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Music

Rock behind the iron curtain: 55 years on The Rolling Stones Warsaw riot

@SamWKemp

By 1967, The Rolling Stones had already earned a reputation as one of the most decadent rock bands in the world. With their knack for turning hotel rooms upside down, drug use and high-octane live shows, the group’s reputation preceded them; hell, it was half of the appeal. It’s hard to believe, then, that in April 1967, they were booked to perform a show in Warsaw, which was still behind the Iron Curtain. As you would expect, the performance was an incendiary affair, sparking a clash between prospective audience members and the police outside Warsaw’s Congress Hall.

In 1967, The Rolling Stones were planning a European tour to promote Between the Buttons. Keen to uphold their transgressive reputation, Mick Jagger and company attempted to book a show in Moscow. Alas, their attempts to become the first band to play on the other side of the Iron Curtain were thwarted when both UK and Russian authorities denied them entry into the communist heartland. As a result, The Stones were left with a four-day gap in their touring schedule which desperately needed filling.

Cut to the Polish capital of Warsaw, where two young polish journalists with a taste for rock music are being asked to present themselves to Władysław Jakubowski, the deputy director of Pagart, a state-owned concert agency. Nobody was allowed in or out of the country without the consent of Jakubowski. Thankfully he had some sympathy for Poland’s young music fans. He asked the journalists to name some of the artists they would like to see perform in the country on a piece of paper. They did as he said, noting down The Beatles, The Hollies, The Animals, and The Rolling Stones. When they were finished, Jakubowski hastily hid the piece of paper in a drawer in his desk. A few weeks later, The Rolling Stones recieved word that they’d been granted entry to Poland.

The Stones arrived in Warsaw on April 12th. Bill Wayman would later recall the immediate sense of claustrophobia that greeted the band as they stepped off the plane. While he and the rest of the stones attempted to throw off the scent of Warsaw’s secret police, crowds were already gathering around Congress Hall. By April 13th, thousands of people were in line for tickets. What most of them didn’t know was that the bulk of them had already been reserved for communist party members and their families. When The Rolling Stones arrived at the venue, surrounded by a police escort, the situation was already becoming tense. Brawls broke out amongst the crowd as thousands of hopeful teenagers attempted to smuggle themselves inside without a ticket. According to reports, the police were quick to whip out their truncheons in a brutal attempt to restore order.

Inside the venue, the story wasn’t much better. It was way past its capacity of 2,700, with fans hanging off the edge of balconies just to catch a glimpse of their favourite rockers. The front of the stage was guarded by a row of police, who managed to push non-ticket holders to the back, meaning that all The Stones would have seen from the stage was a regimented crowd of grey-suited communist party members with their fingers in their ears. Jagger was not best pleased, but at least he was safe. Outside, the brawl had turned into a full-blown riot. Bottles were being thrown this way and that, cars being burnt and smashed into pulp, and police dogs running wild. Soon water guns and tear gas were deployed to disperse the protesters, who had heard the sound of western rock pulsing through the walls of Congress Hall and desperately wanted more.

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