It’s hard to imagine something like this being done today, or at least not as it was done back then. Nowadays it would no doubt be at least a couple years in the making; top film producers would need to be brought in, not to mention a battalion of lawyers to negotiate contracts with all the artists involved. But in 1968 the music business ran very differently. Things were a little more relaxed, especially in London, where all Mick Jagger had to do was make a few phone calls in order to get the whole ball rolling. And while there is still some debate around whether the concept of a “Rock and Roll Circus” was in fact Jagger’s, or an idea he nicked from somewhere else, in any case, it was a brilliant one all the same, as well as simple. Just gather some of England’s most pre-eminent ‘rocknoscenti’, throw in some clowns, dwarves, acrobats, a fire-eater, lion tamers, along with a few other curious acts, and voila! You immediately have one of the era’s oddest, most eccentric, and certainly decadent events ever held, and it was The Rolling Stones who had the audacity to actually pull it off. And even more astonishing was that the whole thing was organised in only two weeks!
Although it was Taj Mahal who was filmed first, on the album it is Jethro Tull, a relatively unknown group, who open proceedings. Black Sabbath fans might be interested to know that when you watch the footage of their performance, that is a young Tony Iommi on guitar, although he’s not really playing, as the group are miming to a studio recording of “Song for Jeffrey”, with only Ian Anderson singing live. The Who follow, managing to steal the show with a muscular and explosive take of “A Quick One, While He’s Away”. The Who had just come off three US tours in six months and so were a finely tuned battle-hardened outfit when Jagger invited them to take part here. Keith Moon sounds like two drummers in one, while the rest of the boys aren’t half bad either.
Taj Mahal is the only American act of the show, and it’s a shame that the British musicians union prevented him from remaining in England longer than 24 hours. It is a mark of the man and his band’s level of professionalism that as soon as landing in London, they taxied immediately to the TV studios, in North London, set up their equipment, before belting out an inspired “Ain’t that A Lot of love” (at that point not even stage and props had been set up). As a matter of interest the listener can hear his complete set from that day on the essential Taj Mahal: In Progress and in Motion anthology.
Jagger’s then current squeeze Marianne Faithfull makes a surprising appearance, singing her latest single “Something Different”. The B-side to the song was the dark and dysfunctional “Sister Morphine”, and although it would have made a far more interesting choice, both thematically and musically, any possibility of that tune being performed was never seriously put forward.
Things pick up with The Dirty Mac, a supergroup consisting of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell, and John Lennon. Oh, and I should also mention Yoko Ono. First we have an emotionally charged “Yer Blues”, which could be heard on The Beatles’ recently released White Album. Imagine the excitement of those teenage fans in attendance, now that the opportunity to see any member of The Beatles in concert no longer existed. It’s soon followed by the quirky “Whole Lotta Yoko”, an arty, idiosyncratic composition where Ono wails away like a Banshee on a broomstick, while Ivry Gitlis on violin must have thought “what the fuck am I doing here?” Nevertheless it somehow works, but one would be hard pressed to think of a reason as to why.
And now the band we’ve all been waiting for, finally The Rolling Stones. After some fourteen straight hours the band were clearly stoned, drugged, and knackered, but it didn’t matter, because so was everyone else, and the show obviously had to go on.
They begin their set with a strong and primal rendition of “Jumping Jack Flash”, followed by a couple of Beggar’s Banquet numbers, “Parachute Woman” and “No Expectations”. The latter is especially soulful and the most thoughtful from that particular album. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was a straight off the press number, and it’s quite fascinating to hear it well ahead of its official release, which was still some time away. And if that’s not thrilling enough, the band launch into “Sympathy for the Devil”, another Beggar’s Banquet track and easily the most exciting of the set (mind you apparently it took a total of six takes to finally capture the master). Watching the film is the best way to experience it, as we get to see Jagger transform himself into a sort of white middle-class Satan of the English suburbs (complete with wash-off tattoos just for extra theatrical effect). Things end on a communal note with “Salt of the Earth”, a dedication to all “the hard working people”, and “the lowly of birth”. A befitting coda to what must have been an exhaustive two days for everyone.
What’s interesting is that if the Stones put on a gig like this today, most people would probably want their money back (not that anyone actually paid to attend), thinking it sloppy and unprofessional. And yet in those days you could have had fans scrubbing London’s sewers just for a chance to get close to their musical idols. Such were the times.
For nearly thirty years the majority of evidence of what took place on 10-11th December 1968 remained languishing in the vaults, due mainly to the Stones’ dissatisfaction with their own performance. However the desire to release the film in some form remained, until other commitments got in the way, effectively relegating The Rock and Roll Circus to living memory only. And yet, Time often has a way of turning even the most unpolished jewel into a priceless artefact. That it can take years or decades for such an appreciation to eventuate is not surprising, considering the general lack of admiration many artists have for their own work. How selfish it was to have kept the whole thing locked up for so long.