderful 1960s hedonistic creative lunacy who couldn't give a shit about that, let's get with making stuff. So, my generation of London creative person made the music and the other stuff that fuelled the revolution and I thought that was great."

"I went over to Paris for a weekend," Scala adds, "went to dinner, and there was Godard. I'd just seen Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, these are great movies, you know. And I found myself in conversation and I was amazed that he really appeared to be unaware of what was happening in London. When I got back to London, Jimmy Miller, a friend of mine who was producing the Stones, had this demo of "Sympathy" which I sent to Godard along with some Beatles albums. I got a letter from his producer saying Jean-Luc would love to make a movie in England with the Beatles or the Stones. And I thought, 'Great, have you got a script?' And then I got the letter with the iconic: 'My film will have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.' I took it to Lennon to see if he wanted to work with Godard, he said, 'Yeah, it'd be cool...' Then I took it to Sandy Levinson, the Stones' agent, and he passed it on to Mick and the boys who were, 'Let's do it!' Before we knew what was happening, both wanted to work with Godard."

In a snub for Lennon, Godard, an avid supporter of the student uprising in Paris, chose the Stones. Scala says he took it well enough, though later, following an attack by the Frenchman on the Beatles' lack of radicalism, Lennon claimed it was they who had turned down Godard. It may been have a lucky escape as Jagger's encounter with a real revolutionary artist proved a difficult one.

"We had the Stones for a limited number of days, obviously," says Scalas, "cos they were expensive and we didn't have a big budget and it was very important that we'd got them while they were making their recording at the Olympic Studios. When I went to the hotel to get Godard, he'd gone ' – with the crew and everything. They'd disappeared. They were in Paris. So I thought, 'Oh God, we're gonna lose a fortune here...' I wasn't completely aware of the significance of what was happening in Paris cos it wasn't our thing, you know, so I flew out there and he was filming the riots."

Scala managed to persuade Godard to come back to begin filming with the Stones. The footage he shot at Olympic shows Jagger at his best, shaping and honing "Sympathy" tirelessly with the band to produce perhaps the most evocative and timely song of that violent year. At one point, Jagger changes the lyric "Who killed Kennedy?" to a plural in acknowledgement of Bobby Kennedy's assassination on 5 June 1968. It was the rest of Godard's film which didn't work; an unintelligible story involving, among several other revolutionary themes, a group of real Black Panthers running guns and killing white women in a south London junkyard. It went some way towards justifying Lennon's famous assertion "that avant garde is French for bullshit".

"Godard never really understood who the star of this film was," says Scala. "And the star was the song – an extraordinarily iconic piece of rock'n'roll – and it was so obvious to us. So we had to encourage him to do more with the Stones and less with the Panthers and less with his... political ramblings."

The film's producers, Michael Pearson and Ian Quarrier, were as unimpressed as Jagger with Godard's final cut and insisted on re-editing to include a finished version of "Sympathy for the Devil" and renamed the film after the song; Godard had wanted it to be called One Plus One. When it was finally screened at the National Film Theatre on 29 November 1968, Godard punched Quarrier and then turned on the audience accusing them of being "fascists", demanding that they be reimbursed their ticket costs.

As Godard had been filming the Beggars Banquet sessions, Lennon was hedging his bets on "Revolution". During the first recording session – between 30 May and 4 June 1968, when the fighting in Paris was still at its height – he sang: "When you talk about destruction/ Don't you know that you can count me out" and then quickly added "in" as an alternative, revealing his own uncertainty over the justification for violent political insurrection. Eventually, three versions of the song were recorded but Lennon's ambivalence had been noted.

"He was an iconoclastic figure, somebody we looked up to and admired a great deal," recalls John Hoyland, then a contributor to Black Dwarf and a veteran of the Grosvenor Square riot. Each new Beatles record was innovative and fascinating and somehow kind of captured the spirit of the times. And then the May events in Paris happened, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam had happened and his response was to put out a record called 'Revolution' which, in fact, as far as we could see, was putting it all down."

"He talked about minds that hate," Hoyland adds. "He said, 'If you go around carrying pictures of Chairman Mao you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow' and so forth. And above all, he said, 'You talk about institutions, why don't you change your mind instead'. For us, that was the wrong path and we felt that he was stuck in the mind-expanding, trippy, very creative times of the previous year, but things had moved on and he wasn't with it anymore. That's what we felt and I felt it very much."

