What happened when the Rolling Stones rocked Warsaw?

On 13 April 1967 the Rolling Stones played in Warsaw, the gig provoked wild scenes inside the venue and near riots outside it – in the audience was Paweł Brodowsky, a Polish musician and journalist

The Rolling Stones arrive in Zurich on the 14th April 1967, the day after their performance in Warsaw - (Left to right) Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, and Keith Richards (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Paweł Brodowsky, a Polish musician and journalist, was in the audience when the Rolling Stones played in Warsaw on 13 April 1967 – an epochal event that brought the popular culture of western Europe face to face with the rock-hungry youth of the east. Held in the congress hall of the Stalinist skyscraper known as the Palace of Culture and Science, the gig provoked wild scenes inside the venue and near riots outside it, where the police used water cannon to disperse ticketless crowds. The Rolling Stones were not invited back to eastern Europe until after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

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The story goes that the Stones were due to play in Moscow but that show didn’t go ahead, so at the last minute they decided to play Warsaw instead. They were by no means the first western group to play in communist Poland. By that time I had already seen The Animals, The Hollies, Lulu, and Cliff Richard and the Shadows. There was also a big local music scene that grew out of the jazz festivals of the 1950s. It was at these jazz festivals that young men started waving their jackets in the air, and this crazy jacket-waving became a trademark of Polish youth culture.

The authorities weren’t sure how to react. A rock’n’roll band called Rhythm and Blues was banned in 1959 because it drew ‘dangerously’ large crowds. The authorities didn’t like the phrase ‘rock’n’roll’, so instead the media took to calling it ‘big beat’.

Jazz was important to young Poles because it was a weapon in the struggle for personal freedom. After the Second World War it had become a forbidden art and was forced underground. The ensuing era has been dubbed the heroic or ‘catacomb’ era of Polish jazz. No jazz music was available at all on the radio or in the shops, and the scene was kept alive by young people playing in private homes.

With the Sopot Jazz Festival of 1956, jazz suddenly emerged into the open, and became a symbol of freedom of expression. Almost 30,000 people from all over Poland came to the first festival, taking over the town for a whole week. The event became known as the Sopot Earthquake. A second festival was organized in 1957, after which the party authorities said: “No more.”

Students in Warsaw then took up the baton, and the Jazz Jamboree was born in 1958 [in that first year it was called Jazz 58]. It is now one of the oldest jazz festivals in Europe. It was an important international bridge: one of the few events at which musicians from the Soviet bloc and the United States could meet and listen to each other.

Seeing The Animals on stage was no preparation for Jagger. Someone threw flowers on stage. Mick ate the flowers and spat them out

It was during the 1960s that Polish jazz became an international brand. Composer and pianist Krzysztof Komeda was the best-known figure, renowned for his work with film director Roman Pola´nski [writing soundtracks for several of his films, from Knife in the Water through to Rosemary’s Baby]. Komeda was also a rock-and-roll rebel figure in his own way. In 1968 he was partying in Hollywood with Pola´nski and writer Marek Hłasko when he was pushed over by Hłasko in a friendly brawl; he died of the injuries he sustained in the fall.

The early sixties saw the emergence of a new generation of bands inspired by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The late sixties was the time when Polish rock was closest to the world. There was a sense of pure joy in picking up a guitar and trying to sound like the Shadows or the Stones.

In the late sixties I was the bassist in Akwarele (The Watercolours), the backing group of the most talented singer of that era, Czesław Niemen. Before that I was in Chochoły (The Haystacks), playing a repertoire based on the first two or three Rolling Stones albums.

No tickets for the Stones concert were available through open sale – they all somehow disappeared, distributed only through ‘connections’. On the day of the concert we were in the studio recording Dziwny jest ten Swiat (‘It’s a Strange World’), a soul ballad that went on to be a huge hit for Czesław Niemen. We finished our session early to go to the concert. The Stones played two shows, one at 5pm and another at 8.30pm. We had tickets for the later one.

When we arrived at the Sala Kongresowa (Congress Hall) it seemed to be under siege. There were maybe 30,000 people being held back by cordons of both police and ORMON [an auxiliary police force comprising ‘workers and citizens’]. Even those who had a ticket were checked several times. Our keyboard player, Marian Ziminski, was found to have a forged ticket, and he was beaten on the back with a police baton. Next day he went back to the studio and recorded the haunting organ intro to Dziwny. Whether he was inspired by the beating or not is difficult to say!

There were probably about 5,000 people crammed inside a hall that had a capacity of 3,000. I remember seeing people from as far away as Czechoslovakia and Hungary in the hall. All of the aisles were packed. The support band was Czerwono Czarni; they got a bad reception because people were impatient to see the Stones. When the curtain went up, the band were still tuning their guitars. The audience made so much noise that you couldn’t actually tell when the band started playing.

Nobody had ever seen anything like Mick Jagger before. He came as quite a shock. I mean, in 1965 I had seen Eric Burdon of The Animals on stage, waving a microphone between his legs, but that was no preparation for Jagger. Someone threw flowers on stage. Mick Jagger ate the flowers and spat them out.

Brian Jones was standing on the left-hand side, and was obviously dissatisfied with the guitar amplifier he had borrowed. After kicking it several times he eventually gave up, and concentrated on playing harmonica instead. He was aloof – he never once looked at Jagger.

Keith Richards said later that he stopped playing after a few songs to complain that the hall was full of Communist Party members instead of fans. That was actually bullshit. Maybe he heard someone say so. How would he know? There were mostly young people my age – under 20. They all looked the same: berserk. How could he tell the difference? Anyway, the concert went on uninterrupted.

Leaving the evening concert, the square outside was completely empty and the asphalt was wet. We realised that the crowd had been dispersed by water cannon while the concert was going on.

Was it a symbolic event? I think so; it was exciting at the time, and assumed symbolic meaning later. I am frequently asked whether I was really there.

Rock music was not a political force in a conscious way – it was just that as young people we wanted to be ourselves. In the 1950s, communist critics of modern jazz would argue that it was funded by the American State Department. In the 1960s, however, rock was so big that it just had a power of its own. There were riots everywhere during the Stones’ 1967 tour; no wonder student revolu-tions erupted everywhere in Europe one year later. Somehow, young people realised that they had power.

As for the Stones, I did see them one more time – having queued up outside the London Roundhouse in 1970.

Paweł Brodowsky is a musician and journalist who later became editor of Jazz Forum, one of the longest-running music magazines in Europe. He was speaking to John Bousfield, an author and journalist who has written extensively on central and eastern Europe

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This article was taken from issue 4 of BBC World Histories magazine