In what might be the last act of the Beatles-vs-Stones rivalry, following a year after Magical Mystery Tour bombed, the Rolling Stones unleashed a literal circus of their own. A better production was presented to all, though it wouldn’t see the light of day till 1996. The Rock and Roll Circus incorporated actual elements from Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus, including acrobats, a fire-eater and a trained tiger, for starters, along with Jethro Tull, coming off their first album, Taj Mahal, The Who and Marianne Faithful. Also debuting for the first and only time was the Dirty Mac, a super group headlined by Beatle John Lennon.
Directing chores fell to Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who’d already helmed many of the Beatles’ promotional films (“Rain”, “Paperback Writer”, “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”), and was doomed to direct the Get Back/ Let It Be film. The irony is not lost here as this special was filmed partly as a promotional tool for the Stones’ just-released record Begger’s Banquet. When his turn came, John and Mick Jagger sat through an awkward introductory segment wherein Mick almost completely loses his accent. Then John joins his mates live before an invited studio audience.
For this two-song set John assembled a stellar backing combo: Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums, with Keith Richards from the Stones on bass and John on rhythm guitar. And what’s that black bag moving on the floor?…Oh right, that’s Yoko.
First up is a thumping rendition of “Yer Blues”, fresh from The White Album which had only just arrived in record stores three weeks before. This was a rockin’ cover considering that, for the most part it’s clearly not the same players. First John takes the solo, then Clapton steps in, and never was a sideman more apropos to a blues rendition.
Now joined by ‘perpetual violinist’ Ivry Gitlis, Yoko Ono emerges from her bag after this first song for what starts out as a pleasant little jam. Yoko’s screams don’t even start until they’re a minute and a half in. Luckily they only had to jam for four and a half minutes. Provisionally titled “Her Blues” by John, it wound up on the eventual album release as “Whole Lotta Yoko”.
By the time the Stones took the stage it was 2 am and most of the studio audience had left. Even so, John introduced them with a sly “And now…”, at which point they jump right into “Jumping Jack Flash”. And if some of the audience had left, a lot of those who were left, in their fancy dress and red or yellow blankets were on their feet dancing. Now all that was left was to prepare for broadcast.
This gathering of the stars would not see the light for another couple of decades, however. One story says the Stones felt upstaged by the Who’s performance of “A Quick One While He’s Away”. Another is that they were disappointed in their own performance. That’s a hard one to swallow since, despite the fact that the Stones were exhausted and quite honestly on drugs, they put on a pretty damn good show. One possible reason that rises above the others might be that this was the last public appearance of Brian Jones with the group. The less said the better, for though he was present, well…apart from his slide guitar on “No Expectations”, most of his contributions were inaudible. In an odd turn of events, neither Brian nor John would be around to see this special released to the public.
Available on: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, released on VHS, laser disc and CD, October 1996, following two days of screenings at the Walter Reade Theater during the New York Film Festival. The DVD followed in October 2004. This was reissued as The Rock and Roll Circus Expanded Edition 2-CD set & The Deluxe CD-DVD-Blue-Ray Edition in April 2019.
Note: the reissue includes unreleased tracks such as “Revolution Rehearsal”, a disjointed uptempo version of “Revolution 1” from The White Album, which slaps the ‘all right’ refrain on top instead of the bottom of the song; a “Warmup Jam” and an unused second take of “Yer Blues” where Clapton lays down an even bluesier twang.
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