Mick Jagger and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg came up with the idea for an all-star music concert filmed in a marquee, a project that came to fruition in The Rolling Stones rock and roll circus in December 1968. Footage of the concert, originally intended to be an hour-long Christmas special on BBC television, was not shown at the time and was considered lost until a restored version was finally screened in 1996.
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Lindsay-Hogg earned her reputation as the director of the TV musical show On your marks, ready? Go!, and Jagger was full of praise when organizing the event. “Michael is a very creative guy,” he said. “We had this idea, and the idea, obviously, is to make it a mix of different musical and circus numbers, taking it out of the normal and making it slightly surreal…mixing the two together. And also we wanted as many different genres of music as possible, so we thought about who would be the best kind of supporting acts.
The concert was to come in the wake of the Rolling Stones’ Decca album Banquet of beggarsand Jagger and his bandmates wanted to feature the major rock musicians of the time: Traffic and Cream were on the first guest list, but the two had broken up before they could attend. Nevertheless, the list of musicians joining the Stones was impressive: WHO, John LennonYoko Ono, Eric ClaptonTaj Mahal, Jethro Tull and Marianne Faithfull among them.
Rehearsals and filming
In the days leading up to the start of filming, on Wednesday December 11, rehearsals and camera tests took place at three different locations in London: the Marquee Club, Olympic Sound Studios and the Londonderry House Hotel in Mayfair. Some songs have been tweaked and others including Lennon, Jagger and Clapton singing a version of holly buddy“Peggy Sue” from – were removed from the final setlist.
Lindsay-Hogg brought in cinematographer Tony Richmond, who then filmed don’t look now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, and The man who fell to earthfeaturing david bowie. The film rock ‘n’ roll circus he used the latest high-tech French-designed 16mm cameras. Sound was recorded by Glyn Johns and Jimmy Miller, using Olympic’s mobile studio. John McKenna designed many costumes.
Filming took place at Stonebridge House in Wembley, in the studios of InterTel Video Services. The invited audience was made up of members of the Rolling Stones fan club, the lucky winners of a New musical express competition and some visiting American Hells Angels.
The stage was designed to look like the inside of a circus tent, and the musicians in the poster were members of Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus, including trapeze artists, fire-eaters, clowns, acrobats and even a tiger and a boxer kangaroo.
Filming was scheduled to be completed in one day, Wednesday, December 11, 1968, but exceeded, lasting 2 p.m. until five in the morning on Thursday, December 12. The amount of work involved in setting up the scenes and reloading film from the camera between performances meant that the show ended up lasting over 15 hours. “The Clowns and the Rolling Stones got along really well,” Lindsay-Hogg said The LA Times in March 2019.
“And it was awesome behind the scenes,” he continued. “They were all sitting in one room – John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton – playing blues on guitar and harmonica. Keith Moon was playing spoons on a table.
The event was spectacular. Along with flamboyant stage outfits, lighthearted banter and classic ’60s music – including the supergroup’s only public performance The Dirty Mac (with a line-up of Lennon, Richards and Clapton, plus jimi hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell). There was also a heady drug and party vibe among the onlookers.
“The Rock And Roll Circus captures the delirious optimism of an era,” said the late writer David Dalton, who attended the 1968 event.
And it continues to resonate: a newly digitized version of this unique concert was screened across America in 2019, before a luxury reissue.
The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus: Who Played and What Happened?
December 11, 1969, 2 p.m.: Presentation by Mick Jagger
At 2 p.m. on December 11, 1968, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, dressed in a red circus ringleader suit, bow tie and top hat, was greeted with cheers as that he was going out to offer the welcome. “You’ve heard of Oxford Circus! he exclaimed. “You have heard of Piccadilly Circus! And here comes The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus… and we have sounds, sights and wonders to delight your eyes and ears.
“Entrance of the Gladiators” / Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus
As Jagger left the stage, a recording of the famous military tune “Entry Of The Gladiators”, written by Czech composer Julius Fučík in 1897, played for about a minute, as members of Sir Robert Fossett’s circus, including two short people, Norman McGlen and Willie Shearer, as well as “strong man” Milton Reid, took the stage.
