The Rolling Stones' 'Rock & Roll Circus' is Back in Town

After nearly 30 years in obscurity, 'The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus' will be available next month

Mick Jagger Ron Wood Keith Richards Charlie Watts Rolling Stones Rock Roll Circus
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
The Rolling Stones in costume for The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus On December 11th, 1968.
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For the final song of the hour-long television special The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are sitting in a gallery, surrounded by a bizarre assortment of circus characters and some of the biggest names in rock circa 1968: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Marianne Faithfull. "Let's drink to the hard-working people," Richards croons in the Stones' then-brand-new song "Salt of the Earth," as the cast, clad in puffy outfits and silly hats, sways from side to side in mock earnestness. Then Jagger sneers, purses his prodigious lips and spits out the lines, "When I look into this faceless crowd . . . do we look too strange?"

Faceless, no. Strange, yes. Multicolored, eternally young and absolutely gorgeous. 1968 was a banner year for British rock, and Jagger and Co. were celebrating it with an all-star holiday blowout they filmed in December of that year. The Stones had just recorded their folk-rock masterpiece, Beggar's Banquet. The Beatles were riding high on their own groundbreaking LP of the previous year, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And the Who had recently begun work on their ambitious rock opera Tommy. Alas, the Stones' festive celebration would not see the light of day. Until now.

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After nearly 30 years in obscurity, The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus will be available next month on VHS, surround-sound laserdisc and as a CD soundtrack. The show, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who did clips for the Stones and the Who, directed the Beatles' film Let It Be and has since done videos for Elton John and Whitney Houston, recalls why his landmark film missed its original audience. "The Stones were not happy with their performance; they thought the Who were stronger," Lindsay-Hogg says. "Everybody was in their 20s. The blood was running hot. There was a real competitiveness, but it was amicable."

In retrospect, it's hard to believe the Stones were not satisfied with their set, which includes savage, raunchy versions of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Sympathy for the Devil," and stirring performances of "No Expectations," "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Parachute Woman." Sure, the Who's thrashing, bone-crushing exhibition of their mini-opera "A Quick One While He's Away," seen very early in the show, was a hard act to follow. And the howling, gritty rock of "Yer Blues" (performed by the Dirty Mac, a supergroup consisting of Lennon and Clapton on guitars, Keith Richards on bass and the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Mitch Mitchell on drums) far outshines the Beatles' original version.

Sprinkled among the performances — which also include a wispy pop song by Faithfull, avant-garde scream therapy by Ono (with a proud, beaming Lennon looking on in delight), smoking blues by Taj Mahal and a folky prog-rock moment by Jethro Tull — are some timeless visual flashes: a puffy-eyed Brian Jones whistling through his teeth during the Who's set; a cigar-chomping Richards introducing performers; a sweaty Keith Moon beating his drums like there was no tomorrow; Jagger prancing and dancing in all his cruelly seductive, narcissistic glory; and several delightfully haphazard circus acts. That three of the principal artists — Jones, Moon and Lennon — are gone lends the film an even deeper poignancy.

"It was an extraordinary time in rock & roll," says Lindsay-Hogg. "And this show reflects the passion in the music and the camaraderie among the players. There's even a kind of sweetness to it — and that's a word you'd never have used to describe these people at the time."

This is a story from the October 31, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 746: October 31, 1996