What does it sound like?:
We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Had a night out with the lads, drank a few too many beers, smoked too much spliff and come up with a hair-brained scheme, quickly abandoned the next day. In 1968, Mick Jagger, Pete Townsend and Ronnie Laine dreamt up the notion of combining a live Rock Show for TV with a circus and calling it The Rock And Roll Circus. Mick saw it as an opportunity to promote Beggars Banquet and whet the Stone’s appetite for live work, as their last performance had been in April 1967. Before long, a BBC sound stage was booked, a distressed big top was arranged and a troupe of clowns, acrobats and fir-eaters were hired. Michael Lindsay-Hogg was put in the director’s chair and a number of bands were lined up to perform. The audience was invited from The Stones’ fan club.
Recording began at 2pm on 11th December 1968. It took so long to set up between acts, the headliners hit the stage at 5am the following morning. Both performers and audience became increasingly refreshed and exhausted as the evening dragged on. Those acts who got in early fared best.
Jethro Tull were on first with Song For Jeffrey. Tony Iommi had only just joined the band and didn’t yet know the songs, so Anderson sang and played the flute live to a backing track. Iommi soon left to hook up with Black Sabbath in any case. The Who were fighting fit from a recent tour and chose to play A Quick One While He’s Away, a complex mini opera in just eight minutes, the prototype for Tommy. Taj Mahal were equally slick in the live setting but Marianne Faithful sang over a backing track.
The wild card was John Lennon’s Dirty Mac, a pick up band with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. Yer Blues was delivered with aplomb. A Whole Lotta Yoko was a blues groove over which Ivry Giltis, an accomplished classical violinist, was nothing short of miraculous, no doubt inspired by Yoko’s ululations. Yoko wore a black sheet. Over her head.
The Stones were much better than legend has it, supported by effectively a home crowd. Jumpin’ Jack Flash was sluggish, Parachute Woman much tighter, No Expectations in the wrong key, You Can’t Always Get What You Want hesitant and Sympathy For The Devil spirited. Jagger’s energy was unbelievable, setting the bar high for his live act right to this day. Nicky Hopkins simply oozed class.
The finale featured the whole cast, at least those still awake, singing Salt Of The Earth to a backing track.
Afterwards, Mick sobered up and decided to shelve the footage. It sat so long on that shelf, everyone forgot where it was. Finally, in 1996, it turned up in a garage and was released to the public. The film premiered at The New York Film Festival. Now, it gets the super deluxe remastered treatment of both DVD and Blue-Ray with your choice of CD or vinyl and a beautiful booklet, including David Dalton’s original essay. The remastering improves matters substantially, especially The Stones songs.
Watching and listening to it today, it’s a lot of fun. The circus interludes and the jokey band introductions keep the atmosphere light. Taj Mahal is superb and gets three extra tracks in the bonuses, the only additional material worth revisiting. Dirty Mac are revelatory, provocative and peculiar. Their rehearsal of Revolution and a blues jam are in among the extras, for what they are worth. There is no Confessin’ The Blues, Route 66 nor Jethro Tull Fat Man. Presumably, they are lost for ever. Julius Katchen’s classical background music for the circus acts is also in the bonuses. The video has additional interviews with some of those present and a Lindsay-Hogg lesson on how to ‘frame’ a live Rock performance.
There is much to enjoy on The Rock And Roll Circus and this package is desirable even for non-completists. It is possible to buy the music alone but the visuals are essential. We should be grateful that Mick decided to go ahead with the barmpot idea the day after his summit with Townshend and Laine, even if he did leave it on a shelf for decades.
What does it all *mean*?
The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus is a historical curio, a time capsule from 1968. It was the first run out for Ian Anderson’s one-legged stance, the only footage of Tony Iommi with Jethro Tull, the first solo Beatle performance, the beginnings of The Plastic Ono Band, the first time of many The Stones were outclassed by a Blues act lower on the bill and the last time Brian Jones picked up a guitar in public. It captures The Stones live act as it has remained ever since. It also, arguably, begat the film Let It Be, introducing Lennon to its director, Lindsay-Hogg.
Goes well with…
Might suit people who like…
The Stones, Taj Mahal, John Lennon, Rock history.