Remember When: ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ Is Finally Released. tt

The hopes and optimism of rebellious youth were on full display in the swinging London of 1968. The idea of music changing the world seemed not only possible but inevitable. Rock’s royalty gathered for two days to create a spectacle and film it. The Rolling Stones were the ringleaders, hosting The Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithful, Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, and John Lennon & Yoko Ono.

The self-titled Beatles record, commonly called The White Album, was less than three weeks old. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg filmed this can’t-miss project called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, with plans for it to be aired on the BBC. It would mostly stay in the vault for almost three decades before it debuted on October 12, 1996 at The New York Film Festival for two screenings before it was released on home video the following week.

Remember When: 'The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus' Is Finally Released - American Songwriter

The Concept

The project developed from a conversation between Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, and Ronnie Lane. The Rolling Stones were recording a demo, and Townshend and Lane provided backing vocals at Olympic Studios in London. Lane envisioned a circus-like tour of America with The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Faces. Jagger consulted with theater and lighting designer Chip Monck, who had designed the first large traveling stages for The Rolling Stones. They worked up a plan to acquire a Barnum & Bailey traveling circus tent and design a train to move the bands and gear from city to city. The plan was for the tour to be filmed and turned into a feature-length documentary.
The Rolling Stones Take Their Rock Roll Circus Back On The

Townshend revealed the outcome in a 2004 interview promoting the DVD release of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus: “What actually caused it to collapse was the fact that the railway track then in America was only used for goods and commerce, it wasn’t passengers anymore. The track was so slow. The trains could only travel, in some places, for up to 200 or 300 miles, at a maximum of four to six miles an hour. So, it would have been very tedious to sit on the train, whether or not it had a cinema, an operating theater, a school, and a recording studio, all of which were in Chip’s grand vision. It would have made the most fantastic movie. Anyway, it was dumped, and Mick went on to drive forward this idea of doing a film.”

The Event

Filmed on December 11 and 12, 1968, The Rolling Stones were looking for a unique way to promote their album Beggars Banquet. Lindsay-Hogg suggested transforming the idea of the traveling circus tour into a single event, combining a rock concert with clowns, jugglers, fire eaters, and animals. Each member of The Rolling Stones would introduce the acts, leading to a headlining performance by Mick and the Boys.
Chronicle 2014
Jethro Tull blazes through a song with their freak flag on full display. The Who seem completely relaxed and loose, yet as tight as ever as they careen through “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” Taj Mahal and his band rip through “Ain’t that a Lot of Love” with complete self-assured ease. Jagger’s muse, Marianne Faithful, sings to a recorded track, and then supergroup The Dirty Mac takes the stage. Keith Richard and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell comprised the rhythm section. Eric Clapton, who had played the final show with Cream just weeks before, joined John Lennon on guitar as he sang “Yer Blues.” During the entire song, Yoko Ono kneeled onstage in a black bag at Lennon’s feet. She emerged to take the lead vocal accompanied by classical violinist Ivry Gitlis on “Whole Lotta Yoko.”

The night before filming, Rolling Stone guitarist Brian Jones called director Lindsay-Hogg to inform him he would not be participating in the project. He was fed up with being in the band. The director was able to change his mind, and Jones was involved. It turned out to be his final public appearance with the band.

The Rolling Stones played a full set to the appreciative crowd. Watching it now, it’s the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world laying it down in their prime. They were road-weary and, ultimately, felt their performance didn’t hold up against the rest of the artists. Plans for airing the special on the BBC were scrapped, and it became a legendary lost document of the times.

The Light of Day

As stories spread about the great lost footage of these bands in their prime, The Who was compiling a film of performances and interviews. They were able to license their performance to include in the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright. Seeing Keith Richard introducing the band with an eyepatch and a top hat only made the public want to see the rest of the footage more. It would be another 17 years before the program would be screened. Arrangements were made to debut The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus at The New York Film Festival in 1996. A home video release followed the next week.

In 2004, a remastered DVD was released, including extra performances and interviews with Townshend. He shared his thoughts on Jagger’s performance, “When you see the film, you see that Mick engages the camera and stays on it with absolute concentration. It was about two solid hours of shooting, and he never let up. So there was this strange element from him that he’d been empowered in some way. He was always a very charismatic performer but had been given some new gift from outside. It’s almost like he was a different guy.”

Townshend sums it up, “When you watch it now, it’s a documentary. It’s a comment on the time.”

And what a time it was.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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