Recently celebrating 50 years since their first gig, the Rolling Stones are now more likely to attract nostalgic baby boomers than controversy. Kellie Abbott looks back to a time when the band’s wild reputation almost prevented them from setting foot on Australian soil, as documented in formerly secret government correspondence.
As part of the 1973 Pacific Tour, the Rolling Stones planned concerts in New Zealand and Australia. Since their previous tour in 1966, however, some band members had experienced brushes with the law on drug-related offences that caused Australian immigration officials to question whether they should be let in the country.
In late 1972, musician Joe Cocker had been kicked out after he was arrested for possession of marijuana. With reports of an impending Stones tour in late 1972, Immigration Minister Dr Jim Forbes told journalists that overseas posts had been alerted to ‘bring under notice any information concerning proposed tours of groups of this type’, with a view to preventing undesirables from sullying our shores.
When the Rolling Stones tour was confirmed, the Immigration Department decided to prevent Keith Richards from entering the country, as well as a member of the touring party. The department didn’t release Richards’ name, referring to ‘a member of the Rolling Stones’, but it wasn’t too hard for the media to work out that the man in question was the hard-living Richards, who had registered as a heroin addict in the United Kingdom several years earlier. He had been arrested in several well-publicised cases involving illegal drugs. He was convicted only once, in 1967, and the conviction was later overturned.
After a change of government in late 1972, the Australian tour promoter prevailed upon new Immigration Minister Al Grassby to lift the ban. They explained that Richards was irreplaceable – ‘without him the tour is off’ – and assured the Minister that the band was, in fact, on a ‘health kick’. The Paul Dainty Corporation supplied the government with a French doctor’s report proclaiming Richards cured of his drug addiction after treatment in Switzerland, and explained that Richards underwent treatment because Mick Jagger had made it a condition of their continued touring together: ‘Mr Jagger has great influence over him.’
In January 1973, Grassby decided to permit the tour to go ahead – with all the band’s members present and accounted for.
This prompted a flurry of letters from the public both for and against the decision. A Mr Johnson from South Australia wrote stridently to Grassby: ‘If your purpose was to ingratiate yourself with the younger generation who chase these morons around, then I suppose it could be glossed over as a piece of smart diplomacy; as perhaps a few extra votes would accrue on future occasions.’ Another critic of the decision, a chartered accountant from Turramurra, told Grassby: ‘I hope other members of your government are more concerned with the encouragement of decent principles in the young.’
In reply to one such letter, the Minister expressed his wish for the tour: ‘I hope [the Rolling Stones] will set an example of abstinence and stability.’ Grassby had the opportunity to judge this for himself when he was invited to meet the band in Brisbane, where Mick Jagger personally thanked him for allowing the tour to go ahead.
The Stones meet the press
The Rolling Stones were asked about their near-exclusion from Australia in a press conference shown on the ABC program GTK. The clip below (courtesy of Australian Broadcasting Corporation Library Sales) also features fashion advice to Keith Richards from an Australian reporter and Mick Jagger pondering the band’s future.
Postscript: Later in 1973, an immigration official wrote to the Australian High Commission in London following media reports that Keith Richards had been arrested again, this time for possessing cannabis. He requested that somebody ‘discreetly monitor the case in London and let us have any relevant material so that we can tuck it away on file for future reference if need be’. The Rolling Stones have since visited Australia a number of times, most recently in 2006.