Justin Smith, University of Portsmouth
25 April 2017
Swingeing London 67 was the title of a series of works made in 1968-9 by British pop artist Richard Hamilton. One version is a colour screenprint from a Daily Mail press photograph of his friend the art dealer Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger being driven to Chichester Magistrates Court in June ‘67. Another is a poster collage of newspaper cuttings relating to their arrest in February that year for alleged drug offences together with fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richards, at Richards’ country home ‘Redlands’ in West Sussex. Widely regarded as a trumped-up charge, William Rees-Mogg famously wrote in The Times that their trial (conviction, brief incarceration and acquittal on appeal) amounted to an attempt to break a butterfly on a wheel.
This was one ‘event’, in a kaleidoscopic decade of ‘events’, that was shaped as it unfolded, by the hedonism of wealthy young musicians and their friends, the forces of law and order and of Fleet Street, and the interventions of pop art and film. It was both serious and banal; it combined innocence and cynicism; it was real and it was mediated.
Later in that midsummer of love, the Rolling Stones recorded a single originally to be titled ‘We Love You, Goodbye’. An otherwise modishly psychedelic but unmemorable number (Mick considers it their worst single), it was written as a thinly-veiled rebuke to the establishment following Jagger and Richards’ conviction. The second verse intones: ‘You will never win “we”/Your uniforms don’t fit “we”’. At the time of the studio session (12th and 13th June) – on which Lennon and McCartney reportedly contributed backing vocals – the two Stones were on bail pending an appeal. With the threat of custodial sentences hanging over them, their manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham commissioned film-maker Peter Whitehead to make a promo for Top of the Pops. This was filmed, in colour, on 30th and 31st July, the day before their appeal court hearing and prior to the single’s release on 18th August. Whitehead recalls:
Mick rang me up and said ‘Look, we’ve got this song coming out, and because we’ve got our trial on Monday and we’re going to prison, have you got any ideas because we can film it on Sunday?’ So I was filming The Stones on Sunday imagining they were going to prison on Monday. I rang Mick back and said that as far as I was concerned this case was as corrupt, scandalous, illegal and historically relevant as the case of Oscar Wilde. I wanted him to dress as Oscar Wilde and Marianne as a guy, as his boyfriend. Mick said, ‘I’d love to do that, let’s do it’. They weren’t very cheerful that day, I can tell you, expecting to go to bloody prison. And then I said, ‘Listen can you bring the fur rug?’ The fur rug was the one that Marianne was supposed to be under naked when they were busted. In one stroke, we said that this was going to be as scandalous as the Wilde trial – plus we could end up hopefully with a movie which we could go on to promote the song with.
The 4-minute clip opens with prison warder’s footsteps, rattling chains and the sound of cell doors banging. Driven by Nicky Hopkins’ urgent piano riff, the song is accompanied by footage shot in Olympic Sound Studios while the Stones were working on the album Their Satanic Majesties Request – featuring a very stoned Brian Jones – and a sequence filmed in an Essex chapel based on the trial of Oscar Wilde, with Keith presiding in a fabricated wig. Still photographs in the Peter Whitehead Archive at the CATH research centre, De Montfort University, capture the director (standing) with Faithfull (l) and Jagger, preparing the set-up.
Peter Whitehead on set with Faithfull and Jagger
Whitehead’s concept was both a satirical jibe at the legal establishment’s ignoble history of injustice towards bohemian artists, and comic reference to salacious newspaper gossip about the extent of their debauchery. In one shot Jagger emerges, apparently naked, from beneath the aforementioned fur rug. Only the infamous Mars bar is missing from the mise en scène. As Oldham comments, ‘It was like a predecessor to that George Michael video that was shot in a toilet’.[i] Like Michael’s ‘Outside’ (1998) video, ‘We Love You’ is music video as political commentary; it is necessary to know the context. The insertion of some black and white footage from concert performances showing fans mobbing Jagger on stage could be read as evidence of the mutual adoration the song extols, or as an expression of the vulnerability fame had exposed them to. The single reached number 8 in the UK charts. However, perhaps predictably, the BBC banned the film, the Top of the Pops producer judging it ‘not suitable for the type of audience who watches this programme’.[ii] It was sold more widely in continental Europe after its first showing in August 1967 as part of the launch of colour on West German television.[iii]
As an exemplar of innovation in the nascent form of music video, Whitehead’s own claims are characteristically unequivocal:
It was the first serious, politically committed, intelligent cultural video – which was also selling a song … As far as I’m concerned, nothing that went before that achieved what I achieved with that film. And I’ve always hoped that one day I’d get recognition for it.
Well, here it is Peter.
Whitehead’s groundbreaking concept video for ‘We Love You’ forms part of a donation of 100 landmark British music videos to the BFI’s National Archive under the auspices of the AHRC-funded research project Fifty Years of British Music Video. Peter Whitehead’s feature-length documentary satire Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967) will be screened as part of a series of Summer of Love events organised by DMU’s Cinema And Television History research centre at the Royal Albert Hall on 1 May 2017.
[i] Oldham, Andrew Loog (2011) Rolling Stoned, North Syracuse, New York: Gegensatz Press p. 417.
[ii] Quoted in Entropy: archiving the future of culture.
[iii] Aeppli, Felix (1996) The Rolling Stones: The Ultimate Guide. Bromley, Kent: Recorded Information Services, p. 77.
Justin Smith is Professor of Media Industries at the University of Portsmouth, and a specialist in post-war British film history. He is the author of Withnail and Us: Cult Films and Film Cults in British Cinema (I. B. Tauris, 2010) and, with Sue Harper, British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure (Edinburgh University Press, 2011). He is currently Principal Investigator on the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Fifty Years of British Music Video (2015-17). In Summer 2017 he will take up a new post as Professor of Cinema and Television History at De Montfort University, Leicester.