Mick Jagger originally conceived this idea as a way of branching out from conventional records and concert performances.
The idea was to make a full-length TV show that would be broadcast on the BBC.
Jagger reached out to American promoter Michael Lindsay-Hogg who had directed the British television music show “Ready Steady Go!” as well as what some refer to as the first music videos promoting The Beatles songs “Paperback Writer” and “Hey Jude.”
Lindsay-Hogg suggested combining rock music with a circus setting.
The Stones loved the idea and settled on a replica of a seedy big top built on a British sound stage to be filmed in front of an invited audience.
The Rock and Roll Circus show would feature Jethro Tull, The Who, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithful, The Dirty Mac. John Lennon and his fiancee Yoko Ono agreed to participate as part of a supergroup called The Dirty Mac along with Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, and Keith Richards.
The event kicked off on December 11, 1968 at the Intertel Studio on Wycombe Road in Wembley at around 2 pm.
Setting up between acts took longer than expected and television cameras kept breaking down, making the event extend late into the night with the Rolling Stones finally appearing at almost 5 o’clock the next morning.
By that time the audience and most of the Rolling Stones were exhausted. Mick Jagger’s sheer stamina managed to keep them going until the end.
This would be the last public performance of Brian Jones on guitar with The Rolling Stones. This concert was also the only time Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi performed as a member of Jethro Tull as a favor to Ian Anderson while Jethro Tull looked for a replacement for Mick Abrahams.
After the show, Mick Jagger was reportedly so disappointed with his and the Stone’s performance that he canceled the airing of the show, and kept it from public view.
Others, at the time, felt the true reason for the cancellation of the broadcast was that The Who upstaged the Stones on their own production.
In 1979, The Who released a theatrical documentary titled “The Kids Are Alright” shot during the Stones Rock and Roll Circus.
All other footage shot of the Circus concert was thought to have been lost until 1989, when it was found in a bin of The Who’s private film vault.
The Stones’ film was restored and finally released on CD and video in 1996. Included on the recordings are the introductions for each act, including some entertaining banter between Mick Jagger and John Lennon.
The release of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was reviewed by Janet Maslin who called the film an “uneven but ripely nostalgic show”; although “rumor had it that the Stones… thought they looked tired and felt upstaged by the high-energy Who”, :it hardly looks that way as Mick Jagger’s fabulous performance nearly turns this into a one-man show.”
Janet Maslin also called Jethro Tull’s performance a “shaky start” by “arguably the most unbearable band of their day”, said The Who “turn up early and stop traffic, delivering a fiery [performance]”, and notes Yoko Ono’s “glass-shattering shrieks” are “dutifully” backed by The Dirty Mac.
A DVD version of the concert was released in October of 2004, with audio remixed into Dolby Surround.
The DVD includes footage of the show, along with extra features which included previously “lost” performances, an interview with Pete Townshend, and three audio commentaries.
Of particular interest in the Townshend interview is his description of the genesis of the Circus project, which he claims was initially meant to involve the performers traveling across the United States via train (a concept used for a short concert series in Canada that was later documented in the feature film Festival Express).
The remastered DVD also includes a special four-camera view of The Dirty Mac’s performance of The Beatles’ “Yer Blues” (showing Yoko Ono kneeling on the floor in front of the musicians, completely covered in a black sheet).
Now WE know em