The Rolling Stones Play a Gig in Communist Warsaw and a Riot Ensues (1967)

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 “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:

00:00 — Paint It Black

00:43 — 19th Ner­vous Break­down

01:06 — (I Can’t Get No) Sat­is­fac­tion

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of the Rolling Stones: A Selec­tion of Doc­u­men­taries on the Quin­tes­sen­tial Rock-and-Roll Band

A Char­lie Watts-Cen­tric View of the Rolling Stones: Watch Mar­tin Scorsese’s Footage of Char­lie & the Band Per­form­ing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “All Down the Line”

The Rolling Stones Jam with Mud­dy Waters for the First and Only Time at Chicago’s Leg­endary Checker­board Lounge (1981)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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