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Butterfly on a Wheel - Simon Wells

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Paperback: 352 pages / Publisher: Omnibus Press / Published: 5 Sep 2011

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      10.03.2013 16:49
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      Scrupulously detailed examination of the 1967 Rolling Stones drug cases, background and aftermath

      FROM REBELLION TO THE ESTABLISHMENT

      Keith Richards was very scathing in 2002 when his old sparring partner Mick Jagger accepted a knighthood from Tony Blair. 35 years earlier, if anyone had suggested ol' rubber-lips would be seriously considered for a gong, let alone a royal 'Arise, Sir Michael,' nobody would have believed them.

      In the mid-1960s, pre-'Sergeant Pepper', at least, it was OK to like the Beatles. They were cheeky chappies, poking gentle fun at everything and everyone, but they made nice records, made witty jokes, wore smart suits, and if their hair was long, at least it was tidy. But their rivals, those unkempt, unwashed, snarling, immoral Rolling Stones were persona non grata to many. And when it was revealed that they were compounding their numerous sins by taking drugs, so it was widely believed, the powers that be in Britain were at best determined to make an example of them, at worst try and hound them out of existence altogether. Who could have foreseen that in 2012 they (or to be precise three of them plus two younger guns) would still be playing live?

      THE BOOK

      In 1967 Brian Jones, the Stones' original leader and their most musically accomplished but also something of a loose cannon, his mental and physical state weakened by booze'n'drugs, was persuaded to tell a couple of undercover 'News of the World' reporters in a nightclub about his little chemical indulgences. The ignorant hacks had not done their homework, thought he was Mick Jagger (surely the hair was a very different colour? - oh, they'd left their glasses at home) , and gleefully printed everything they had been told, but attributed it all to the wrong man. The real Mick Jagger was just returning from holiday abroad, and when he saw the paper he vowed between clenched teeth that he would sue. The paper only managed to stave off what could have been a ruinous libel action by tipping the police off about a forthcoming party one evening at Keith Richards' Sussex home, Redlands.

      George and Pattie Harrison had also been to the shindig but left early, his explanation being that they were bored. It may or may not have been coincidence that the police narrowly missed them - the Beatles were earning so much for the national exchequer at the time that it was believed there was an unwritten rule that the forces of law and order should turn a blind eye to any possible misdemeanours by the Mersey lads. Redlands was raided, dubious substances were found, and that summer Mick and Keith were up in court alongside art gallery director Robert Fraser, who was accused on a separate charge of possessing heroin.

      The first two chapters of this book trace the early days of the Rolling Stones as individuals and as a group. Chapter 3 starts with 1966, 'Swinging London', and Pop Art in general with Britain as the centre of the universe - and the advent of LSD as something to be talked about if not actively experimented with. From Chapter 4 onwards, the reader is take on a painstaking reconstruction of events from the preparations for that soon-to-become notorious few hours at Redlands, what went on there and what happened in the aftermath of the police raid. Before you ask, the story of Marianne Faithfull and the Mars bar is exposed as a myth and nothing more.

      Fox takes us inside the machinations of the newspaper world, and the way in which police were regularly tipped off in order to provide them with an easy career boost or two as well as the papers with a nice circulation-boosting story. The notorious Norman Pilcher, a police officer who delighted in claiming pop stars' scalps in drug busts (while not reticent about asking them at the police station if they could autograph an album sleeve or two for his kids), and was later imprisoned for perjury, emerges as one of the villains of the piece. Now he is best-remembered as 'Semolina Pilchard' in the lyrics of 'I Am the Walrus'. We also learn that the little matter of the authorities accepting backhanders in order to make sure that certain courses of action might proceed no further was alive and well in 1967.

      At times, the book reads almost like a novel, with the events retold and the characters presented in very lifelike detail. By the time I had read it, I almost felt I knew the latter quite well. There was Marianne Faithfull, on the face of it quite uninhibited but inwardly furious at the way her reputation was being besmirched and her career sent into almost terminal nosedive; Michael Havers, a future Conservative MP and father of the actor Nigel Havers (who was in a teenage band with his brother at the time, thus ensuring that Dad was relatively with-it), an articulate counsel for the defence; Mick Jagger, who wept on being sentenced and feared he would not be able to cope with life behind bars; Keith Richards, resilient, giving little away, but threatening to sue the Queen for a miscarriage of justice; Robert Fraser, the third man in the dock, a relative unknown who was sent down for six months; and Judge Leslie Block, known behind his back as the 'hanging judge', the embodiment of old-fashioned attitudes and determined to make an example of these affronts to civilised society.

      There is also a telling analysis of general reaction to the court case, the sentences and the aftermath. At that time Britain, under the premiership of Harold Wilson, was undergoing a swift modernisation with regard to attitudes towards drugs, homosexuality and other yardsticks of permissiveness, with some members of parliament all for sweeping away the old barriers and others (including several on the Labour benches) equally determined to fight for traditional attitudes. Even certain individuals who did not condone drugs were outspoken in their view that Block's sentences were far too severe. Wiliam Rees-Mogg, then Editor of 'The Times', in an almost unique departure from precedent, took a line from the 19th-century poet Alexander Pope, 'Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?' in a signed editorial, quoted in full, in which he insisted that Mr Jagger and the others should be treated no more severely than 'any purely anonymous young man'. Hence, of course, the title of Wells' book.
      Others made the comparison, then and more recently, between Mick, Keith and Oscar Wilde. As Faithfull said in an interview in 2004, they were all too grand and too successful, and they fell prey to 'Tall Poppy Syndrome'. A poppy grows too high and it needs cutting down. If you're not humble and grovelling enough, someone will get you.

      It does not end with the successful appeal and the quashing of custodial sentences, but continues the story up to an impartial assessment of the subsequent Stones' album, 'Their Satanic Majesties Request' and the mixed critical reaction it met, the aftermath for the rest of the group and in particular Brian Jones, who subsequently appeared in court on possession charges, was sacked by the group in 1969, and subsequently drowned in his swimming pool (or was deliberately killed, as some sources would have us believe). There is also a note on the subsequent busts involving John Lennon and George Harrison, once the judiciary felt that The Beatles had kicked over the boundaries with their pro-drugs pronouncements and wilful savaging of their lovable, cuddly moptop images, and now had to be pursued just like their musical rivals.

      In a little over 300 pages, Wells has left no stone unturned, if you will pardon the phrase. He has carefully trawled through contemporary newspaper reports, tabloids and broadsheets, and also official documents from police, courts and solicitors. This is painstaking history that would probably be equally at home in a law library as well as one on popular music. He avoided speaking to Jagger and Richards while writing the book, as he believed that contacting the less celebrated characters in the episode would have 'a far greater clarity of thought'. In other words, they would be more reliable. One chapter ends with a telling quotation from the memoirs of bass guitarist Bill Wyman, published in 1990. As an older, married man with kids who was strongly anti-drugs himself, he steered well clear as he and drummer Charlie Watts would have also probably been thrown in jail for mere association with the bad boys, and nobody would have lifted a finger to help them. He thus hardly socialised with the others for ten years from about 1967.

      OVERALL

      As a sober assessment of a matter about which feelings ran very high at the time, and of general social and legal attitudes of the time, this book makes first-class reading. And of course, anybody interested in 1960s music won't need telling twice that this is a must-read. It would be nit-picking to query a statement that the 1966 single '19th Nervous Breakdown' was written 'predominately' [SIC] by Jagger.

      Being a devotee of modern social and musical history, I found this book very hard to put down. Go buy or borrow.


      [Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]

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