On This Day: Mick Jagger apologises over The Rolling Stones 'racist' lyrics

This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series

It’s hard to fathom now, but The Rolling Stones used to be one of the most controversial rock bands on the planet.

Current members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood are all in their 70s, while drummer Charlie Watts passed away at the age of 80 in August.

The Rolling Stones perform on stage
The Rolling Stones in New York City in May 1978, just before the release of the album Some Girls. Source: Getty Images

But there was a time when the Stones sparked outright anger, with the band being accused of racism and sexism.

While the band had quite a few drug busts to their name, it was the lyrics of some of their most famous tracks that drew particular outrage.

On this day 43 years ago, on 6 October, 1978, one of their songs was branded racist and misogynist by a famous Black civil rights activist - and the chairman of their own record company.

Singer-frontman Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs at the Fabulous Fox Theater on June 12, 1978
Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones on stage in Atlanta, Georgia, on 12 June, 1978, just after Some Girls was released. Source: Getty Images
Signature Rolling Stones lips on screen at a stadium
The Rolling Stones perform at the Oakland Colisieum in Oakland, California on 26 July, 1978. Source: Getty Images

The song in question was Some Girls, the title track from their 1978 album, released on 9 June, 1978.

It contained the following lyric: “Black girls just wanna get ****ed all night / I just don't have that much jam”.

The Rolling Stones said Some Girls was a parody of certain attitudes prevalent at the time towards women.

Ahmet Ertegun, the chairman of Atlantic Records, who distributed the band’s music in the US, said: "When I first heard the song, I told Mick it was not going to go down well.

“Mick assured me that it was a parody of the type of people who hold these attitudes.

“He owes his whole being, his whole musical career, to Black people."

When some radio stations began boycotting the album, Jagger told Rolling Stone magazine: "Atlantic tried to get us to drop it, but I refused. I've always been opposed to censorship of any kind, especially by conglomerates. I've always said, 'If you can't take a joke, it's too ****ing bad.'"

Jesse Jackson, a Babtist Minister and civil rights leader points his finger
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said Some Girls by The Rolling Stones was a 'racial insult'. Source: Getty Images
Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, talks to Mick Jagger and Peter Rudge, backstage at a Rolling Stones concert
Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, talks to Mick Jagger and Rolling Stones tour manager Peter Rudge backstage at Earls Court, London, in May 1976. Source: Getty Images

But on 6 October that year, Ertegun held a meeting in Chicago with leading civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who called the song a “racial insult” that “degrades Blacks and women”.

Ertegun agreed, saying: “It is not our wish to in any way demean, insult or make less of the people without whom there would be no Atlantic Records."

Less than a week later, the band felt the need to issue an apology.

“It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question,” they said.

“No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologise.”

But in the end, the record company refused to edit the track, saying the band had “absolute artistic autonomy”, and the album of the same name was not hurt by the furore - it went on to sell 6m copies.

The Rolling Stones perform at Oakland Stadium in Oakland, California on July 26, 1978
The Rolling Stones perform at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California, on 26 July, 1978. Source: Getty Images

At that point, The Rolling Stones were no strangers to lyrical controversy. They were famously asked to tone down Let’s Spend The Night Together when they performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1967.

Their 1971 song, Brown Sugar, like Some Girls seven years later, was branded sexist and racist by many listeners, given it contains the lyrics: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight.”

Rolling Stones Charlie Watts, Ron Wood, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger (L-R) and director Martin Scorsese (2ndR) pose during a photocall
The Rolling Stones altered the lyrics to Some Girls when performing it in Shine A Light, director Martin Scorsese's 2008 concert film. Source: Reuters

In 1995, Jagger said of Brown Sugar: “God knows what I’m on about in that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go. I would never write that song now.”

Jagger would later alter the lyrics to the song during live performances, something which also happened with Some Girls - when it was performed for Shine A Light, director Martin Scorsese’s 2008 concert film about the band, its most offending line was removed.

However, the band did relent to outside pressure and change one important aspect of Some Girls - its cover.

 Music fans pose in front of The Rolling Stones colourful artwork display outdoors
Music fans pose in front of The Rolling Stones' Some Girls album cover artwork displayed in California in 2016. Source: Getty Images

The original cover of the album featured the band’s faces with those of actresses such as Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett, Judy Garland, Raquel Welch and Marilyn Monroe.

When those actresses or their estates threatened legal action for using their likenesses without permission, the album was hastily reissued with a cover redesign that removed their images.

The album that preceded Some Girls, Black And Blue, was promoted with a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles that showed model Anita Russell bound with the tagline: “I’m Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones – and I love it!"

The billboard was taken down following protests by the Women Against Violence Against Women group.

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