It’s only rock’n'roll…or is it?

The Times, Tuesday 6 November 2012

‘Lips like cherries and the brow of a queen… said you dug me since you were 13′. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, it is time we reappraised the music of our rock’n'roll heroes, asks Joan Smith

When the Rolling Stones play the O2 arena this month, it will be a milestone in the history of rock. The band has  been together for 50 years and die-hard fans will pay between £300 and £400 a  ticket to hear some of their best-known songs. But one track they won’t be  playing, I suspect, is the Stones’ classic Stray  Cat Blues. The song, which was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, is about having sex with a teenage girl and includes the lines: ‘I can see that  you’re fifteen years old/ No I don’t want your ID.’

These days, Jagger is 69 and a grandfather. When the band recorded the song for their 1968 album Beggars Banquet, he was 25 and happy to sing about taking upstairs  a girl younger than, currently, his eldest grand-child. A couple of years later, on the live album Get Your Ya Ya’s  Out!, he reduced her age to 13. That seems to have been the age of some of Jimmy Savile’s alleged victims when the DJ sexually abused them, and I doubt whether either version would go down well  with parents in the O2 audience. ‘It’s no capital crime,’ Jagger sings on Stray Cat Blues, but sex with under-age  girls was – and is – a criminal offence.

I’m sure some die-hard Stones fans may  now be asking themselves why they didn’t baulk at these sentiments years ago. But it isn’t just the Stones whose back catalogue makes for uncomfortable listening.  I’ve never been a Stones fan but I absolutely adored Led Zeppelin, playing Led Zeppelin II over and over again as I  did my Latin homework. When a boyfriend got tickets for one of their gigs, I  couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t been to many concerts and I have to admit I was bemused by the live pigs – male chauvinist pigs, I wonder now? – which appeared on stage in the interval. I had no idea that the band’s lead  guitarist, Jimmy Page, was interested in girls who were even younger than me, and my main memory of the night is the magical moment when Robert Plant began singing Stairway to Heaven. The following year, on the band’s US tour, Page started a relationship with 14-year-old girl,  Lori Maddox. The 1975 Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti includes a song, Sick Again, about teenage ‘groupies’: ‘Lips like cherries and the brow of a queen/ Come on, flash it in my eyes/ Said you dug me since you were thirteen.’

How do I feel about the band now?  Pretty much the same as I do about those Roxy Music album covers where women in satin basques crawl across rocks or sprawl in forests like rape victims. Somehow I have to put the entrenched sexism in the back of my mind so I can still enjoy the music. Of course the background to all this is that attitudes –  and knowledge – have changed. Who knew, before the arrival of celebrity
magazines and gossip websites, that some of the world’s biggest rock stars had a reputation for liking young girls? In the 1960s, the spectacle of teenage girls screaming at concerts and outside dressing-rooms seemed perfectly benign. It wasn’t that people believed under-age sex was acceptable, any more than we do now, but rock music was a new phenomenon. Looking back at those days, we now understand that famous men who sexually abused very young girls hid in plain sight.

The disturbing thing about Stray Cat Blues is the way it appears to have predicted real life. When the  track appeared on Beggars Banquet, a girl called Mandy Smith wasn’t even born, and she was still only 13 when she met the Stones’ bass player Bill Wyman in 1983. Wyman was 47 but that didn’t stop him pursuing Smith, who later said she was 14 when she slept with him for the first time. They married when she was 18 and quickly divorced, but it’s hard to see Wyman’s behaviour as anything other than child sex abuse.

Wyman left the Stones some 20 years ago but the remaining band members are still playing another classic from that early period, Midnight Rambler. It’s rumoured that it might be the closing song at the O2 gigs but if ever a single track could be considered an indictment of the dark side of the 1960s, this must be it. Midnight Rambler is from the 1969 Stones album Let It Bleed and it describes a rapist breaking into a woman’s apartment: ‘Did ya see me jump the bedroom door…/ I’m called a hit-n-run raper, in anger…’ The lyrics deny a link with the Boston Strangler, Albert De Salvo, who murdered 13 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964. But the feminist writer Susan Brownmiller has pointed out that a line in which the woman pleads for her life – ‘Oh, don’t do that, oh don’t do that’ – is what DeSalvo claimed his victim Beverley Samans cried out as she died from a knife wound to the throat. I covered the Yorkshire
Ripper murders as a young reporter, interviewing several of the surviving victims, and I’ve never remotely been amused by the song.

The breath-taking misogyny of rock was easily overlooked in the 1960s and 70s but it’s harder to ignore these days, when child abuse and sexual harassment are constantly in the news. People in middle age, who’ve grown up with rock music and think of it as the soundtrack of their lives, now have to grapple with the dilemma that’s troubled me for
years: how to respond to music they love, produced by bands whose then attitudes to girls, sex and women belong in the ark. It’s a question that isn’t applicable only to sexism and rock; some opera-lovers refuse to listen to Wagner because his music was appropriated by Hitler after his death, while there have been endless debates about authors whose work is evidently more congenial than their personalities.The more I read about Philip Larkin, the less I think I would have liked him, but that has never prevented my enjoying his poetry. But there are other writers – Norman Mailer comes to mind – whose work I find so infused with misogyny that it is unreadable.

After more than a decade of a rock elite dominated by all-male bands – the Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, the Doors – I was hugely relieved when punk rock came along. The Sex Pistols outraged the establishment with God Save the Queen but behind the lurid headlines something even more interesting was going on. Punk women seized guitars, picked up drum sticks and formed their own bands. If men believed sex was all women were good for, it might as well be out in the open, and female punk bands deliberately chose ironic  names like The Raincoats – as in ‘dirty’ – and of course The Slits. In the US, bands like Bikini Kill led the Riot Grrrl movement, which would later be cited as an influence by a group of young Russian women who call themselves Pussy Riot.

Even when punk took off in the UK, mainstream rock didn’t mend its ways. At the height of the Yorkshire Ripper inquiry, the Irish band Thin Lizzy issued a single glorifying Jack the Ripper. In Killer on the Loose, the band’s lead singer, Phil Lynott, adopted the
persona of a man stalking and butchering women. For once the lyrics – ‘I’m a
mad sexual rapist’ – did cause outrage.Even disco was not immune from casual
misogyny; I couldn’t understand why no one else was irritated by More Than A Woman, which appeared twice on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever in versions by the Bee Gees, who wrote it, and Tavares. I’ve danced to that song in discos, gritting my teeth and wondering if the singer loves his girlfriend as much as, say, his dog or his motor bike. A couple of years later, in 1980, Robin Gibb was using the amphetamine methedrine heavily and involved in an acrimonious divorce from his first wife. After his death earlier this year, the FBI released files revealing he had issued death threats against his then wife’s lawyers, and it was even suggested that he had hired a hit man to kill her.

The problem with rock music, from the standpoint of 2012, is that its heyday was so infused with misogyny. I still listen to Led Zeppelin and would take one of their early albums to a desert island, if I had the choice. I just wish some of those bands were more willing to distance themselves from the appalling attitudes to women expressed in their music of the 1960s and 70s, and the influence it had on their male fans. I still love rock, but I’m tired of squirming when I hear ‘classic’ tracks about sex with very young girls.

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