Friday, January 25, 2019

The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus - 50 Years Ago

Along the lines of Magical Mystery TourThe Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus was an obscure December 1968 sideshow that featured clowns, tigers, fire-eaters, the Rolling Stones and a menagerie of musicians like The Who, Eric Clapton and John Lennon. Unhappy with their performance, The Stones shelved the project and cancelled its premiere on the BBC. A clip of The Who performing "A Quick One While He's Away" made it into The Kids Are Alright, but the rest stayed on the shelf until 1996. 

The Stones put together the circus after releasing Beggar's Banquet and finding themselves on top with a smash single in "Jumpin’ Jack Flash," and a top 10 album on three continents. Ringmaster/producer Mick Jagger recruited his sideshow friends along with Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal and the then-unknown Jethro Tull (having only released their first album, This Was, six weeks prior). Twenty hours of filming resulted in a production that alternated between vaudevillian spectacle and offbeat rock and roll. Especially noteworthy is a blistering version of the Beatles' "Yer Blues" by the Dirty Mac, a supergroup featuring John Lennon on rhythm guitar and vocals, Eric Clapton on lead, Keith Richards on bass and Mitch Mitchell (of The Jimi Hendrix Experience) on drums. The Stones went on at 1am, performing a set that included several songs from Beggar's Banquet and the as-yet unreleased "You Can’t Always Get What You Want." It is, despite the self-deprecation, a stellar performance building to a hypnotic "Sympathy For The Devil" and a rousing sing-along of "Salt Of The Earth," featuring all the side show freaks.

The Rock 'n Roll Circus was  the first major performance of  Jethro Tull, featuring their first and last gig with guitarist Tony Iommi, who left just weeks later to form Black Sabbath; it was one of the first times The Who performed a rock opera live (and nailed it); it featured one of the first rock supergroups, The Dirty Mac (a play on Fleetwood Mac) and Lennon's first concert performance without the Beatles. As well, it was the last time the original Rolling Stones performed live, and sadly, the last gig for Brian Jones, who was found face down in a swimming pool but a month later. The special had its origins when Jagger, seeking an innovative way to promote Beggars Banquet, teamed with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Brideshead Revisited, Let It Be) to create a television concert with a circus theme filmed in front of an audience of invited guests. The broadcast begins with all the performers entering at once, followed by Jagger dressed as a ringmaster and offering an invocation to the viewers. At times a bit tortured and contrite, The Rolling Stones' Rock 'n' Roll Circus is a must watch (once) and a great listen weeded down to a playlist.

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