Nadsat has had a curiously rich afterlife beyond Anthony Burgess’s novella and Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. Its penetration of popular music culture in particular has been profound. Numerous bands have named themselves after phrases from the text, and many more have cited Nadsat phrases in their songs and lyrics.
Indeed, we have previously discussed David Bowie’s use of Nadsat on his final album more than once, but his love of A Clockwork Orange, which he cited in his 100 favourite books of all time, goes back at least as far as his 1972 song Suffragette City, which contains the lyric “Hey man, droogie don’t crash here.”
Bowie is one of the earliest musical artists to be influenced by A Clockwork Orange, but he was not the first by any means. Not many people may be aware that the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger in particular, were fans of the novel; they even wanted to star as Alex and the droogs in a cinematic adaptation that was in development long before Stanley Kubrick came on the scene.
Burgess described this development in a 1974 interview: “So the original attempt to make a film of A Clockwork Orange was an attempt at a very low financial level. The idea was to make a kind of ‘underground’ film with the Rolling Stones, (a very popular singing group at that time, and I think still), in it, playing the four leading parts; the film would not make much money, the film would not be shown publicly probably, but only in film clubs. So, in consequence I accepted $500 for the rights of the book.”
Indeed, Jagger apparently held the movie adaptation rights to the novel, it has been alleged. Certainly he seems to have been involved even after producer Si Litvinoff obtained them and was attempting to get a movie off the ground with John Schlesinger, who went on to direct Midnight Cowboy instead, at the helm.
According to screenwriter Marc Daponte, Southern had previously approached Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night, who turned it down. At some point, Nicolas Roeg also declined. Eventually photographer Michael Cooper was earmarked to direct and the Stones were pencilled in as the droogs. But that proposal fell foul of the Lord Chamberlain, one Cameron Fromanteel Cobbold, whose job it was in 1967 to assess screenplays under Britain’s censorship laws at the time.
It is alleged that he stated, “I know this book and there is no way you can make a movie of it. It deals with youthful incitement, which is illegal.” In 1968, this system was amended, removing Cobbold from having a veto over productions.
In correspondence which emerged in 2008, Litvinoff pitched the idea of the Stones as the droogs to Schlesinger, with astonishingly their arch-rivals the Beatles earmarked to compose the musical score. “After you’ve read the script and novel I’m sure you will see the incredible potential we all see in this project,” Litvinoff wrote. “This film should break ground in its language, cinematic style and soundtrack. [And] the Beatles love the project.” However, Schlesinger turned down the project, saying that the novel’s ultraviolence was not “the sort of subject I particularly want to tackle.”
Not long afterwards, in February 1968, when the Stones heard that David Hemmings, a “Groovy London” icon and star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, had been pencilled in as lead actor, they sent a petition to the screenwriter Terry Southern.
“We, the undersigned, do hereby protest with extreme vehemence as well as shattered illusions (in you) the preference of David Hemmings above Mick Jagger in the role of Alex in The Clockwork Orange [sic],” the petition read. The petition (above) was signed by all four Beatles, Marianne Faithfull and others in the Stones set, and was sold at auction in 2015.
But even this was not the Stones’ first engagement with Burgess’s novel. As early as late 1964, when the book had sold barely 3,000 copies, one had found its way into the hands of their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who was writing the sleeve notes for their second album. It is fair to say that these notes are more than a little eccentric. Broderick Beauchamp wrote in Record Mirror on 30th January 1965 that he was “delighted with the record, but amazed at the drivel Andrew Oldham has written on the back. All I can say is people have been locked up for less than this.”
And locked up he nearly was. The oblique notes seemed to lionise the Stones on the eve of their breakthrough to stardom, but do so in a curious and yet oddly familiar tone. As Oldham was later to explain in one of his memoirs, “I had written the sleeve notes for the Stones second album in the bath for laughs, seeing how close I could skate to the land of Anthony Burgess. There was no concerted effort to be controversial, I was just doing what came naturally to me at that time, the violent rhetoric I didn’t give a second thought too.I was just very busy being me. The result would be surprisingly rewarding in terms of publicity, coverage and outrage.”
Indeed, only a few weeks after the album’s release in Britain, one Gwen Matthews, secretary to the Blind Aid Society of Bournemouth, took offence at the suggestion within Oldham’s sleeve notes that fans who could not afford the album should consider mugging blind people to obtain the money. She wrote to the Stones’ label, Decca, to ask that they change the album cover, and the chairman of Decca, Sir Edward Lewis quickly did so.
The notes did not appear on the American release, and the offending lines were excised from future pressings. Stickers were placed over the notes on stock which had already been pressed and printed. Apologising to the public, Lewis said “I am told that this inscription was meant to be humorous, but I’m afraid this jargon does not make sense to me.”
It was actually a minor furore which garnered the Stones an additional bad boy reputation at the time. It was even raised as an issue in the House of Lords, when Lord Conesford questioned the Director of Public Prosecutions as to whether the sleeve constituted “a deliberate incitement to criminal action.” Luckily for Loog Oldham, the DPP deemed it did not.
