For as long as I can remember, Richard Hamilton’s “Swingeing London ’67
” has been a part of my life. “Swingeing London ’67” is a series of paintings, prints, and drawings created in 1972 and all based on a single newspaper photograph: an image of Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger and Hamilton’s gallerist Robert Fraser handcuffed together in the back of a car as they arrived at court to await trial on charges of drug possession in June 1967, following the now-infamous police raid
on guitarist Keith Richards’s home earlier that year.
The series has long been one of my favorite works of 20th-century art, but one I will always associate with one of the worst nights of my life. Indeed, in some ways, my obsession with the series may have even made the experience worse. And for that, I blame Mick Jagger’s taste in jackets.
One Sunday evening many years ago, I got drunk in public and wound up getting myself arrested. I was handcuffed and taken to Charing Cross police station in central London, where uniformed officers, polite and considerate to the letter, stripped me of my possessions and locked me up in a sparse cell. I must have fallen asleep at some point shortly afterwards, as I vividly recall coming to and asking myself a question familiar to anyone who’s ever woken up to find themselves in the drunk tank: “How did I get here?”
In the interest of getting back to sleep, it seemed better not to speculate. Instead, I tried to distract myself by figuring out how to make the best of the circumstances. Mick Jagger, I remembered, had reportedly used the night he spent in prison to write one of his best songs, the psychedelic space rock classic “2,000 Light Years from Home
.” As the track’s insistent bassline began to swirl through my head, I recalled that it wasn’t the only 1960s classic to have come of the singer’s brief period of incarceration.
I had seen the central work of Hamilton’s “Swingeing London ’67” series just a few days before on a visit to Tate Britain
, where it normally hangs. Comforted to have something to consider other than my pathetic circumstances, I began to summon the elements of the painting into my head.
The dark, claustrophobic framing of the image was not hard to imagine given my situation, though the autumnal trees visible through the rear windows of the car proved somewhat more difficult to visualize. Fraser, lugubrious in tailored tweeds and sunglasses, was once described as a “gangster-like” presence by The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones
. The adjective is apt—could the characterization have been Hamilton’s sly nod towards the dealer’s habit
of deferring payment to his artists?
Jagger, on the other hand, is an almost celestial presence, linked to Fraser by a set of handcuffs glinting like expensive jewelry. His outstretched palm and floppy hair conceal most of his facial features, but those famous lips are just visible, perched above his equally recognizable chin. The appropriately formal tie and pristine white shirt seem like sensible choices for a court appearance, but Jagger’s jacket—an extravagantly cut garment in an extraordinary shade of turquoise, or eau-de-nil—defies all logic. Lying on the floor of my cell, I began fixating on it. Why, I wondered for hours on end, would Mick Jagger have chosen to wear such a garishly colored piece of clothing to a potentially life-changing trial?
The answer, though I couldn’t have known it at the time, is that he probably didn’t. The photograph on which Hamilton based the image, taken by John Twine for the now-defunct U.K. newspaper The Daily Sketch, was—as almost all British newspaper images were until the 1980s—published only in black and white. The color, then, was an active choice on the part of the artist. But Hamilton was never less than deliberate: there is no possibility that he could have conjured this incongruous hue from nowhere.
Hamilton was not short of sources to point him in the right direction. Enraged by Fraser’s imprisonment, he had subscribed to a service that sent him all news clippings related to the trial, which he used to fashion a collage
that became a kind of mood board for the eventual work. Reading the articles that cover the surface of this collage sheds fascinating light into his creative process: Because British journalists could not cover court procedures at the time, they focused on what Jagger later described
as the “peripherals” of the trial— specifically, the defendants’ clothes.
“The description of the colour of [Jagger’s] jacket varied from duck-egg blue to jade green and every shade in between,” the singer’s then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull recalled in her autobiography. Indeed, the press cuttings Hamilton referenced variously describe the garment as “lime green,” “pale green…with white buttons,” and “lilac green.” That is a broad spectrum of very specific colors to describe a jacket. (Jagger, for his part, remembers wearing a “bright green suit.”)
The British legal system came down hard on the defendants: Jagger was handed a sentence of three months in jail, while Fraser got six. Yet in the end, Jagger’s outfit may not have been such a bad choice. “The dandyish clothes actually helped turn public opinion in [the Rolling Stones’s] favour,” Faithfull writes. “So exquisitely dressed, they [seemed like] fragile aristocrats being bullied by beefy cops.”
She might well have been right: Public sentiment, echoed in an unlikely condemnation of the process by the editor of the London Times
, swung in the Stones’s favor. Jagger was ultimately let off the hook, though Fraser was less lucky: He served out his sentence and, despite an intervention from Hamilton who organized a benefit exhibition while his dealer was incarcerated, would never quite manage to revive the commercial fortunes of his gallery.
As for me, I was released without charge the next afternoon, having spent a few hours more in custody than the Rolling Stones singer. My head was still foggy as I walked from the police station to the Tube, but still the question continued to plague me: What on earth was Mick Jagger thinking when he got dressed that day?