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51 years ago, the Rolling Stones convened an ambitious assemblage of psychedelic pop wonders intended for release as a BBC television special. The program was conceived and staged within the span of two weeks, but went unseen until 1996. Rumor holds that the Stones weren’t happy with their own performance, although the then-fresh songs from Beggars Banquet are spellbinding – particularly the potent take of political polemic “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The show’s most familiar clip is probably the bracing one-off performance of supergroup “The Dirty Mac” (John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell) performing the Beatles’ “Yer Blues.” The program also featured British rock heavyweights the Who, newcomers Jethro Tull, chanteuse (and companion of Mick Jagger) Marianne Faithfull, and American bluesman Taj Mahal. The musical component was set among the big top trappings of the Robert Fosset Circus, including tigers, clowns, acrobats, fire-eaters, and sawdust floors.
Jagger had apparently wanted to feature Brigitte Bardot as ringmaster. Since the blond bombshell wasn’t available, Jagger stood in for the role himself. “We’ve got sights and sounds and marvels to delight your eyes and ears,” says Jagger, leading into what would have been the program’s first commercial break.
The first featured act is the bohemian band Jethro Tull, led by wild-eyed Ian Anderson. The group bounds through a rough-and-tumble performance of “A Song for Jeffrey,” while bassist Glen Cornic doubles on harmonica. Stones guitarist Keith Richards introduces the Who. Fresh from the road, the quartet performs a thrashing but accomplished version of mini-rock-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away.” The band were in the midst of perfecting the form at the time, recording their groundbreaking album Tommy album for release the next year.
Following acts of derring-do by an aging pair of acrobatic spouses, Richards’ personnel invitee Taj Mahal performs an electrifying version of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love.” From the crowd, drummer Charlie Watts welcomes the elegant but downbeat Marianne Faithfull. She sings “Something Better,” the B-side from her then-forthcoming single “Sister Morphine.”
After the fire-eater, John Lennon makes his first public performance in nearly two years with the Dirty Mac. Lennon and company follow the Beatles track by supporting Israeli virtuoso violinist Ivry Gitlis and caterwauling Yoko Ono. In a deliberately surreal program, “Whole Lotta Yoko” seems like the most daring material to put before a 1968 prime-time British TV audience.
Lennon then introduces the Stones, who open their segment with 7-month-old single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as fans leave their seats to dance in the colorful ponchos issued to them as wardrobe for the program. Four of the Stones’ six songs are drawn from Beggars Banquet. Brian Jones plays slide guitar while Richards strums a jangling acoustic during “No Expectations.” The newly recorded “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” offers a glimpse into the band’s plans for 1969, with a bleary-eyed but smiling Jagger singing directly into the camera during the wee morning hours of December 12, 1968. After the riveting “Sympathy” with Richards’ stinging riffs, Rocky Dijon’s propulsive conga and Nicky Hopkins sparkling piano, the Stones finish in the stands joined by the crowd and assembled artists for goodnight song “Salt of the Earth.”
The four-disc box set includes the film on DVD and Blu-ray formats with newly mixed high-definition audio. Bonus features include footage of the circus clowns and a new interview with Who guitarist Pete Townshend. The film also includes commentary tracks by Jagger, Richards, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Ono and Faithfull. One audio CD includes the soundtrack. A second disc offers previously unreleased audio including “Corinna” and two more songs from Taj Mahal, as well as a rehearsal take of “Revolution” among extra cuts by the Dirty Mac.
Rock and Roll Circus may have been initially shelved, but today it stands as a colorful time capsule of the Rolling Stones’ youthful days and vibrant reminder of popular music’s cultural power in the late ‘60s.