Background to The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus
The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus was filmed over 18 hours on December 11th and 12th, 1968. Featuring The Rolling Stones, The Who and a Supergroup called Dirty Mac featuring Mitch Mitchell and John Lennon amongst others it was due to be shown by the BBC, but Mick Jagger held it back as he was unhappy with their performance. Tragically it would also be the last time Brian Jones would perform with The Rolling Stones, and died in his swimming pool little more that 6 months later.
Mick Jagger‘s idea was to do something to keep The Rolling Stones in the public eye while they were away recording “Let It Bleed“. He approached Michael Lindsay-Hogg and the two came up with the idea of having the various bands performing as part of a circus, with ringmaster to introduce the acts, some are traditional circus acts, the others musical from classical via The Stones and The Who to Taj Mahal.
Mick Jagger‘s original choice was to have Brigit Bardot be the ringmaster, but she declined, as did Keith Richard‘s choice of Johnny Cash. After that Mick Jagger took on the role himself, with Keith Richard, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts also introducing acts.
A an invited audience came along and was kept in the studio for 18 hours as cameras broke down and other technical glitches made the whole process frustrating. The Rolling Stones did not perform until early in the morning and this has been cited as the reason for their relatively poor performance.
Welcome to The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus
After a brief pause the screen lights up with the image of the ring and the crowd all dressed in brightly colored robes and obviously delighted to be there as “Entry of the Gladiators” (the traditional circus theme) fires up.
An acrobat and cowboys on horseback enter the ring to be followed by The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger preening for all his worth and Charlie Watts looking very uncomfortable without a drum kit to hide behind!
They are soon followed by the other acts, with John Lennon obviously loving the silliness and applause after the traumas of recording The Beatles‘ White Album. The various members of The Who and other guests also parade around with the circus acts.
As “Entry of the Gladiators” dies down, the camera focuses on Mick Jagger, “You’ve heard of Oxford Circus, you’ve heard of Picadilly Circus, well this is The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus” – and we are away.
After the intro, Mick introduces the first act in the shape of Jethro Tull. Jethro Tull were a new act, having released only one album at this point and go through a slightly uncomfortable lip-synched version of “Song For Jeffrey” It does allow Ian Anderson to do his now customary standing on one leg routine…
A Quick One From The Who
Keef appears with cigar and eye patch to introduce The Who. After Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Keith Moon and John Entwhistle harmonize the intro they quickly rip into “A Quick One While He’s Away” and tear it up. Having just come back from tour they were sharp and took the roof off. As the final refrain of Pete Townshend‘s guitar dies away you see a very animated Brian Jones applauding from the sidelines.
After a brief interlude of a classical piece called “Over The Waves” with gymnasts performing on the rings, comes Taj Mahal doing “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”
There are additional Taj Mahal tracks on the DVD extras, including a ripping version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Checkin’ up on My Baby”
Charlie Watts, looking about as uncomfortable as possible sat amongst the crowd, introduces, “the beautiful Marianne Faithful“. The camera pans down from above to a stunning Marianne Faithful in the center of the ring as she starts to sing “Something Better”
Dirty Mac featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell and Keef
Dirty Mac were the Super Group put together for the Rock and Roll Circus, featuring Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Richard and John Lennon who was escaping the tensions in The Beatles camp. Having only recently finished “The White Album”, The Beatles would reconvene a few weeks later, early in the new year on the ill-fated “Get Back” sessions, which effectively put the final nail in the coffin of The Beatles.
Introduced by John Lennon (or “Winston Legthigh”) and Mick Jagger (“Nigel”) in very bad American accents while John eats. When introducing Mitch Mitchell, Mick Jagger asks, “Are you really…experienced?” John replies, “Oh, very, very. You’ve read my file…” before presenting Mick with his food, “on behalf of the British public.” Now why do we never see this kind of thing on VH1?
After a storming romp through “Yer Blues” (with a suitably chaotic climax) Yoko Ono appears from under a sheet and she and classical violinist Ivry Gitlis join Dirty Mac for a blues romp entitled “Whole Lotta Yoko“. The band go through a fairly standard blues jam with Ivry playing over the top and Yoko wailing at various points….she has a voice that can only be politely described as an acquired taste!
One of the reasons given for The Stones pulling the Rock & Roll Circus was their poor performance. Brian Jones was obviously in a bad way and also did not approve of the direction The Stones were heading in and so was both incapable and uninterested in playing at his best. The Rolling Stones had also been studio-bound and the sharpness a band gets from playing live was blunted. Add to this the hours the band had been filming and waiting around prior to playing due to the technical issues and it is no surprise that The Rolling Stones did not do all their songs justice.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Off to a slightly poor start, an un-energetic rendition of a Rolling Stones classic
Loosening up now and much better, although Mick is a bit subdued.
No Expectations/You Can’t Always Get What You Want
“No Expectations”, a slower number showing off Brain Jones slide guitar and giving Mick a chance to find his stride, before The Stones find their rhythm on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
Sympathy for the Devil
A romping version of “Sympathy for the Devil” and probably the highlight of The Rolling Stones set
Salt of the Earth
The finale sees The Stones and guests sitting in the crowd as Keef sings the opening lines to “Salt of the Earth” as Mick Jagger poses, Charlie Watts looks nervous, Bill Wyman unimpressed and Brian Jones remarkably happy with the benefit of hindsight….
The Release of The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus
It was recorded with the idea of editing and broadcasting it on the BBC, however The Rolling Stones were so disappointed with their performance compared to the other acts (most notably The Who) that it was not released until 1996 as a CD and 2004 as a DVD. Although listening to the extras on the DVD, Bill Wyman, never Jagger’s biggest fan, says that the reason they did not put it out was that Jagger was unhappy with his own performance, the rest of the band thought it was fine.
Now when you view it you can appreciate that it was not the most professional piece ever made, but it seemed to sum up the time well. Both The Rolling Stones and John Lennon were about to face seismic events in their careers (and indeed the end for The Beatles) and the stresses of global stardom were beginning to show. Whereas before they seemed to feel invincible, The Stones were turning to follies like The Rock and Roll Circus to keep things fresh and distract themselves from their problems.
After 18 hours of filming, the audience left the studios in the early hours of the morning and Mick and Keith waited around to shake hands with the audience members and thank them for coming…they always were such nice young men!!
In today’s music industry you could not imagine anything like this happening. And, if something similar was done today involving Coldplay and The Killers, could you imagine it being anywhere near as interesting or as much fun?
Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi played with Jethro Tull as a favor to Ian Anderson for their performance of “Song For Jeffrey”. Original Jethro Tull guitarist Mick Abrahams had recently left and they had not yet found a replacement.
The name “Dirty Mac” was a spoof of Fleetwood Mac, who at this time were a heavy blues band featuring Peter Green, considered the blues guitarist of the day. In the 1960s Fleetwood Mac were a million miles from the sound that would propel them to super-stardom in the 1970s with “Rumours”.
Violinist Ivry Gitlis accepted the invitation to play as he respected Brian Jones musicianship.
Eric Clapton plays a Gibson ES-355 rather than his more familiar Fender Stratocaster in his turn with Dirty Mac.