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The Rolling Stones' Czech Invasion

More than 100,000 fans turn out as Jagger and company take the Urban Jungle Tour to Prague

Mick Jagger performs on stage at De Kuip during the Urban Jungle tour in Rotterdam, Netherlands on 19th May 1990.
Rob Verhorst/Redferns
October 4, 1990

Kameny se vali do Prahy!"

Speaking with what to Czechs sounded like an Arabic accent, Mick Jagger appeared on Czechoslovak state TV in early August to make the announcement: The Stones are rolling into Prague. And, on posters plastered throughout the city, there was another slogan: The tanks are rolling out. The statements were more than a symbolic allusion: On August 18th, three days before the twenty-second anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, this country was to experience something that would have been impossible just nine months ago. The grandest rock concert in Czechoslovak history: the Rolling Stones and their Urban Jungle Tour.

"Prague is a city and Czechoslovakia a country that have always had music in the coat of arms of their culture," Mick Jagger said on the day of the concert when asked why, of all the cities in liberated Eastern Europe, the Stones had decided to play Prague. "And your government has a very favorable attitude toward us and has been very cooperative. We'd like to play in other Eastern countries as well, but we haven't gotten the support anywhere else."

Vaclav Havel, the new president of Czechoslovakia, has been an outspoken admirer of the arts, especially rock & roll. An author and playwright himself, he appointed Frank Zappa as a special cultural ambassador, played host to Lou Reed and Robert De Niro when they were in Prague and visited the punk club CBGB while on an official visit to New York.

"For me, the Rolling Stones have always been a sort of counterweight to the more amiable, more lyrical and often more easygoing Beatles," President Havel said a few days before the concert. "I used to listen to their music often. Songs like 'Satisfaction' can hardly be forgotten. If their concerts are half as good as people write and talk about them, I can't wait to see the Rolling Stones with my own eyes."

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The first contact between President Havel's advisory staff and the Stones' managers took place in April. On August 1st a contract was signed in Vienna, leaving only seventeen days to take care of publicity and other technical and logistic matters itemized in the twenty-two-page agreement. The Stones agreed to waive their fee for the show — though most of their expenses were covered — and all proceeds were to be donated to the Goodwill Committee, a group established by First Lady Olga Havel to serve various charities.

"We've always been glad to play new places, and we've always known that people in Czechoslovakia would be glad to see us," said Keith Richards, as he sipped a bourbon. "It hasn't been possible to do it sooner. Who knows what we'd have had to face if we had come in the past. Jail? Arrest on charges of subversion? It's always suspect if a government starts to be afraid of a rock & roll group. Rock & roll is a feeling, a spiritual condition. As soon as you start hacking away at it and warning that someone might be jailed for a song, the music gains other dimensions and becomes an important force. But that isn't normal. That's why I don't like to use rock & roll as a challenge. Rock doesn't like being carried like a banner."

Had Keith Richards been a musician in Czechoslovakia not so long ago, he'd probably have fled — as many Czech rockers did. Or he'd have been in permanent conflict with the law. Anti-establishment bands — as the Rolling Stones were early on in their career — have never had an easy life in Czechoslovakia. The government forced them to make compromises in their music, in their stage appearance and in their image — and after that didn't silence them, the government cracked down harder.

The early Eighties were the dark years of Czech rock. So dense was the cobweb of government repression that dozens of bands were prohibited from playing even in the tiniest students' club. Access to recording studios, radio or TV — these things could not be spoken of.

The second half of the Eighties brought about an illusory improvement. Responsibility for rock music fell to the Communist-controlled Socialist Union of Youth. The government's tactic was clear: If we don't provide rock to young people, they will revolt, so let's give it to them but control it with an iron hand. Rock under state supervision — that was the name of the game in the late Eighties.

And now, in 1990 — the Rolling Stones!

On the day before the concert, at 3:00 a.m., the Rolling Stones landed in Prague, having flown from West Germany on President Havel's plane, a privilege previously reserved for officials of friendly foreign governments. At the Palace Hotel, rooms were outfitted to meet the group's specifications. The hotel had to borrow many things from around the country to accommodate the band members; the black curtains they requested for their bedrooms, for example, were made from borrowed funeral banners.

The organizational infrastructure necessary to put on a concert of the magnitude of the Stones' Urban Jungle Tour was nonexistent in Czechoslovakia. As a result, a Czech production team was set up just for this one show. It worked in conjunction with several enthusiastic individuals and associations that also had to establish new companies and co-ops to take care of the preparations for the concert. In addition, two overseas sponsors, TDK and Anheuser-Busch, and about twenty local sponsors helped with contributions — though the Czech sponsors threw in a cautiously modest amount, this method of financing being rather unusual to them.

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