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The Story of ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’

On Dec. 11, 1968, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was filmed on a BBC soundstage. It was meant as a showcase for the elite in British rock. Instead, it lingered in the vaults, unseen for nearly 30 years.

The Rolling Stones, the Who and Marianne Faithfull were the marquee names. Also appearing was the Dirty Mac, a one-off supergroup comprised of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Yoko Ono and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. Bluesman Taj Mahal and Jethro Tull, who had just released their debut album six weeks earlier, rounded out the bill.

The special had its origins when Mick Jagger, looking for an innovative way to promote their just-released album, Beggars Banquet, teamed with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to create a television concert with a circus theme – complete with clowns and acrobats – filmed in front of an audience of invited guests. The broadcast begins with all the performers entering at once, followed by Jagger, dressed as a ringmaster and looking somewhat impaired, giving an invocation to the viewers.

Jethro Tull were up first. This was during the brief spell when Tony Iommi was a member, and this was his only appearance with the group. It was not a true performance for Iommi, with the band miming “Song for Jeffrey” as Ian Anderson sang live.

The Who were next, stealing the show with a ferocious version of “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” Although the complete Rock and Roll Circus was never aired, the climax of the Who’s mini-opera was featured in their 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright and in its entirety on its soundtrack album.

After Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull each sang a song, the Dirty Mac gave their only performance, singing “Yer Blues” and “Whole Lotta Yoko,” the latter an uptempo blues jam complete with violin and Ono wailing over it. (It was actually better than that sounds due to the quality of the instrumentalists.)

Watch The Dirty Mac Perform ‘Yer Blues’

The last half of the show is devoted to the Stones, which is why the special wasn’t aired at the time. The band held it back because they were unhappy with how they sounded. Because of numerous production delays, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus took 15 hours to film. With the Stones up last, exhaustion and the copious substances they had ingested had taken their toll.

But when it was finally released in 1996, it was hard to see what the fuss was about. Yes, the opener, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” was sluggish, but they quickly rebounded with a solid “Parachute Woman.” And if Jagger’s writhing on the ground and revealing of devil-themed henna tattoos on his arms and torso during “Sympathy for the Devil” is cartoonish, at least his vocals are impassioned. They may be inconsistent, but it’s nonetheless listenable. Still, it probably wasn’t the best idea to play “No Expectations” in a higher key than the recorded version.

Maybe it also stayed buried for so long because it was Brian Jones’ final appearance with the Stones. Except for his slide part on “No Expectations,” his guitar playing is inaudible. Six months after the show was filmed, he was fired from the band he formed, and drowned a month later.

For all the controversy and mystery surrounding it for 28 years, these days The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus now comes across as a quaint time capsule of the last days of Swingin’ London. And as strange as the idea of combining a rock concert and a circus may be, it manages to work – even if the only person who wasn’t stoned was probably the guy who ate fire. You can see what we’re talking about from the comfort of your home, as the Rock and Roll Circus is now available on iTunes.

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