Bagism: Library

Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

What, you may ask, is a review of a project by the Rolling Stones doing at a John Lennon web page? Well, it just so happens that John Lennon was an integral part of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. In retrospect, it was an important turning point in John's life because it was the first time he performed without the Beatles.

Review written and graciously contributed by David Baldwin (

Video and CD released by ABCKO. An ABKCO/Rolling Stones presentation. Featuring The Rolling Stones, with Jethro Tull, The Who, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, John Lennon and The Dirty Mac, Yoko Ono, Ivry Gitlis, Nicky Hopkins, Rocky Dijon and the Robert Fosset Circus. Filmed December 11, 1968. Director: Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Camera: Anthony B. Richmond. Editor: Ruth Foster. Live recording producer: Jimmy Miller. Post-production produced and edited by Robin Klein. Viewed at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center (New York Film Festival), October 13, 1996. Video running time: approx. 65 minutes. CD running time: 59 minutes.

The period from the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967 to the Woodstock Festival in August 1969 -- the period of rock and roll's greatest extramusical influence -- saw one of the most radical social upheavals to seize the Western world since the Europe-wide convulsions of 1848. Yet if you check out many of that era's most famous album covers, you will see not the makings of a revolution but The Halloween Party That Never Ends. Was it self-conscious mythmaking, a guilty nostalgia for yesterday's kitsch or just an over-fondness for drugs that made that time's most brilliant musical artists lose themselves in outré costuming and retro preciousness?

Perhaps it was, above all, a healthy act of psychic self-defense. As Ringo has so eloquently put it, being a Beatle (or any major rock star of the late 1960's) meant that the whole world was trying to get at you. What better release for the shell-shocked rocker than to take refuge in a made-up identity that was both larger than life and smaller than one's image of oneself? Thus, we four musicians are not the most celebrated young men on earth, but a simple (but nattily dressed) Victorian marching band, carrying on the tradition of our late, beloved leader. Our quintet are not long-haired louts leading the youth of Britain to ruin, but humble courtiers, entertainers merely, performing in the service of our monarchs -- and is it any fault of ours that they're the Lords of the Underworld?

So it was in the spirit of such masquerades that the Rolling Stones, attempting a kind of Satanic Majesties Request, Part II, turned the Intertel television studios in Wembley, North London, into a real live circus -- clowns, trapeze artists, horseback riders, fire eaters and Mick Jagger himself as ringmaster -- for two memorable days in December 1968, for a BBC special that was never to be broadcast. The Stones, of course, were not about to show any reverence for the medium that had fed them. One can see, in the new video containing the resurrected film of the event, a scene that delightfully ridicules the variety show conventions to which the stars had so obediently adhered when they were rising young turks. Jagger conducts a mock-interview with John Lennon, the former, with an American accent, acting the earnest inquisitor, while John plays the fawning interviewee. The two are perfectly at ease on camera, apparently secure in their wealth and prestige. They could not have known how paltry their riches would seem twenty-plus years hence, compared to the mega-millions earned by their superstar heirs, Michael Jackson and Madonna and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Yet those later tycoons can only look back wistfully (perhaps, in Madonna's case, resentfully) at their forebears' socio-political cachet. David Dalton, in the CD's liner notes, writes of that time, "for a brief moment it seemed that rock 'n' roll would inherit the earth." Well, actually, it did... and it didn't.

And speaking of this pseudo-interview, what is it that makes John Lennon so damn funny? Like the beauty of the man's voice, no writer has ever successfully analyzed John's deliciously twisted sense of humor. (The weirder and more incoherent he gets, the funnier he becomes.) Why is it so hilarious that John, in his "take-this-brother-may-it-serve-you-well" voice, identifies himself as "Winston Legthigh" and addresses Jagger as "Michael"? Is there any logical reason why the line "you read my file" should crack me up? Not that there's no method to the Lennon madness. When he and Jagger pretend to wax nostalgic, and he says, "ah, those were the days, I Wanna Hold Your Man," John is slyly reminding Mick of an old debt: the gift to the Stones, by John and Paul, of their song "I Wanna Be Your Man," one of the band's earliest hits. And just before taking the stage, John solemnly presents to Mick the TV dinner he has just been eating "on behalf of the British public."

"...We've got sights and sounds and marvels to delight your eyes and ears," ringmaster Mick announces to the camera, "and you'll be able to hear the very first one of those in a few moments!" The first of those marvels turns out to be the early Jethro Tull, performing "Song For Jeffrey." I didn't care much for this tune when I first heard it in college, but now I like it. I enjoy the contrast between the cool jazz-lite of the intro and bridge with the churning folk-blues riff of the verses, and Ian Anderson's slurred, boozy, bloozy voice (he's got his Mad Busker act already down pat) is charmingly inauthentic. All in all, I prefer this simpler Tull, before Anderson discovered the religion of anti-religion and the joys of album-long song suites, in which he could play the same flute figure over and over and over again.

