Step Right Up: The Blurry Eyed Royalty of the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus

A new box set looks back at the quintessential rock commune under the Big Top

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, ABKCO 1996

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was one of the great lost films of the 1960s, planned as a television special to promote the Stones’ newly released Beggars Banquet album in late ’68.

The band brought in an array of guests to participate (Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, the Who, a super group dubbed the Dirty Mac with John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell, and Yoko Ono), made it a “circus” by adding clowns, acrobats and fire eaters, and performed a set of songs themselves.

The production was filmed before a live audience (each given a colorful cloak and hat) in London on December 10, 1968. But over the course of the day, after the fashion of rock festivals of the era, filming began falling increasingly behind schedule. As a result, the Stones, the stars of the show, didn’t end up taking the stage until the early morning hours of December 11, by which point Richards admits they were all “exhausted.” On later viewing the footage, they felt their performance wasn’t up to par, and the film was shelved, then lost, then finally released in its entirety nearly two decades later, in 1996 (a clip of the Who’s performance appeared in their own 1979 documentary, The Kids Are Alright). In 2004 came the DVD version. Now comes the latest iteration, one more bite of the apple, in a new limited deluxe edition with a DVD, Blu-ray, and two CDs (vinyl and digital editions of the soundtrack are also available).

As the show’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, has stated, the roots of the Rock and Roll Circus go back to the Beatles’ 1967 TV special Magical Mystery Tour. While the program hadn’t exactly been successful when it first aired, the Stones were drawn to the idea of taking something ordinary and warping it; as Mick Jagger says in the Circus commentary track, they wanted to take the conventions of rock shows and circus acts “out of the normal and making it slightly surreal.” Thus the show begins the way every circus does, with an opening parade of all the acts, all gaily attired in colorful costumes, while an off screen band plays the classic marching tune “Thunder and Blazes: Entrance of the Gladiators.” “You’ve ‘eard of Oxford Circus!” Jagger, nattily attired as the ringmaster, announces with glee. “You’ve ‘eard of Picadilly Circus! And this is the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and we’ve got sights and sounds and marvels to delight your eyes and ears!” On with the show.

The Stones take the stage at the Rock and Roll Circus

One thing that’s clear from looking at the list of guests is that the Stones wanted to remain the main attraction. That was easy enough in the case of Jethro Tull, who turns in a spirited “Song for Jeffrey” (the band at the time included temporary new guitarist Tony Iommi), and Taj Mahal, who injects some soul into the proceedings with “Ain’t That a Lot of Love”; neither act was well known in the UK at the time (even so, Taj Mahal was forced to film his spot the previous day, due to difficulties with work permits). And Marianne Faithfull, pretty and plaintive, is no threat as she performs Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin’s “Something Better.”

Ah, but The Who are a different matter. Allotted one song, they cannily choose to do their mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away,” which essentially allows them to perform several songs in one go. It’s a fantastic performance, with an additional theatrical touch of water spraying from Keith Moon’s drums. No wonder the Stones felt upstaged.

The Dirty Mac supergroup are the other heavy hitters — and a last minute addition after Steve Marriott failed to get a band together. A phone call was placed to Lennon, who brought in Clapton, Mitchell was tapped due to his skills with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Richards happily stepped in the play bass; a quick rehearsal was held on the day of shooting, while the other acts were being filmed. The makeshift band turns in a tough, gritty take of Lennon’s “Yer Blues” (from the recently released album The Beatles, aka the White Album), making you wish the Beatles had found some way to play live during their latter years. Then Lennon pulls Ono out of the black bag she’s been writing in at the band’s feet to add her warbling vocals to a jam later dubbed “Whole Lotta Yoko.” She shares a mic with violinist Ivry Gitlis, who struggles to keep a straight face. It’s the most punk rock moment of the show.

Look at the innards of this beautiful box set

That the Stones — at least Jagger and Richards — felt their performance suffered shows what high standards they set for themselves. Who would guess they were tired? “Jumping Jack Flash” gets the crowd to their feet, as the show becomes a party, building naturally to the climax of “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was one of the Stones’ first performances of the song, and Jagger goes all out, leering at the camera, prancing and strutting, twisting his body on the stage’s catwalk, peeling off his long-sleeved shirt to reveal the devil tattoos painted on his skinny body, then bawling catlike screams of “Aw, yeah!” as he shakes a finger at the camera. He’s mesmerizing, and it’s more astonishing to learn that the number was filmed six times (what happened to that footage?). The closing “Salt of the Earth” is anti-climactic, but how could it be otherwise? But the band makes it an audience sing along, thus giving the show a friendly send off.

The commentary tracks fill in the backstage picture (Tull notes how sidelined Brian Jones was throughout the shoot; it was to be his last filmed appearance with the Stones, the band he started). The bonus features are the same as on the 2004 DVD, but the CD does offer a few enticing new scraps, such as a rehearsal performance of another song the Dirty Mac was apparently considering, the Beatles’ “Revolution.” It’s a shame more couldn’t unearthed; the acts did perform other warm up numbers and jams during the shooting. Nonetheless, as a document of the cream of late 1960s London rock acts in their prime, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus is not to be missed.



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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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