My Name is called Disturbance…. — “Street Fighting Man”
More than two decades before German band the Scorpions blew their allegedly CIA-penned “Wind of Change” over the end of the Cold War; before the “hard rock Woodstock” in Moscow; before Bruce Springsteen rocked East Berlin and rang the “Chimes of Freedom,” another band took the stage behind the Iron Curtain: one not particularly well-known at the time for making geopolitical statements.
In 1967, the Rolling Stones recorded and released Between the Buttons and major hits “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” They tried to compete with the Beatles with stabs at psychedelia on Their Satanic Majesties Request. They didn’t record what is sometimes considered their most political song, “Street Fighting Man,” for another two years, and that song — with its options of street fighting or singing for a rock and roll band — has never been mistaken for a peace anthem.
It wasn’t peace the band courted in their original plan to play Moscow. “They started toying with the idea of performing in Moscow and becoming the most controversial rock band to play on the other side of the Iron Curtain,” writes Wojciech Oleksiak at Culture.pl. “Both the Soviet Union and the UK denied their requests. How is it, Oleksiak asks, “that in 1967 — the middle of the Cold War — Mick, Keith, Brian, Bill, and Charlie came to Poland and performed in Warsaw, at a huge hall known for being traditionally used for the Communist Party’s plenary congresses?” You’ll find the answer in the video at the top from Bandsplaining.
Just above, see footage of the concert itself, culled from newsreel footage and TV broadcasts. The uploader has done us the kindness of putting timestamps in the video for the three songs shown here:
The Stones were “by no means the first western group to play in communist Poland,” writes Polish musician and journalist Paweł Brodowsky, who was in the audience. “By that time I had already seen The Animals, The Hollies, Lulu, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows.” It didn’t hurt that Władysław Jakubowski, the deputy director of Pagart — “a state-owned concert agency,” writes Sam Kemp at Far Out — “had some sympathy for Poland’s young music fans” (just as Gorbachev would in the time of glasnost). None of the other acts caused anything like the chaos that would ensue when the Stones came to Warsaw.
Bands allowed into the country came from a list of names Jakubowski collected from young Polish journalists. How Jakubowski achieved the required permissions from his higher-ups is something of a mystery, Oleksiek writes. Why the deputy director let the Stones into the country even more so. Their reputation for destruction preceded them: “He must have heard about The Rolling Stones’ wrecking of the Olympia, the most famous concert hall in Paris. He was a close friend of Bruno Coquatrix, its director.” At any rate, the Warsaw concert turned into a riot. The band could not be blamed, entirely.
Hearing about the Stones’ arrival, thousands of young fans lined up for tickets. “What most of them didn’t know,” Kemp writes, “was that the bulk of them had already been reserved for communist party members and their families.” The hall was also packed beyond capacity, “with fans hanging off the edge of balconies.” Police fought to keep fans away from the stage and the seated crowds of dour bureaucrats. Richards and Jagger antagonized the cops with obscenities, making ticketless fans who’d breached the doors even more rabid.
Outside, as you can see in the short Polish documentary above, a full-blown riot with tear gas and dogs had broken out. This was a time when riots seemed to break out everywhere. (Mick Jagger has cited the Paris uprisings of 1968 as a source for “Street Fighting Man.”) But at the end of the sixties, few other bands could boast not only of playing the communist Eastern Bloc, but of inspiring mayhem from the stage on both sides of the Cold War lines.
And yet, this is not the end of the story. The Stones returned to Warsaw over fifty years later, in 2018, this time with a pointed political statement made at the behest of Lech Wałęsa, in opposition to a rule limiting the age of judges to 65. “I am too old to be a judge but not too old to sing,” Jagger shouted in Polish from the stage. He then launched into the band’s first song on the setlist. And, yes, it was my favorite and maybe yours too: “Street Fighting Man.”