‘The Rolling Stones: Rock And Roll Circus’

Eoghan Lyng revisits the Stones’ 1968 concert ahead of ABKCO’s Deluxe Edition.

The concert film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, shot over two days in December 1968, featured The Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, impromptu supergroup The Dirty Mac (John Lennon, Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell, Eric Clapton) and Yoko Ono in addition to the original Stones lineup. Shot in a north London television studio by Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Let It Be, Ready Steady Go!) and Cinematographer Tony Richmond (Sympathy For The Devil / One Plus One, Let It Be), The Rock and Roll Circus was a concert filmed against a Fellini-esque circus backdrop with the band themselves as on-screen hosts in addition to performing. We Are Cult’s Eoghan Lyng goes inside the Big Top…

Who was the best act to play at the circus? Was it The Who, echoeing the intro of their mini operette with their pristine choir boy voices? Tony Iommi ploughing through the gravelling  Song For Jeffrey during a brief respite from Black Sabbath? Yoko Ono’s undiluted vocalising which captivated John Lennon in its honesty and purity? Or Marianne Faithfull’s ethereal performance encloved in astonishing inventveness and acoustic adroitness? A case could be made for each and every performance which led Mick Jagger, sensitive to The Rolling Stones drowsier position, to withhold the footage until the nineties.

My personal favourite? It has to be Yer Blues, Cream’s Eric Clapton fender searing over Mitch Mitchell’s exhilarating drum fills. However animated Lennon sounded on The Beatles’ recording, he enveloped a far superior delivery in a live setting, commited to the brittle bluesier emotion his own lyrics displayed. It’s a sensational performance, matched by Keith Richards’ bass work, positing himself as the  missing link to The Dirty Mac. Lennon, exacting an excitement in his first performance since 1966, regales himself in blue denim, emulating the lasceration the track so desperately needed. Free from the technicalities Apple and Abbey Road Studios exhibited, Lennon’s free to sing as he pleases and play with an amp “that works”. Lennon would sing with Clapton again in Toronto the following year, which finalised Lennon’s intent to quit the once fab four.

Then there’s the headline act themselves, under-rehearsed, under focused and overtired. Yet there’s a virility to Jagger’s voice,an ardor to Richards’ jangly chords and a flow to Charlie Watts’ slick backbeat. Whatever failings Brian Jones brought to his playing are understated and though later performances were immeasurably improved by Mick Taylor’s intricate fingerwork, Parachute Woman and No Expectations excite in their expressed performances. “God save the Queen” Jagger flecks between performances. Jumpin’ Jack Flash grooves with musical flair, bringing credence to Bill Wyman’s theory that he wrote the song’s thumping riff. All throughout, crowd screams and claps threaten to deafen and dwarf the five piece.

“When they really get moving, there is a kind of white magic that starts to replace the black, and everything starts to really fly” Pete Townshend philosophically recalled.”That didn’t happen on this occasion; there’s no question about that. They weren’t just usurped by The Who, they were also usurped by Taj Mahal – who was just, as always, extraordinary. They were usurped to some extent by the event itself: the crowd by the time the Stones went on were radically festive”.

And yet there’s so much on offer to compensate. The morose Watts introduces the wirey Faithfull as earnestly as Lennon calls The Stones onto the stage glibly. The Who explode from the sidelines with some truly outstanding guitar riffs. Yoko Ono latches onto the climbing escalade of a wilful violin part with that incredible shimmer. And only Jethro Tull could match that racing harmonica with the melodic flute. It’s a perfect example of sixties excess bringing the thrill of millennial success.

❉ ‘The Rolling Stones: Rock And Roll Circus’:  4K restoration & soundtrack to be released June 28th (UK) from ABKCO/UMC as a Deluxe Edition (Blu-ray/DVD/2CD),  Vinyl 3LP Set (for first time ever and includes previously unheard tracks by Lennon-Richards-Clapton-Mitchell Supergroup The Dirty Mac), Double-CD and for digital download.

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