December 11: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

RollingStonesRockAndRollCircus“You’ve heard of Oxford Circus, you’ve heard of Piccadilly Circus, and this is the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and we’ve got sights and sounds and marvels to delight your eyes and ears, and you’ll be able to see the very first one of those in a few moments.” -Mick Jagger

Once upon a time, at the height of their popularity, a Beatle and a Stone shared a stage and played a few songs. Would you believe that all recordings of this event sat in a can for thirty years? Well, that and other musical performances happened in a one-night only event that featured the cream of the 1960s British music scene’s crop: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, which was filmed on this day in 1968.

How did this event come to be and why was it hidden from the public? Mick Jagger wanted to break from the normal process of recording albums and then going on tour to promote them. He wanted to do something new and original to promote the band’s album Beggar’s Banquet. So, Jagger met with director Michael Lindsay Hogg, and after a bit of free association, they settled on the idea of a circus-themed BBC performance special featuring the Stones and some of their musical friends. At 2PM on December 11, 1968, filming began with Jagger dressed as a ringmaster and officially welcoming the audience to the Circus.

To open the show, the Stones wanted a new band to show off their skills. This spot on the bill was initially offered to Jimmy Page’s new band Led Zeppelin, but they turned it down and the gig instead went to Jethro Tull who played their song “Song For Jeffery”. Following Tull were The Who who deliver a kick-ass performance of “A Quick One While He’s Away,” the epic song suite from the band’s second record, A Quick One. The song is a tale of love, infidelity and forgiveness, and it was the band’s first attempt at creating a rock opera. Cinephiles amongst you will of course recognize it from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

After the Who, American bluesman Taj Mahal performed a blistering version of his song “Ain’t That A Lotta Love.” Getting Mahal to the show was quite the feat, as the Stones’ management basically had to sneak him into the country because England’s Musician’s Union refused to approve his work visa. The singer Marianne Faithfull, who was Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, followed Mahal with “Something Better.”

From there, the show went into the main event. Mick Jagger arrived on stage again, this time with John Lennon, who insisted on referring to himself as Winston Leg-Thigh. After the two rockers engaged in a bit of conversational silliness, Lennon introduced his “new band,” a supergroup called the Dirty Mac, formed for that night’s festivities. The Dirty Mac’s line up was pretty phenomenal, featuring Lennon, Eric Clapton, The Stones’ own Keith Richards, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience and of course, Yoko Ono. The band performed two songs, “Yer Blues” from the Beatles’ “White Album” and an avant-garde Yoko Ono piece dubbed “Whole Lotta Yoko” that can only be described as something that was performed by professional musicians.

Finally, the Stones hit the stage for a six song set that opened with a rough-edged version of “Jumping Jack Flash.” The remainder of the set consisted of the bluesy “Parachute Woman,” country number “No Expectations,” the first ever live performance of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and a loose and funky version of “Sympathy For the Devil.” Finally, at the show’s end, the Stones said goodnight to the audience as the full cast of performers joined Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Beggars Banquet closer “Salt of the Earth.”

So, there was the concert spectacle, all set to go and be transmitted by the BBC; except that never came to pass. Why? Well. simply put, the Stones weren’t happy with it. First of all, by the time the Stones finally took the stage, the band and the audience were exhausted. As I mentioned, filming began at 2PM, but between the time it took to set up between acts and several technical snafus, including multiple cameras breaking down, the Stones didn’t go on until 5AM! Not to mention,The Who were fresh off a tour and were in top form during their performance and absolutely blew the Stones out of the water. Jagger and the band thought that their own performance was subpar and had the BBC broadcast canceled. The Stones put the footage on the shelf, with the intention of using it in a future project, but when guitarist Brian Jones died, those plans were abandoned. Although some footage from the Rock And Roll Circus leaked out to the public over the years, the Stones did not release the full film until 1996.

So, let’s drink to the hard working people, let’s drink to the salt of the earth. Let’s raise a glass to the Rolling Stones and their crazed circus experiment, with a Circus Freak. It’s an unusual twist on the basic rum and coke, and the perfect pick me up should you ever find yourself awake at 5AM filming a concert special.

Circus Freak

  • 1 1/2 ounces Coconut Rum
  • 1 1/2 ounces White Rum
  • 5 ounces Vanilla Coke

Pour all ingredients over ice in a highball glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Tomorrow: What did Frank Sinatra drink?

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