Why you should care
Because these 24 hours could have been classic rock’s make-or-break.
Ask Mick Jagger to put on his dream concert these days, and he’ll probably hire Martin Scorsese. Forty-seven years ago, he could do even better: He put the Rolling Stones, the Who and a Beatle on the same stage and made a movie.
Unfortunately, the result was a trippy train wreck — and it ended so badly for the Rolling Stones that everyone forgot about it for 20 years.
The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was, in its peculiar ’60s way, the equivalent of giving Spotify the middle finger today. Fed up with record companies’ reactions to the post-Beatles rock ’n’ roll tidal wave, the Rolling Stones decided to bust up conventional ideas about how to put on a show. Their concept? A circus featuring some of the biggest acts in music.
Performers wandered across the stage, rock legends oddly diminished by the offhandedness of the increasingly long night.
Cut to a big top draped over a BBC soundstage, a sleepy, drugged-up invited audience draped in yellow capes, and the occasional clown and acrobat tumbling across a makeshift ring. Technicians struggled to get everything set up, pushing the start into the early morning. Performers wandered across the stage, rock ’n’ roll legends oddly diminished by the offhandedness of the increasingly long December night. Decked out in glitter and a clown ruff, the Who’s Keith Moon flashed cheeky grins at the camera; John Lennon and Mick Jagger drawled improv introductions in New York accents as Lennon ate dinner; Keith Richards sucked on a cigar while wearing an incongruous top hat and eye patch. They would be there until 5 a.m.
Watching the 1968 footage today — restored after the Stones binned it, and left undiscovered until 1989 — some of the performances flicker as weird gems or dire omens. Lennon, looking tired and thin, is with Yoko Ono, quiet and alert in an all-black witch costume. Shaggy Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson rocks like a budget Rip Van Winkle who’s been asleep since the Summer of Love. A one-off supergroup called the Dirty Mac — Lennon, Ono, Richards, Eric Clapton and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience — rip through the Beatles’ “Yer Blues” and an instrumental jam featuring Ono’s wails.
But the Stones suffered their attempt at self-promotion. “That plan just blew up in their faces,” classic-rock writer Jen Cunningham explains.
The Who, she tells OZY, were “really on fire.” Despite being a few years behind their hosts’ global success, they’d just been on a rocking tour, and it showed. Their performance of the wicked mini-rock-opera “A Quick One, While He’s Away” is a blistering, high-energy rumble featuring frenetic guitar windmills, broken drumsticks, roaring bass and raw vocals from the whole band. Even watching decades later, they visibly shake the night awake — and they’re having a great time as they do it. “You’re all forgiven!” Pete Townshend proclaims triumphantly at the end of the song, repeating the chorus, while the audience exchange wide-eyed looks, like sandblasted converts. Keith Moon, who’s dumped water on his drums and been smashing up a wall of spray, bares his teeth in a delighted feral grin like he knows he’s won.
In a way, he had. The Stones delivered a lackluster performance even of their new hit, “Sympathy for the Devil” — so much so, says Cunningham, that “it’s not surprising that the film magically ‘vanished’ for years to hide their flub.” Jagger’s contortions are forced, songs start in wonky keys, and Charlie Watts looks ready to fall off his drum stool. “You can even see a kind of disconnect in [guitarist] Brian Jones’ expression, and it wasn’t long after that he would leave the band,” notes Cunningham. Jones, who spent the evening in a drugged daze, drowned less than a year later.
There’s no denying Rock and Roll Circus is a cool, profoundly strange snippet of rock history. It’s also a little like watching a late-night fever dream — and glimpsing a surreal alternate universe where the gods of rock ’n’ roll get no satisfaction.