The Rolling Stones' Masterful Rock & Roll Circus

The movie may never come out, but the show was one for the ages

The Rolling Stones performing during Rock & Roll Circus
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
March 19, 1970

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was an entertainment extravaganza planned and put on by the Rolling Stones in December 1968. Originally done as a BBC TV Special to be broadcast not long afterwards, it has never been shown. For a while there was talk of releasing it as a feature film for theater distribution. Nothing happened. There are still no definite plans for release, and it looks now as if it may never be shown, though by all accounts it is a remarkable film. The following report, written at the time, gives us a glimpse of the Stones show we have never seen.

The TV studio was in a bleak area of North London and ardent Stones fans had been waiting along the high wire fence since 8:00 that morning. A group of hysterically giggling girls, a trendy Hell's Angel from Islington with Their Satanic Majesties stencilled on his jacket, and the ubiquitous Elsie Smith, Mick's old schoolteacher, entertaining everyone: "He was such a good little boy, you know, always very quiet and polite, although I don't think he'd like to hear that. I have over 50 paintings of Mick, one of them is over ten feet high . . . you know all the girls used to write 'I Love Mick' and 'Stones Forever' on their exercise books and then I saw some pictures of him, and I recognized him as the little boy I used to have in one of my classes . . ."

Mrs. Smith is interrupted by the arrival of John and Yoko in their white Rolls with its exotic TV aerial. "Smashin', just like the album cover," one of the girls says. Their images move ethereally across the grey concrete. They look exactly like their photographs. By this time the entire staff of the Rizla cigarette paper factory opposite the studio have come out on the roof to watch. Mick and Marianne arrive. She is wearing a beautiful embroidered Tunisian coat, and as they disappear into the studio they wave graciously to their fans like a magical royal pair.

It was hard to believe it was actually happening. Lennon, Keith Richards, Clapton and Mitch Mitchell playing together in a Supergroup, a real circus with tigers, plate spinners, a boxing kangaroo, the Stones, the Who, acrobats, clowns, midgets and a fire-eater, and entirely planned and produced by the Stones themselves. It seemed like another unlikely pop rumor. Jo Bergman, Stones liaison with the world, kept calmly saying, "Yes, it really is going to happen," and it was due to the Stones' determination and the fluidity of the English music scene that this was planned, put together in two weeks and rehearsed and filmed in just two days, the 10th and 11th of December. Jo Bergman said about the Circus getting together: "The Stones wanted to get people into their movie. All the artists involved were responsible for getting it together. Nobody sold out. The Stones got down what they wanted to get down and it was all done inside of two weeks."

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The tickets, distributed by The Rolling Stones Fan Club and by the N.M.E., were printed on gold metallic cards with a 19th century wood-cut of a galloping elephant in green. Clutching them we entered the giant studio. Inside, half a circus tent was draped around one end of the studio, a circus ring that came apart in the center, sawdust in the ring, ropes and poles, all the mysterious rigging of the circus reproduced inside this gigantic space. At the end of the studio was an archway covered with bare bulbs like a side show, and all the acts entered through it.

The audience was given brightly colored ponchos and felt hats and sat in stands arranged in a horseshoe around the ring. Technicians, crew and cameramen dashing nervously about, and the audience swaying in a mass of colors, and behind the cameras, perhaps the most incredible scene of all: Almost the entire English pop cosmos, gossipping, parading, masquerading, joking, making themselves at home in this colossal living room for two whole days.

It is hard to imagine anything as loose as this happening in the States. A very loose structure and a permissive producer (Mick) allowed everything to flow along with as little unnecessary organization as is possible in television where seconds are as precious as gold. All the musicians involved in the circus live within an hour or so of London, and few are too busy doing gigs to take part. It is this kind of event that makes the myth of the pop community a reality and it is only in England that it happens on this scale. Everybody seemed very relaxed, John and Yoko sitting calmly by a grand piano, Eric discussing with them some freaky names for the Supergroup, in his beautifully knitted wool jacket the color of the sun, Julian signing autographs for a couple of nurses, Brian Jones striding about impishly in a decorated top hat with horns on it, a fire-eater explaining how he got into the business, Moon dressed from head to toe in an insane sparkling outfit, Mick and Marianne playing leapfrog, Ian Anderson calmly waiting in a sea of drums, his head framed by the halo of a cymbal, Pete Townshend chatting with a couple of midgets with beautiful eyes, and endless pop dialogue: John Wolfe rapping; "What are you going to do with yourself now, Eric?" "I don't know, maybe join John Mayall's band."

The director, Michael Lindsay Hogg (famous as the director of Ready Steady Go, the pop TV show, and director of most of the recent Stones and Beatles promotion films, Hey Jude, for instance), gives the signal: lights, sound, action, and everyone who is taking part in the circus lines up for the introduction.

Mick is dressed as a ringmaster, radiant and wearing his cosmic grin, John in a comical juggler's outfit with silver sequins and black lace ruffles, Yoko all in black with a pointed hat as a witch, a German cowboy in red plastic pants plonks in on "Trigger," the Stones dressed in various ancient military costumes, cavalier (Bill), roundhead (Charlie), Keith as a sort of Sgt. Pepper, and Brian in a beautiful embroidered jacket. Fire eaters, acrobats and clowns enter the ring and everyone is playing some exotic musical instrument — tubas, french horns. Rocky, the Stones bongo player, is pounding on an enormous circus drum and Yoko is playing an invisible violin. Everything is ready for the first take. A slight breathtaking pause as John kneels to retie one of his sneakers in a beautiful Zen gesture. Mick gives a mock vaudeville introduction to the wonders of the circus and the spectacle begins.

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