Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Man Can't Stop Our Music: The Rolling Stones: "Let's Spend The Night Together"

"Nineteen sixty-seven was the watershed year, the year the seams gave way...There was a tension in the air. It's like negative and positive ions before a storm, you get that breathlessness that something's got to break."

Keith Richards, Life

Though technically we are now in mid-February '67, I want to go back a month, specifically to January 15th. On that night this song was performed live on the Ed Sullivan Show with an altered title - the more modest "Let's Spend Some Time Together" - with Mick rolling his eyes every time he had to sing the bowdlerized lyric. Afterwards the band then went backstage and changed into Nazi uniforms (not sure where those came from, the episode is not mentioned in Life) and Sullivan told them to change back into their regular stage clothes; the band refused and left and never appeared on the show again. For any other band this would have been a disaster, but for The Rolling Stones this more or less cemented their bad-boy status. The rest of the year for them included the "stitch-up" bust, trial, imprisonment, bail, a psychedelic album that was "flimflam" to Richards. But back to the song...

The song (an NME-only #2, by the way) is about as straightforward as the Stones ever get, both musically and lyrically; it's simply a demand/request from the hard-of-dancing Mick to his new love, Marianne Faithfull, who he had met not long ago. That she was a mom and wife didn't seem to matter to him (nor to her) and I wonder if Sullivan knew this was about more than just a mere lusty crush. It is shameless, in all senses of the word, and just changing the title barely disguises what is going on - "I'm going red and my tongue's getting tied/I'm off my head and my mouth's getting dry" - put that together with the pumping music and the way the words and music seem to be coupling themselves and there you have it.

However far-out music is getting, here are the Stones to kindly remind everyone what rock 'n' roll actually means and if Mick is a bit of a clown here, well, all for the better. That they get sidetracked by psychedelia just shows what purists they are, or perhaps how what they want to do (and do best) has very little to do with fashion, and more with an obsession over sounds, textures, moods. Here it's heart-pounding, nearly unbearable excitement, pure and simple. (It was banned when they went to China a few years back, but having matured as a band, they simply played other hits instead.)

The day after the Rolling Stones were banned from Ed Sullivan's show, I was born. It was also the day after the weekend of the Human Be-In in San Francisco, where some of the hipper people already had copies of The Doors' first album. The Rolling Stones, whether they knew it or not, were now a part of the counterculture, the ones who said 'no' to straight society and would thereafter have to deal with the outside world at increasingly desperate ways. When a lusty song is enough to rile the Establishment, you know they must be scared of something much bigger - namely, the breakdown of society altogether. The tensions Richards mentions are growing, this song is a (hapless) symbol of one generation's attempted censorship of another.

What comes next was not what anyone expected; it made the Stones look old-fashioned, practically Teds in context. The crossroads are going to become startlingly clear.

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