By the way, this appearance has engendered a minor controversy among rock trivia buffs. The credits at the end of the video list Tony Iommi as the band's guitarist, but the CD booklet puts Mick Abrahams in that role. Which is correct? Both, actually. Tull's original guitarist, Abrahams, had just departed and the group had not yet found his (permanent) replacement, Martin Barre. So they recruited future Black Sabbath guitarist Iommi as a substitute, with the idea that he might become a regular member. It didn't pan out: according to Abrahams, Iommi literally couldn't stand his bandmates. (You mean, he could stand Ozzy Osbourne?) But he hadn't yet quit when he appeared with Anderson & Company in the aborted TV show. So the CD is wrong, then? Well, no. For the film, only Anderson, apparently, played live; the other group members just mimed the instrumental track, presumably from Tull's debut album, This Was. So the video is perfectly correct in listing Tony Iommi as the guitarist seen in the film and the CD is equally correct when it cites Mick Abrahams as the guitarist heard on the soundtrack. OK?

The Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" is a clumsy patchwork of interesting melodic fragments, telling a puerile but strangely resonant tale of adultery and absolution. (This song laid the groundwork for the even more puerile, even more strangely resonant Tommy.) The band's performance of this flawed work, however, is pure magic. Though the solo singing of, say, Townshend or Entwhistle can sometimes sound a bit wobbly, when the four players raise their voices in harmony their sound is gorgeous, transcendent. The final section of this number, in which The Who unleash their full, primal power, gives the Circus its most raucously joyous moment.

Flown in personally by Mick Jagger for the event, Taj Mahal contributes a rousing soul number, "Ain't That a Whole Lotta Love." With support from guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, Taj sings with authority and warmth, easily holding his own with his superstar competition.

I once heard Marianne Faithfull say in a radio interview that she preferred her days as a street junkie in the 'Seventies to her brief reign as a 'Sixties pop princess. Her appearance here goes a long way towards explaining that seemingly perverse point-of-view. Ghettoized as the elegant "chick singer" while everyone else gets to rock out, Faithfull, archly posed in a floor-length evening gown and framed by an amber spotlight, sits mannequin-still, waiting anxiously for her cue to begin singing. It's a cringingly conventional variety-show moment.

The tune she warbles, "Something Better," was written by Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin, two Brill Building pros attempting, rather valiantly, to come to terms with the youth revolution they inadvertently helped create. It's one of those the-world-is-going-to-hell-so-we-hip-people-might-as-well-do-whatever-we-want-type 'Sixties songs. ("Incense and Peppermints" is probably the masterpiece of this dubious genre.) The Variety reviewer was surely right when he pegged this performance as the film's musical nadir. But is it dispensable? Not really. I was embarrassed for Faithfull when I first saw Circus at the New York Film Festival, but since then the song has grown on me: her voice, somewhat craggy even then, still sounds seductive, and the pre-recorded instrumental backing has been very handsomely and intelligently produced... courtesy of "Michael."

In his first public musical performance outside The Beatles, John Lennon triumphantly tackles "Yer Blues" with rock's initial supergroup, The Dirty Mac (Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums). In the process, he defines the differences between himself and Jagger. Both men were given to irony to a degree that none of their 'Fifties idols were, but John's irony is disturbingly double-edged. Parodying, devastatingly, the white English blues-rock scene epitomized by bandmate Clapton, which tried to ape not only the style and tone, but the suffering of Chicago bluesmen ("the eagle he picks my eye/the worm he licks my bone"), John yet manages to convey real suffering. As in the Beatles' recording, his anger and pain are almost palpable. Unlike Elvis in his first national hit, he's not speaking figuratively when he says he's so lonely he could die. "If I ain't dead already/girl, you know the reason why": presumably the very same reason that's about to crawl out of a black bag onstage to perform her own musical number.

But first, funky classical violinist Ivry Gitlis takes the stage, joining in on what seems like a casual jam with Lennon and the Dirty Mac until, about a minute-and-a-half into the number, Yoko One begins to wail. Now I finally know the missing ingredient that has kept me from fully appreciating Yoko's performances all these years: an instrumental voice parallel to hers, capable of playing off her eccentric rhythms. As the band cooks behind her and Gitlis towers over her, a bemused grin on his face, Yoko gives us her own Oriental, feminine variation on the blues, woman-pain transmuted with surprising discipline into a brand new music. Even more surprisingly, the Circus audience eats it all up. Nobody at that time seemed to think there was only one way to rock and roll.

