The Rolling Stones' Masterful Rock & Roll Circus

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

Rolling Stones Keith Richards Mick Jagger Charlie Watts Brian Jones Bill Wyman
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
The Rolling Stones performing during Rock & Roll Circus
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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.

When Ian Anderson gets up on stage to do his act, he completely transforms. Jekyll and Hyde. He becomes a twitching werewolf, wildly scratching his hair, his armpits, and in his long, shabby grey coat, part clown, part tramp, he looks like a flea-ridden Roland Kirk. The audience is mainly teenyboppers and have never heard of the group. "Who is that?" they say to each other in disgusted tones. His blues comedy is effective in a bizarre way, but he is isolated in this vast space like a specimen on a microscope slide, and you can see he misses his fans from the Marquee whose enthusiasm encourages him to freak out.

While the set is being changed for some clowns, a technician naively asks Bill Wyman if Jethro Tull have been on yet. "Oh, yes, we've already played," answers Bill chewing gum, his face as deadpan as Buster Keaton. More sawdust, the clowns come out, do various sadistic things in order to wallpaper each other. The audience is really delighted, and just as they are laughing loudest, both clowns run into the audience with buckets of what appears to be water. It turns out to be confetti and the victims laugh again — with relief.

Every act takes an eternity to set up, light, reload the cameras. A pear-shaped floor manager tells lame jokes over the PA in an attempt to keep everyone amused, and the crew are constantly under seige by teenyboppers with their Brownies who use any excuse to get to where Mick or John and Yoko are.

A fire eater comes on, assisted by the impossibly elongated Donyale Luna wearing a leopard smile, playfully singeing the fire eaters balls with one of the torches. Keith comes out to do a link. He is dressed as a dandy. Monocle, top hat, cigarette holder. His gaunt, slightly jaded face makes him perfect for the part. He stares arrogantly at his image in the monitor, like a decadent aristocrat at the Moulin Rouge.

Marianne looks very beautiful and a little nervous as she steps alone into the ring wearing a floor length wine colored satin gown to do her song "Something Better," written by the immortal Goffin & King. It's a strange, slow song, the main theme of which is that you can't live your whole life in a cage. "Have you heard, whiskey is the rage, I'll send you a jug in the morning." Mick comes out into the ring, crouches down, holding her hand, talking, whispering, joking with her, between takes.

Next the trapeze is set up, gleaming stainless steel hoops and bars, and a delightful pair of aging acrobats dramatically ascend, go through their paces, the classical acrobat's repertoire performed in the air while below a virtuoso pianist in full evening dress performs a pyrotechnical piano work. The acrobats (who along with the cowboy, the clowns, etc., are from the Robert Frosset Circus) are in white, and the husband has a dapper little black moustache. On one swing, he pretends to lose his balance, lets out a little cry as if he is going to fall (our hearts are in our mouths) and at the last minute catches hold of the bar with his left foot. Bravo, Mr. Kite!

At 8:00 in the evening there is a break for dinner. The canteen is filled with bizarre Fellini-like scenes. An enormous strong man dressed like Ali Baba is devouring his dinner next to a motley group of Stones, John asking if they serve macrobiotic food in the restaurant, an inebriated barmaid telling Moon he's had enough. "Who takes you home, then?" she asks him. "I've got people who take care of me. Give us those drinks, dear."

On the next floor, surreal scenes in the dressing rooms: Jagger having his makeup put on, Clapton fooling around on the guitar with Taj Mahal, Brian standing on a pile of rejected costumes, deciding what to put on next . . .

A simple stage is set up for the Supergroup. John is wearing his Levi outfit, and Mitch Mitchell looks almost unrecognizable with his straight blond hair. Keith plays a simple bass line, and Eric performs with masterful imperturbability. John looks a little apprehensive, but once they start playing he relaxes, turns his back to the camera occasionally in the classic jamming position. Yoko gets up on the stage, climbs into her black bag, and during the breaks, holds John's hand. Even while you are watching, it is hard to believe all this is actually happening. Mitch's drumming is a little brisker and he is more in control of the cymbals, but this is not a jam session, in fact "Yer Blues" is almost identical to the album track. Why is Eric following the record so closely? It is a strange paradox, but simply the presence of all these magicians together is completely over-whelming. What more can you say?

But the effect of "Yer Blues" live is very different to hearing it on the record. To begin with it is obvious that John means every word of this song. He has used the form because the blues is the ultimate expression of a down trip. "Even hate my rock and roll" screams at you like a nightmare. The day before at the rehearsal, John, Mick and Eric played "Peggy Sue" together and John did a wry version of Elvis' great hit, "It's Now or Never." After "Yer Blues," Yoko gets up in front of the microphone and wails, while virtuoso violinist Ivry Gitlis saws away like a country fiddler, and the Supergroup is playing behind them. The audience is totally awestruck; they do not move or talk. It was breath-taking.

The Who set up and jammed for about ten minutes while the lights were being tested. The clapboard reads "Who Opera." It couldn't be that one again. But it is. Pete introduces "A Quick One" with a few humorous deprecatory remarks and they steam through an abridged version cutting out a lot of it towards the end. Water spurts out of Moon's drum at one point, but the cameras didn't catch it so it is shot again. Moon carefully throws one of his drums over his shoulder just to remind you you are watching the Who. When Pete comes to the "Little girl, stop your crying" part, he changes the next line to "we'll make it all better on your little TV screen." A couple of freaks leap out of the audience and the audience itself starts really shaking, getting into it completely, and a couple of TV cameras are turned onto them grateful to have captured an actual unrehearsed response.