Hoyland felt it so strongly that when Lennon was arrested for possession of drugs in October 1968 he took the opportunity to launch an all-out attack on Lennon's politics in an open letter to the Beatle in Black Dwarf: "Now do you see what's wrong with your record 'Revolution'? That record was no more revolutionary than Mrs Dale's Diary. In order to change the world we've got to understand what's wrong with the world and then destroy it ruthlessly... There is no such thing as a polite revolution. That doesn't mean that violence is always the right way, or even that you should turn up on the next demonstration. (There are other ways of challenging the system.) In an unjust and corrupt society there is no dishonour in being arrested and certainly none of us on the left are going to think any the worse of you for it. But learn from it, John. Look at the society we're living in, and ask yourself: why? And then – come and join us."

"The thing that that made me write the letter," Hoyland says now, "was that when he was arrested for a dope offence and his philosophy of 'you can just be free and it's all wonderful' ran up against a brick wall, I went in quite strong and I have to admit when I read the letter now it makes me cringe because, as he pointed out, it really was a bit patronising."

Lennon's response – in a "very open letter" that he demanded Tariq Ali publish in Black Dwarf – was immediate and furious: "Dear John, your letter didn't just sound patronising... it was. Who do you think you are? What do you think you know? I don't remember saying 'Revolution' was revolutionary – fuck Mrs Dale. 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."

Lennon's reference to the Stones stems from Hoyland's added insult in his letter: "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."

While that may seem a ludicrous proposition today, in 1968 there was a feeling on the far left and in the media that the Stones, thanks in part to Jagger's appearance at Grosvenor Square and songs such as "Street Fighting Man" and "Sympathy", were at the vanguard of the struggle against an archaic political system while Lennon and the Beatles, with their OBEs, now belonged to and spoke for the Establishment. '

"I don't think I specifically mentioned 'Street Fighting Man'," says Hoyland, who shudders at the memory of this exchange. "But what I said was that the Stones' music had got better and had got more bite to it in as much as they had associated themselves more with the current that was going on at the time, whereas his music had gone off a bit. Of course, he was absolutely maddened by that. That I considered the ideas in 'Revolution' to be wishy-washy and musically inferior, absolutely infuriated him. To be sort of attacked ideologically, as it were, was one thing, but to be attacked as an artist for his music, he really didn't like that at all."

The 'Black Dwarf' letters were syndicated all over the world and for many represented the disagreement between the two emerging wings of the counterculture; on one side was the cultural, drug-taking hippie rebellion and on the other was the far left and its belief in changing the structures of society. For Lennon, however, it became clear that being ranked as less revolutionary than the Stones was the most galling accusation. In this long-forgotten interview from December 1968 – conducted by Daniel Wiles and Maurice Windle, two students from Keele University – Lennon is still angry and bitter about the comparison, both claiming the Stones as friends and stressing his own group's pre-eminence.

"This guy [Hoyland] is one of those, you know... 'the Stones are changing it and you're not.' The Stones and I are great mates, you know, but they did pull back their album cover so tell him that!" raged Lennon, in reference to the Stones bowing to pressure from their record company to change the cover of Beggars Banquet from a grafittied toilet wall to a less confrontational plain cover less than a month after the Beatles had released their own white-covered album. Inside the cover, Jagger and the band were depicted enjoying a decadent medieval banquet, a far cry from the student revolts of 1968.

"It's not against Mick... It's against him [Hoyland]. I'm sick of this petty thing... The Stones do that, you do this... and now it's down to the revolutionary thing. The Stones and I are close and where's he? If these people start the revolution, me and the Stones will be the first ones they shoot, I mean that," said Lennon. "If it wasn't for us, the Stones and the Who would never have been allowed out. These people are so bitter... and they are holding the whole thing back. They are showing with what they write and how they say it, how they can never run a new scene... before we have even done anything they are quibbling about who's doing what. Let them go and talk to the Stones, the Who, Dylan, me, Yoko, Andy Warhol... anybody who is doing anything doesn't think like this. And that is what none of them understand... Before anything has even moved forward half an inch there's fools like this trying to get it into another bag... before we've even broken the old bag!"