For The Beatles, the voice, not the guitar, was always the key instrument. They were all good musicians from the beginning and they became wonderful ones, particularly Paul and George, but the Fabs were, first to last, a band of great singers. The Stones, by contrast, were a band of great players , with a master actor as human lightning rod. In referring to Jagger, I use the word "actor" rather than "singer" because of something the film producer Hal Roach once said of his protege, the great silent clown Harold Lloyd. Lloyd, said Roach, "was not a comedian, but he was the best damn actor impersonating a comedian I ever saw." Mick Jagger is the king of all rock star impersonators, and in the six-song set the Stones play in this movie, he gives a classic performance.

It's after midnight and Mick's been overseeing his little media circus for over fourteen hours, so he's tired. But exhaustion becomes him, and once the band kicks in with Jumping Jack Flash, he starts playing his favorite game, that of pushing himself to the edge of his physical limits. The only drug he seems to be on is adrenaline. (That Jagger's paranoid jealousy of The Who led him to bury, for nearly thirty years, one of the Stones' best recorded concerts of the 'Sixties is more indicative of drug abuse than anything he does onstage here.)

Unlike the televised Beatles, Jagger has always gone out of his way to acknowledge the camera. Indeed, he stalks it, like a cobra that might strike if the lens-eye pulled back or looked away. His theatrical effects work because they're so plainly calculated, like the way he inserts a funny and sinister "honey" at the end of the first line of the chorus on "You Can't Always Get What You Want," or underscores the words "footloose man" with an odd hand gesture. There is only one part of the set in which he drops all artifice -- when he plays mouth harp, impeccably, during "Parachute Woman."

Despite this melodramatic obviousness, his dancing during this period of his career is never boring or corny, largely because of the startling suddenness with which he can shift gears in the middle of a number. Mick's coolest moment, for me, occurs during "Sympathy for the Devil." As pianist Nicky Hopkins, percussionist Rocky Dijon and the Stones are pounding away behind him, Jagger abruptly drops to the stage and starts removing his shirt, revealing... demon tattoos on his chest and arms. The Stones' sense of evil may be only skin-deep, but nobody has ever made the darkness seem so fun.

But Jagger's peculiarly cautious recklessness contains, for me, its own fatal limitation. Never would he be capable of singing with the fierce, scary abandon that John Lennon brought to "Money" and "Revolution" and "Don't Let Me Down" and "Yer Blues" -- or, for that matter, of McCartney doing "Long Tall Sally." In their naked emotional commitment to their material, I think the Beatles had a deeper connection with the blues giants Jagger worshipped than he himself could ever have hoped to have.

Some of the reviews of Circus have pointed out that a number of the original participants are no longer among us. I feel a bit resentful for being reminded of this fact. Given that the one talent almost all the participants shared was for excess, it is astounding to me that their mortality rate was not significantly higher than would have been the case for, say, a circus of real estate agents. Actually, I'm just not in the mood to mourn most of those who have departed, particularly Lennon and Keith Moon. The Who's immortal drummer/lunatic is shown here exactly as I would like to remember him: eyes and head rolling, drenched in righteous sweat, the happiest kid in the world. As for John, he had almost exactly twelve amazingly eventful and productive years -- and the birth of a Beautiful Boy -- still ahead of him.

But Brian Jones is another story. The movie shows the Stones' early leader reduced to an insignificant but unignorable bit player. Puffy-faced and affectless, he looks totally defeated: it's surprising he survived the filming by almost seven months. Only once, during a great version of "No Expectations," does he return to the living, his undying love for the blues temporarily breaking through the mist in his brain as he coaxes beauty one last time from his slide guitar. So the song becomes a tribute to him, all the most poignant because unintended.

The film is coming to a close and the Stones are sitting among the audience (all dressed in multi-colored cloaks and floppy felt hats, looking like refugees from a psychedelic Breughel painting), performing "Salt of the Earth" over the pre-recorded instrumental track from Beggar's Banquet. As Mick sings, the camera pans left, passing Bill Wyman (who resembles somebody's maiden aunt) and Charlie Watts (bored, as usual), until it reaches Brian Jones. The face that peers back at the camera is that of the most drug-wasted, utterly lost soul I believe I have ever seen. I am sure I would have remembered that terrifying face forever, even if I had seen the movie only once and even if the Film Festival audience with whom I first watched it had not gasped in dismay. Yet, a few moments later, when the camera has pulled back to get a shot of the whole group, Brian touchingly, charmingly grins -- at Jagger, or at the song, or maybe at nothing at all. So who can say that, for one fleeting instant, Brian Jones was not happy?

The author would like to thank the creators of the following web pages for information he obtained in researching this article: The Jethro Tull Music Archive and the Marianne Faithfull International Web Site.


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Last updated on May 14, 1998