The Rolling Stones' Czech Invasion

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

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

On the afternoon of the show, the five members of the Stones were received by the president at his official residence, Hradcany Castle. "I didn't make any special preparations for the meeting," Keith Richards said. "I knew that your president was a straightforward and pleasant man, and this was confirmed. He's also a very funny guy. What did we talk about? We just made small talk. It's hard to have a conversation with someone you're meeting for the first time in your life, especially when you're surrounded by cameras."

Jagger came a bit more prepared. "I haven't read his plays, but I know his essays and some smaller things, including his brilliant letter to President Husak," he said. "I also know one of his recent books, a long dialogue that was just published in our country. In it, he asks whether he will catch a second wind in his writing or whether he's doomed to repeating himself, and he says he doesn't know. So I told him I thought the problem was solved now. The second wind has come with his presidency, and he doesn't have to worry that it won't come again to Havel the writer.

"But there wasn't really much conversation," continued Jagger, sipping a mineral water. "These official events are a bit unhappy occasions. The day before, we met Mrs. Havel in a restaurant, and that was the right way to do it."

For Jagger, the highlight of the visit was the group's appearance with the president on the castle's balcony, a place from which the Czech people are used to hearing news, both good and bad, of great import. But on this day, the Stones just waved hello to the people crowding the courtyard below, and the fans responded with an enthusiastic cry, a small taste of what was to come later in the evening at the stadium.

The Strahov Stadium is the largest in the world, with a capacity of 300,000. Early on, the concert's organizers had agreed to use just one-third of it for the Stones show, limiting ticket sales to about 100,000. Two days before the concert, it wasn't clear whether the show would be sold out. Tickets were priced at 250 crowns each (about $10), a modest amount by Western European and American standards. But for the Czech budget, that price represented about a tenth of the average monthly income.

"Are the tickets too expensive?" Jagger asked. "We won't earn one thin dime, and even if the tickets were priced double, we would still be losing money. That's a problem with doing concerts in Eastern Europe — the tickets are too expensive for you, and we're losing money."

In the end, the price was a bargain for tourists, and tickets were also sold in Hungary, Austria, Poland and Germany. About 10,000 fans came from Hungary alone — an ironic reminder of the times when thousands of young Czech music fans would make their way to Budapest almost monthly to see bands that could not play in their own country.

The huge stage set, built by a team of British and Hungarian workers, with some assistance from Czech scaffold builders, looked almost minuscule on the stadium's immense field. But the crowd, which finally numbered about 107,000, made up for that. The audience gave a lukewarm welcome to Czech singer Vladimir Misik and Etc., one of the bands that had suffered through the unpleasant experience of the past regime. The response was a little more enthusiastic for the Dan Reed Network, the American band that preceded the Stones. Then, at 9:30 p.m., a thundering overture and fireworks announced the arrival onstage of the Rolling Stones, playing "Start Me Up."

After 135 minutes — during which spectators managed to get wet from the rain and then dry again from the heat of the crowd — the show was over. The Rolling Stones had played a great concert, keeping a promise Keith Richards had made earlier. "We really care about this concert," he'd said. "We'll try to play the best we can."

The dreams of three generations of Czech music freaks had come true.

At 1:00 a.m., as I rode from the stadium to the subway, which was kept open past midnight for the first time in its existence, a cavalcade of cars with a white BMW in the middle passed me. President Havel had been held up for a while after the concert. He had to send a cable to the group, which had departed immediately for London, once again using his plane. The message he relayed to the Stones said that as he was listening to them, he realized that their music deals with many of the same things that he's been fighting for, with his life and his work. And that, perhaps, was the best critique of the night.

This is a story from the October 4, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 588: October 4, 1990