Full details of this bizarre Nadsat-inflected interlude in the Stones’ career can be read here, but below we offer the unexpurgated version of the offending sleeve notes, complete with hints of Nadsat. The offending paragraph is that billed as a “break commercial”, needless to say:
“It is the summer of the night London’s eye be tight shut all but twelve peepers and six hip malchicks who prance the street. Newspaper strewn and grey which waits another day to hide its dirgy countenance the six have been sound ball journey made to another sphere which pays royalties in eight months or a year.
Sound is over back eight visions clear and dear. Friends, here are your new groovies so please a-bound to the sound of THE ROLL-ING STONES. We walk past flat-blocks “There’s a femme in a frock”, “Come on luv”, says Bill. “Give us a kiss of Christmas”, “for why I should,” says she. “Your bods ain’t mistahs, with hair like that you should wear skirts not shirts!”What about Charles I? says Mick,“I am Charles I” says she –“Ah dear” foiled again said Keith, whose quite a wit, “she’d have kissed you in Richmond”.
Well, my groobies, what about Richmond? With its green grass and hippy scene from which the Stones untaned. The cryin those days of May was have you heard of STONES, a new groupie who look wild and good. Their music is Berry-chuck and all the Chicago hippies. Travel to Chicago and ask the malchek plebbies where is Howlin’ Wolf?
Be he be not the one with Cheyanie Bodie. Oh my groogle back to your window box. Meanwhile back in Richmond, THE STONES have grown and people come from far and wide to hear the STONES “Somewhat like the Pied Piper”, one mal observed. “What a wit”, said Keith. A day in May at Richmond came to the treen, two showbiz genties with ideas plenty for THE STONES, Easton and Oldham named they were. The rest is not history so I’ll tell you about it.
Records followed so did fame, Beatles wrote a song for htem that got to number ten. Tours of the country and fame at large THE STONES were here, and we’ll be back with you when break commercial is over. (This is THE STONES new disc within. Cast deep into your pockets for loot to buy this disc of groovies and fancy words. If you don’t have bread, see that blind man knock him on the head, steal his wallet and lo and behold you have the loot, if you put in the boot, good, another one sold!)
Back to the show, all was on the go, fame was having its toll of sweat and grime of a million dimes, ah! What a lovely war, Man, Easton called a meet one day; Stones arrived. “Columbus went to America, so shall we!”, so we went, naturally. They want you in France, in Germany you can dance. No, Brian, no need to grow a moustache. That’s all over,
It’s different now –
come on, just you see.
So see we did, all over the globe, here and there. I remember when we arrived one day at a town called Knokke-le-Zoute. Imagine my surprise and of the plane we got that Charlie has on the same suit. “Never mind”, said Mick, “go to your analyst, he’ll sort you out”.
So off we went, Charlie and me. The doctor knew the score. “Change your tailor”, said he, as he handed us a bill for 50 gins. “Ah”, said Keith, who is quite a wit, “such is fame”. So now it’s time to ponder as my penmind can write no longer. What to say on the bag of this bag of groovies. I could tell, tale of talent, fame and fortune and stories untold of how these teen peepers (eyes, that is, to you) have taken groupdom by storm, slur you with well-worn clichés, compare them to Wagner, Stravinsky and Paramour. I could say more about talent that grows in many directions. To their glory and their story, let the trumpets play. Hold on there, what I say is from the core of this malchik. To this groupie that I have grown with and lived with . . .Dear Mick, Keith, Brian, Bill and Charlie – please autograph this leg I send you ‘cause man, that’s the sign of a real fan!
Andrew Loog Oldham”
There is a musical theme running through the sleevenotes, as might be expected since they were intended to promote an album, and we can identify some key Nadsat attributes, such as truncations and deliberate archaisms. But what’s mostly missing here in Oldham’s variant is the core Russian lexis of Nadsat, ‘malchick’ (and its misspelt variants) excepted. Rather, Oldham has used Nadsat as a stylistic launching point, deriving his own metonymic terms such as ‘groovies’ and ‘genties’ from Burgess’s word-formation methods in A Clockwork Orange.
Additionally, there is somewhat of a miscreant content and tone to the piece, especially in the offending paragraph about the blind, no doubt intended to associate the band with the emerging bad boy glamour of rock music, as well as the careful blues lineage constructed in terms of Howling Wolf and Chicago blues. Much of the rest is, not unlike Burgess himself at times, somewhat sub-Joycean. ‘Penmind’ seems a very Joycean kind of compound, for example, while ‘Knokke-Le-Zoute’ (which transmutes in Oldham’s piece implicitly into ‘knock the suit’) sounds like the sort of toponym one might find in Finnegans Wake, though in fact it’s a suburb of Bruges.
Certainly it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, parodies of Nadsat in existence. But it seems that, contra Burgess’s intentions, Loog Oldham did not retain much Nadsat from reading the novel. In Saragi, Nation and Meister’s study of language acquisition using Nadsat, over a decade later, they discovered that most students retained a startling amount of Nadsat some time after reading A Clockwork Orange.
Perhaps Loog Oldham would be in the minority who did not. Or perhaps he did not wish to risk breaching Burgess’s copyright by wholesale plundering of Nadsat.
After all, the Stones aspired to play the droogs on screen, but as we know, in the end it was Malcolm McDowell, Michael Tarn, James Marcus and Warren Clarke who assumed those roles. In the end there was no place for the streetfighting Stones.