"Hoyland's criticisms of Lennon, I think, came from much too opinionated a position on the relatively far-left," says Miles, who knew Lennon better than most at this time. "Lennon had only recently become politically aware at all – in many ways he discovered politics for the first time in 1968."

"In 'Revolution', he was exploring a new area, a new source of inspiration and political ideas – he was sucking up stuff like a sponge at that point, which is why he did a number of different versions. His problem with Hoyland was that he felt that he was being made to join whatever the political position of Black Dwarf was and his period of taking a lot of LSD had changed him, tremendously – so I think finding all these people advocating political violence and fighting in the street brought out something in him that was a very deep problem. In many ways he was confronting his own violent tendencies and it was bringing up many issues for him which he never resolved. I mean the song remains unresolved, just as Jagger's was."

On 28 November 1968, Lennon appeared at Marylebone Magistrates Court to be fined £150 plus £21 costs for possession of cannabis resin. Charges of obstructing the police against him and Yoko Ono were dropped, but the judge told Lennon that he was not considering a prison sentence because it was his first offence. A huge crowd gathered to see what ITN Reuters described as a "falling star of the British scene".

On 11 December 1968, Lennon accepted Jagger's invitation to join him at "The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus", an all-star extravaganza featuring Eric Clapton, the Who, Marianne Faithfull and Jethro Tull that Jagger had conceived with director Michael Lyndsay-Hogg. Since the "All You Need is Love" broadcast a year before, the positions of the two stars had been reversed with Lennon now one of many at the court of King Mick. Jagger withheld the BBC's intended broadcast due to the poverty of his band's performance. It was notable only for the last public appearance of Brian Jones before his death the following year and for this affectionate exchange in faux American talk-show accents between Jagger and Lennon, their last recorded words in that turbulent year.

"Winston, welcome to the show," says Jagger, calling him by his middle name.

"Michael, it's a pleasure to be here," replies Lennon, using the name Jagger's best friends call him.

"It's really nice to have you, John, as you know I've admired your work for so long... Haven't been able to get together as much as I'd want."

"It's not been my fault," replies Lennon.

"Are you really experienced?" quips Jagger later.

"You've been reading my file," replies Lennon before offering his empty dinner plate to Jagger. "I'd like to give you this on behalf of the British public."

"You're a blues, John," says Jagger as Lennon walks off, paying him the highest compliment in the Stone's lexicon by comparing him to the music which inspired them.

Jagger went on to become the archetypal rock star of the century, surviving the disaster of Altamont in 1969 and enjoying a less than proletarian wedding to Bianca in St Tropez in 1971. Despite his embodiment of the decadent, drugged-up sex-god throughout the 1970s and his slow metamorphosis into the brains behind the billion-dollar business that is the Rolling Stones today, he has never quite lost the revolutionary image that he built himself in 1968 of a street- fighting rock star. But if you look carefully at Michael Cooper's photograph of Jagger on the approach to Grosvenor Square (see page 15), you see an observer rather than a protester, a man of wealth and taste who is sucking up the atmosphere for his own dark reasons. In Peter Doggett's book Revolutionaries, Rock Stars and the Rise and Fall of the Sixties he quotes Jagger 12 years on in 1980: "You've always got to have good tunes if you're marching. But the tunes don't make the march. Basically, rock'n'roll isn't protest. And never was. It's not political."

Doggert also uncovers a haunting quote from Lennon that same year, just before his death. Having returned his OBE in 1969, the Beatle quit London for New York and for a few years became the most politically radical artist of his generation. But his support for a host of contentious left-wing causes – from Irish nationalism to the Yippie movement of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman – brought him into conflict with Nixon's corrupt administration. And, by the mid 1970s, with the authorities attempting to deport him, he'd become disillusioned with the "revolution" and the empty rhetoric of those who still preached it: "I dabbled in politics in the late 1960s and 1970s, more out of guilt than anything. Guilt for being rich and guilt thinking that perhaps love and peace isn't enough and you have to go and get shot or something, or get punched in the face to prove I'm one of the people. I was doing it against my instincts."

'Revolution: The Art of 1968', 'The South Bank Show', produced and directed by Leo Burley, 10.45pm, Sunday 16 March, ITV1

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