In 1968, Mick Jagger and Michael Lindsay-Hogg—director of the Let It Be film and several promo music videos for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—sat down to brainstorm ideas for a full-length television production that would be unlike typical concert films. Lindsay-Hogg drew a circle on a piece of paper, and an idea was born for a rock and roll circus: two shows featuring the Stones, the Who, Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, and John Lennon’s supergroup Dirty Mac, with Yoko, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Keith Richards on bass. That December, the bands played on a circus set in a London TV studio to a live audience.
Unhappy with the resulting footage, Jagger shelved the project, feeling like the Stones’ performance wasn’t up to snuff. (They went on early in the morning, and some say Jagger felt upstaged by the Who.) Some film of the concert made it into the 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright, but much of it was lost until 1989, when it turned up in the Who’s private archive. The full concert film eventually premiered in 1996 at the New York Film Festival, where it appeared, wrote Janet Maslin, “straight out of its time capsule,” bringing back “the sleek young Stones in all their insolent glory, recalling a time when they ruled the roost.” Despite Jagger’s misgivings, they really did dominate that circus stage, but the event is notable for a number of other reasons.
Of course, there’s the Lennon supergroup, whose performance of his “Yer Blues,” sans Yoko (top) is “indispensable,” writes Allmusic. That’s no overstatement. Clapton’s sinuous leads and Mitch Mitchell’s busy fills sit beautifully with Lennon’s confident delivery. As an added treat, we get a few minutes of goofy banter between Lennon and Jagger before Dirty Mac goes on, and in the video just above, we have additional outtakes with Lennon and Jagger, and a split screen version with multiple camera angles. Rock and Roll Circus also features the only filmed performance of soon-to-be Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi in his tenure with Jethro Tull (“arguably,” Maslin says, “the most unbearable band of their day.”) You can hear audio of their live, flute-heavy “A Song for Jeffrey” here.
As amazing as so many of these performances are (Taj Mahal’s “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” seriously rocks), as Maslin pointed out, the Stones “ruled the roost,” and they knew it, even if they had to go on at five in the morning to accommodate difficult setups between acts.
It just so happens that Rock and Roll Circus represents Brian Jones very last gig with the band. (It was not, as Ultimate Classic Rock reports, an earlier show at Empire Pool that May.) He looks particularly unenthused above playing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and the rest of the band looks exhausted as well—all except Jagger whose “fabulous performance,” Maslin writes, “nearly turns this into a one-man show.” Just above, see them do “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” introduced by Lennon in sign language (“one of two live renditions it ever got with Brian Jones in the lineup,” writes Allmusic). You can also see the barroom blues tune “Parachute Woman” here and below, a jumpy, funky “Sympathy for the Devil” (with Spanish subtitles).
To see the full concert—including the Who’s quick appearance, more Dirty Mac (with Yoko), and a bunch of sideshow extras—pick up a copy of the Rock and Roll Circus DVD. You can also hear audio excerpts at the Rolling Stones’ official website.