Bill Wyman dressed as a clown with a big red nose, and Brian in his horned hat sat on a bench with the midgets and the strong man and introduced some clowns. Afterwards Ivry Gitlis (first violinist to record Stravinsky's and Berg's violin concertos) overdubs the solo violin to his own recording of Paganini's First Violin Concerto. After about five minutes, someone shouts, "Cut, we've got enough now." Mr. Gitlis is enraged. "How can you cut a violin concerto in the middle of a movement like that?" he asks. No one can answer him, and they tape it again.

Off the set, John introduces the Stones, eating brown rice with chopsticks, while the stage is being set up in a long T-shape with a long projecting platform for Mick to freak out on. About this time Ken Kesey, Spyder, Rock Scully and a few others from San Francisco turn up. They look radiantly healthy, with their chicks and babies, like a group of happy cowboys who just wandered off the set of a western. But they weren't too happy about the circus. Rock Scully agreed the scene was reminiscent of Monterey. "Yeah," he said, "but not as warm." The next day a radiant, benign Kesey, hanging out at Apple, put it down because, "It was all played to the ghost. The audience was a prop. It wasn't so important what was actually happening, but what appeared to be happening." East is East and West is West.

The Stones plugged themselves into their monolithic amps at 1:00 in the morning. By this time everybody had been in the studio for nearly 14 hours and was pretty wiped out, but when the Stones accelerated into "Route 66" the whole atmosphere became charged. This isn't like Elvis doing "Heartbreak Hotel" on his TV show. It seems like a different song because the Stones are different people since they recorded it. Mick insolently mouths "that Cal-if-or-nia trip" and you know that has a different meaning since 1967. Next they do "Confessin' the Blues" from 12 x 5, and then "Jumpin' Jack Flash," which they perform similarly to the promotion film (also directed by Lindsay Hogg), except that dozens of ancient sinister machines are set up to produce flashes. Everyone is told not to look at them, "They will blind you," the floor manager says dramatically. The studio looks like Frankenstein's laboratory. The flashes create a weird, unearthly environment. Next they do "Parachute Woman" with Mick's impossible, incredible ennunciation and phrasing which makes it initially unintelligible, like a sound pattern.

This is just the warmup, the cameras are not turned on yet, though there will be many who wish they had for those two old Stones numbers. They do "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Parachute Woman" again for the cameras (three times each). The first time they get into a number, they take it very easy. Mick and Keith sitting on the floor, no movement, for the sound level. Each version gets wilder and better. They have a magical, hypnotic effect on everybody.

The audience is being encouraged to "swing" by the floor manager, but they don't need to be; and when Mick jumps off the stage into the audience he is mobbed by a bunch of screaming girls completely out of their minds; it was like the good old days of the Ready, Steady, Go shows. They do the numbers over and over until they have everyone on their trip. It is pure Stones magic and it is their irresistible, compulsive, funky energy that drives them until that moment happens. In between breaks Mick sings a couple of old tunes, "Yonder's Wall" and Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues." He turns 'round to acknowledge Taj Mahal before laying into these songs in a funky imitation of a Mississippi blues, Slim Harpo nasal moaning all done as a joke, a put on, a tribute, out of a serious self mockery of a white kid imitating down home blues. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is filmed also.

Rocky, the Stones' bongo player, played on every song, but he really came into his own on "Sympathy for the Devil" with its incredible hypnotic rhythms, Rocky's bongos, Charlie dressed in a beautiful white ruffled shirt playing against Rocky's rhythms and Brian hammering away on the maracas. Shrieks, cries, weird jungle noises come out of Mick as he gets further and further into the song, as if possessed by satanic spirits. The Stones are very visual and on this song Mick goes through a very dramatic act. He whips himself up into an incredible fury as they do six takes for the cameras, and each take it gets unbelievably more intense. As Keith's guitar breaks in, Mick crouches on the ground, head in his hands, in the style of a recently captured Vietcong. Keith arrogantly prances over him as if he is holding a machine gun, Mick takes off his red long-armed tee shirt as if he is about to be whipped, and tattooed on his chest is a grisly image of the devil. There are tattoos on both his arms as well, and as the song finishes, he grabs an Antique Market shawl with long tassles and ties it around his head, defiantly moving in on a TV camera as if he is about to devour it. They also do a version of "No Expectations" with Mick playing an acoustic guitar, while Keith helps him to tune. "No Expectations" will not be shown when the Circus is shown on TV. "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Parachute Woman," "Sympathy for the Devil" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" are the four Stones' songs that will be shown: Possibly also "Salt of the Earth."

It is now about 5:00 in the morning and everyone is delirious with tiredness except the director, Michael Lindsay Hogg, who is still full of energy, spreading his enthusiasm around; in his waistcoat, and perpetually smoking a large cigar, he looks like a young director in the early days of Hollywood. For the last song, everyone is asked to put on the colored capes and hats, the Who willingly adorn themselves, Pete dancing about wildly with two cushions tied on to his head like the Pope's diadem. Moon is tying himself to various people with a spare poncho, laughing madly, creating a necessary elevation of mood in the audience. Mick playfully calls them "the football team." "We all know you blew your cool in Rolling Stone last month," he says to Pete with a huge grin. The Stones sit down in the audience with the Who to sing the last number, "Salt of the Earth." John and Yoko and Eric are all in the audience, too, wearing capes and hats. Everyone joins in on the last chorus, swaying from side to side, reading the words off a gigantic board.

It is after 6:00 by the time the filming is finished, and the Stones have arranged for buses to take everyone home. As we are leaving Mick is saying to Keith, "I think we should go out to the buses and thank everyone."

This is a story from the March 19, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 54: March 19, 1970