A couple of anniversaries worth marking, I thought; a regular feature of this here blog, but always a welcome break from contemporary concerns, what with most of them being pretty grim. Today marks a decade since the UK smoking ban came into force; but firstly, fifty years ago today, the Times published an editorial that remains one of the few (if indeed the only one ever) to impact considerably on pop culture, as well as marking a significant turning point in the Us and Them battle that divided young and old in mid-60s Britain. The emergence of Teddy Boys, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Beatlemania and Mods Vs Rockers all gave rise to the belief amongst the generations that had fought in two World Wars and then ran the country that the country was falling apart at the seams.
None invoked such Blimp-ish rage in establishment circles as those shaggy-haired scruffs The Rolling Stones; their appearance alone was deemed offensive enough, but the thought that these 12-bar wonders might have any kind of influence over the young beyond simply cajoling them into buying their records seemed symbolic of the decline and fall of western civilisation. Things got worse as the Stones began to adopt a more erudite, cultured persona when the arty influence of girlfriends like Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg stretched their ambitions and aspirations beyond merely recycling the Blues. They appeared to be encroaching into the Highbrow, which was bad enough; and then they began extolling the virtues of chemical mind-expansion, something previously reserved for revered (and safely dead) intellectuals like Aldous Huxley.
Fining the band for peeing against a garage wall when the petrol pump attendant refused them access the loos was one thing; but in order to stop this repulsive revolution in its tracks, there needed to be something bigger that could bring about the desired effect. In 1967, the opportunity presented itself and the cohabitating coterie of press, police and judiciary seized upon it. The loose lips of Brian Jones in a London club, unknowingly endorsing LSD to an undercover journalist, led to said Stone being mistakenly identified in print as Mick Jagger; Jagger sued the News of the World but, like Oscar Wilde’s legal action against the Marquess of Queensbury, this response then provoked the enemy into making its move, which it did a week later.
The raid on Keith Richards’ Redlands home, interrupting the aftermath of a ‘drugs party’, has long been woven into both Stones and Rock mythology – with poor Marianne Faithfull still dogged by the utterly fabricated ‘Mars Bar’ rumour; but the outcome for Mick and Keith at the time wasn’t quite so entertaining, the former charged with possession of four amphetamine tablets and the latter with allowing cannabis to be smoked on his property. They were tried at the Chichester Assizes in June 1967 and were both found guilty, with Jagger sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and Richards to a year. They both immediately launched appeals and were released on bail after a night behind bars.
The severity of the sentences and the dubious collusion between Scotland Yard and the News of the World raised many questions. The Stones’ contemporaries reacted with a show of support, with The Who rush-releasing cover versions of ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘The Last Time’ as a single; but the most unexpected show of support came not from Us, but Them. Sensing an injustice had been done simply to teach these loutish upstarts a lesson, none other than William Rees-Mogg (yes, father of Jacob) intervened. Rees-Mogg was the editor of the Times – viewed as a bastion of the same establishment intent on persecution and punishment where the Swinging 60s were concerned – and he made an eloquent, passionate plea in the Times’ editorial on 1 July 1967, under the title ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?’
‘If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism,’ wrote Rees-Mogg, ‘then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr Jagger is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr Jagger received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.’
Coupled with the widespread outrage amongst the young over the sentences, the Times editorial prompted the authorities to bring the appeal hearings forward and a month after being sentenced, the sentences were quashed. Mick and Keith walked away from court free men again and Jagger was more or less immediately flown by a helicopter hired by ambitious Granada producer John Birt to take part in a special ‘World in Action’ debate with three members of the establishment (chaired by Rees-Mogg), who seemed to look upon Jagger as elderly scientists would look upon a fascinating new species of butterfly. But Jagger’s easy-on-the-ear middle-class accent and reassuring, unthreatening demeanour charmed both his inquisitors and the television audience.
The intervention of William Rees-Mogg and the belated realisation by the Great British Public that maybe these demonised heroes of the young weren’t quite as great a threat to the future of mankind as the atom bomb marked a sea-change in the way the transforming society was perceived by its elder statesmen. The same year as the cause célèbre of the Mick & Keith trial, homosexual acts between consenting adults in private were decriminalised, abortion was legalised, and ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was embraced by young and old alike as Art. The affair also gifted Keith Richards, previously overshadowed in the media spotlight by Jagger and Brian Jones, the outlaw image he’s maintained ever since as the ‘soul’ of the band. There were casualties, however.
Brian Jones, targeted by the drugs squad in a separate raid and increasingly isolated within the band, embarked upon a rapid downward slide that culminated in his mysterious premature death two years later; Marianne Faithfull, denounced from the pulpit as a harlot and mercilessly mocked over the Mars Bar myth, then embarked upon her own downward slide that led all the way to being a homeless heroin addict in the 70s. But the Times stepping back from the great divide to look at it with objective sagacity was the first step towards acceptance of youth culture as a valid and relevant force within society by those too old to participate. Bar the odd moral panic over Punk Rock and Acid House, it has been recognised as such ever since, as thousands of books, documentaries and humble little articles such as this will testify.
© The Editor