When Mick Jagger apologised over The Rolling Stones 'racist' lyrics

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The Rolling Stones in New York City, May 1978. Left to right: Ronnie Wood, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
The Rolling Stones in New York City in May 1978, just before the release of the album Some Girls. (Getty Images)

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.

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

Read more: The Rolling Stones on whether 2021 tour will be their last

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.

ATLANTA - JUNE 12: Singer-frontman Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones performs at the Fabulous Fox Theater on June 12, 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)
Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones on stage in Atlanta, Georgia, on 12 June, 1978, just after Some Girls was released. (Getty Images)
OAKLAND -  JULY 26:  The Rolling Stones perform at the Oakland Colisieum in Oakland, California on July 26, 1978. (Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The Rolling Stones perform at the Oakland Colisieum in Oakland, California on 26 July, 1978. (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”.

Read more: Songs with lyrics that probably would not be written now

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.

Watch: Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts dies aged 80 

“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 who worked with Martin Luther King, participated the Selma to Montgomery Marches, founded the civil rights organizations Operation PUSH and the Rainbow Coalition, once ran for president and sporting an Afro haircut, holds a Q&A Press Conference for staff members of the Brooks Institute of Photography, Santa Barbara, California in March, 1978. (Photo by paul liebhardt/Corbis via Getty Images)
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said Some Girls by The Rolling Stones was a 'racial insult'. (Getty Images)
Ahmet Ertegun, head of Atlantic Records, talks to Mick Jagger and Peter Rudge, backstage at a Rolling Stones concert at Earls Court, London, May 1976. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
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. (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.”

Read more: Mick Jagger says it will be ‘difficult’ without Charlie Watts

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.

OAKLAND - JUL 26:  The Rolling Stones perform at Oakland Stadium in Oakland, California on July 26, 1978  (Photo by Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images)
The Rolling Stones perform at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California, on 26 July, 1978. (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 to present their film 'Shine A Light' running in competition at the 58th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February 7, 2008. The 58th Berlinale, one of the world's most prestigious film festivals, will run from February 7 to 17 in the German capital.   REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY)
The Rolling Stones altered the lyrics to Some Girls when performing it in Shine A Light, director Martin Scorsese's 2008 concert film. (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. 

Read more: Rolling Stones pay tribute to drummer Charlie Watts at first show since his death

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

INDIO, CA - OCTOBER 09:  Music fans pose infront of The Rolling Stones
Music fans pose in front of The Rolling Stones' Some Girls album cover artwork displayed in California in 2016. (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.

Watch: The Rolling Stones discuss if 2021 tour will be their last

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