Brian Jones about the Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968):
“If anyone had told me we would have been doing this kind of thing six years ago I would have said they were mad. But here we all are, thoroughly enjoying ourselves with clowns, midgets, acrobats and classical musicians. Yesterday Lennon and Clapton were jamming all the old rock’n’roll numbers, with Mick singing the vocals to Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly numbers”
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Mick Jagger and director Michael Lindsay-Hogg came up with the idea for an all-star music concert filmed under a big-top tent, 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 a one-hour BBC television Christmas special, was not shown at the time and was believed lost until a restored version was finally screened in 1996.
Lindsay-Hogg earned his reputation as the director of the TV music show Ready Steady Go!, and Jagger was full of praise as they staged the event. “Michael is a very creative guy,” he said. “We came up with this idea, and the whole idea, obviously, is to make it a mixture of different music acts and circus acts, taking it out of the normal and making it slightly surreal… mixing the two up. And also we wanted as many different kinds of music as possible. So that’s why 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 Beggars Banquet, and Jagger and his bandmates wanted to feature leading rock musicians of the day: Traffic and Cream were on the first list of invites, but both had broken up before they could take part. Nevertheless, the list of musicians joining the Stones was impressive: The Who, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, and Marianne Faithfull among them.
In the days before filming began, on Wednesday, December 11, there were rehearsals and camera tests at three different London venues: the Marquee Club, Olympic Sound Studios, and the Londonderry House Hotel in Mayfair. Some songs were honed and some – including Lennon, Jagger, and Clapton singing a version of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” – were cut from the final setlist.
Lindsay-Hogg brought in cinematographer Tony Richmond, who went on to film Don’t Look Now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie. To film Rock And Roll Circus he used the latest high-tech French-designed 16mm cameras. The sound was recorded by Glyn Johns and Jimmy Miller, using Olympic’s mobile studio. John McKenna designed many of the costumes.
Filming took place at Stonebridge House in Wembley, at the studios of InterTel video services. The invited audience comprised members of The Rolling Stones’ fan club, the lucky winners of a New Musical Express competition, and a few visiting American Hells Angels.
The stage was designed to resemble the inside of a circus big top, and joining the musicians on the bill were members of Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus, including trapeze artists, fire-eaters, clowns, acrobats, and even a tiger and a boxing kangaroo.
Filming was supposed to be completed in one day, Wednesday, December 11, 1968, but overran, lasting from 2pm until five in the morning on Thursday, December 12. The volume of work involved in setting up stages and re-loading camera film between performances meant that the show ended up lasting more than 15 hours. “The clowns and The Rolling Stones got along very well,” Lindsay-Hogg told The LA Times in March 2019.
“And it was great backstage,” he continued. “They were all sitting in a 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. As well as flamboyant stage outfits, light-hearted banter and classic 60s music – including the only public performance by the supergroup The Dirty Mac (featuring a line-up of Lennon, Richards, and Clapton, plus Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell). There was also a heady atmosphere of drugs and partying among the spectators.
“The Rock And Roll Circus captures the delirious optimism of an era,” said the late music writer David Dalton, who attended the 1968 event.
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