The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

In 1968, as the year was dying, Mick Jagger got to have what must have been seven kinds of fun. He staged a response (or a bookend piece) to The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, released a year earlier.

The Rolling Stones, and a bunch of their friends, headed over to Intertel Studios in London to make a movie. It was one hell of a line-up for a remarkably silly and brilliantly conceived live performance film: Jethro Tull, the Who, Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal, and of course The Stones themselves, with some onboard help from a couple of genius sidemen. There were clowns, too, and a fire-eater. The whole thing was weirdly evocative of the Sergeant Pepper tune “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”; one almost expected Henry the Horse to dance the waltz.

Jagger also offered up the live appearance of rock’s first real supergroup, The Dirty Mac. There are worse lineups than John Lennon fronting for The Beatles “Yer Blues”, Keith Richards playing bass because the guitar was already being handled by Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell.

Jagger dressed them all up in rain ponchos and silly hats, got a film crew and an excellent director (Michael Lindsay-Hogg) together, and went for it: You’ve heard of Oxford Circus! You’ve heard of Picadilly Circus! And this is The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus…

Fantastic idea, fantastic setting, fantastic lineup, fantastic filmmaker. And that was the last anyone saw of the film until 1996.

The problem, it turned out, was The Stones’ set. There were breakdowns, technical problems, delays; as a result, The Stones, headlining their own movie, didn’t take the stage until the crack of dawn the following morning. Everyone was wasted, kept going on little more than whatever substances were floating around, and the sheer driving force of Mick Jagger’s personality.

I knew about the movie, as early as 1972 or thereabouts. Nicky Hopkins mentioned its existence to me, right around the time I was crooning at my copy of the wonderful “Jamming With Edward” LP (Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Ry Cooder and, of course, Nicky himself, since he’s the Edward in question). You know The Stones did this flick, yeah, lots of people played, right, The Who, Tull, The Stones, yeah I did the Stones’ gig, what, no, no clue when they’re likely to put it out, Mick wasn’t happy with their set

Watching it now, as a time capsule of some of my favourite music, I’m not sure what Jagger didn’t like. While I do reach for the remote when it gets to “Whole Lotta Yoko”, the rest of the acts are excellent, and if you can deal wth Yoko wailing, the rest of The Dirty Mac and guest fiddler Ivry Gitlis are kickass. A young Ian Anderson, golden and already perfecting the Jack in the Green persona that became his hallmark with four decades of fronting Jethro Tull, is manic and riveting; the Who, in a ‘burn it to the ground’ performance of “A Quick One While He’s Away”, are even more kinetic. Counterpointing the fierce noisy exuberance of the boys who precede her, the beautiful Marianne Faithfull is exquisitely still, sitting alone for her song, “Something Better”. Taj Mahal, with a world-class band at his side and improbably dressed in full Olde West cowboy regalia, nails the audience to the walls of their three-ring arena with “Ain’t That A Lot of Love”.  And that’s before you even get to Lennon, Clapton, Richards and Mitchell doing a chilling “Yer Blues”.

So, finally, here come The Stones. This was Brian Jones’ last performance with the band he helped found, before he was sacked and possibly murdered. The Stones got a little help from some friends of their own: killer percussionist Rocky Dijon, and Nicky Hopkins at a Steinway grand.

Musically, the set itself is a little choppy in spots – Mick’s vocals move around in some odd ways during “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Jumping Jack Flash”. But his energy drives everything, the entire band (including a reeling and jetlagged Nicky, who’d literally just got off a plane from the States and gone straight to the Circus shoot) and the madly dancing attending audience.

But where it just takes off, wham! Up up and away, is with what has to be the single best live performance of “Sympathy for the Devil” I’ve ever seen – and trust me, I’ve seen a few. The song is  relentless, a kick to the pit of the stomach, driven by a mad blending of Dijon’s vicious percussives, Bill Wyman’s bass, and Nicky’s piano. The song has an iconic guitar solo, uncharacteristically screechy for Keith Richards, and everyone who’s ever owned “Beggar’s Banquet” (or listened to FM radio, for that matter) is familiar with it. The version they did for Rock and Roll Circus was so monstrous, the solo was superfluous. Add Mick on his knees, taunting the cameras as he slowly peeled off his shirt and revealed the body-painted horned goats on his arms and torso, and that version becomes something that walks alongside you in the dark.

And yet, Mick didn’t like their set. Maybe they recut it later. I don’t know – I didn’t ask. I just know that, for me, this is the version of my favourite Stones song ever.

The DVD has some wonderful extras. The nearly twenty-minute conversation with The Who’s Pete Townshend, about how Circus came to be, how it went down, London at the time, Mick, all of it., is a must-see. There’s also a lot more music, songs that didn’t make the final cut. And there’s a superb photo gallery, lovely evocative moments in time: it was London, swinging like that famous pendulum, as 1968 closed itself out and headed into the year that would see the fruition of Woodstock Nation and then its untimely death at Altamont.

A time capsule, then, where some of the best players on earth still dress up in rain ponchos and silly hats, where the music is freewheeling and there are no apologies, where Keith Moon and John Entwhistle and Brian Jones and Nicky Hopkins are alive again, doing what they did, carving rock and roll into the circuitry of who knows how many generations to come. Go get it. If you weren’t around then, it’s as most fun as you’ll have being educated, and if you were, you’ll react. Trust me on that. 

DVD: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, c2004 Abkco Films, Manufactured and marketed by ABKCO Films, 1700 Broadway, NY, NY 10019.

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