Newly formed Blackpool rock band Jethro Tull were next. They delivered a rousing version of “A Song For Jeffrey”, with Ian Anderson opening the proceedings playing a flute introduction to a song he had written. Glen Cornic played harmonica, Clive Bunker was on drums and the performance was notable for the appearance of black sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, who briefly replaced Mick Abrahams. Anderson added to the atmosphere of the circus by trying to play the flute while standing on one leg – as if he were constantly on the verge of falling.
stone guitarist Keith Richards introduced The Who by saying, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, dig The Who.” The Band – Pete Townshend, Keith Moon, John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey — were in top form and performed a playful version of their mini-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” including its mid-song tribute to “Ivor the engine driver.”
“Above the Waves”
The Who was followed by a recording of the popular Mexican waltz “Over The Waves” – which was written in the 19th century by Juventino Rosas and later recorded as a guitar instrument by willie nelson. “Over The Waves” was used as a 45-second set-filler as the circus acts moved the setting.
The next big band was American bluesman Taj Mahal, who came without any introduction. The singer and guitarist was joined by bassist Gary Gilmore, drummer Chuck Blackwell and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis for a fiery version of their recently recorded song “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love”, which was written in 1966 by Homer Banks. and Willia Dean Parker. Taj Mahal also performed a version of Sonny Boy Williamson“Checkin’ Up on My Baby”, but that didn’t make the final cut.
Stones drummer Charlie Watts was tasked with introducing vocalist Marianne Faithfull, who was backed by pre-recorded instrumental tracks as she performed “Something Better,” a ballad written by Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann. Watts introduced Faithfull, who was then Jagger’s girlfriend, as “the beautiful Miss Marianne Faithfull”; the singer, wearing a long satin dress, held Jagger’s hand as she sang. The Rolling Stones frontman had produced his single “Something Better”.
Fire-eater and dummy
Keith Richards introduced the next act, a veteran fire-eater from London called Danny Kamara. He was “assisted” by Donyale Luna, an actress who had been the first black model to appear on the cover of British vogue a few years earlier.
The Dirty Mac
Beatles Star John Lennon joked with Jagger in his band’s slot intro, calling the singer ‘Nigel’ and referring to himself as ‘Winston Leg-Thigh’. Lennon told Jagger he was set to perform with “your own soul brother, Keith Richards”.
Lennon is said to have coined the name The Dirty Mac as a play on Fleetwood Mac. His unique supergroup included Richards on bass, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, and Mitch Mitchell, best known for his work in The Jimi Hendrix Experience, on drums. Lennon wore a denim outfit and Mitchell looked almost unrecognizable with straight blonde hair. They sang the song “Your Blues”of the brilliance of the Beatles “White Album”who had just come out.
Lennon, who also wore a juggler outfit with silver sequins and black lace ruffles during the show, later returned to perform alongside partner Yoko Ono. The singer and artist emerged from a giant black bag dressed as a witch, dressed all in black, with a pointy hat. Yoko’s set was an improv jam, with all members of The Dirty Mac acting as backing band on a five-minute version of “Whole Lotta Yoko” (also called “Her Blues”). Violin virtuoso Ivry Gitlis played on the 12-bar blues, which was restored for the 1996 film edit.
December 12, 1969, 2 a.m.: The Rolling Stones
It was nearly 2 a.m. on December 12 when John Lennon uttered the two-word “And now…” to introduce the Rolling Stones, who jumped into a version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Lennon, who left to do a BBC radio interview with Ono, returned for the final parts of a Stones set that included versions of “Parachute Woman”, “No Expectations” (from Banquet of beggars) and the first ever live filmed performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
The set was the guitarist’s last live appearance Brian Jones, who looked giddy as he recreated his dazzling slide guitar lines on “No Expectations.” Although the audience was exhausted after nearly 15 hours at the circus (“The crowd was radically celebratory as the Stones continued,” Pete Townshend said), Jagger stirred them into a frenzy during a version of “Sympathy For The Devil” in which the singer showed off his torso and showed off fake tattoos of Lucifer.
The set, which lasted three hours, ended with an exuberant version of “Salt Of The Earth” with the Stones, who also had Bill Wyman on bass, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Rocky Dzidzornu on percussion, entering the audience to sing and play.
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