By Jeff Burger
Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that an entire half century has passed since the 1960s. Other times—such as when you watch the frequently surreal Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus film–that decade can seem even further in the past than it actually is. In a 1970 Rolling Stone article that is reprinted in the book that accompanies a new deluxe version of the film, writer David Dalton notes that “it is hard to imagine anything as loose as this happening in the States.” True—and it’s at least as hard to imagine anything like this happening in 2019.
The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus started as an idea for a concert tour that would involve the Stones, the Small Faces, and the Who. When that didn’t work out, it turned into a December 1968 event that was filmed over two nights in London for a BBC television broadcast. In addition to the Stones, performers included Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Yoko Ono, Marianne Faithfull (who was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time), the Who, and a supergroup billed as the Dirty Mac that consisted of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell.
All the performers dressed in circus garb with Jagger, for example, adorned like a ringmaster and his bandmate Bill Wyman appearing as a red-nosed clown. The audience—members of the Stones’ fan club, contest winners, and other invited guests—wore bright-colored ponchos and silly-looking hats. Clowns and midgets mingled with the artists; and, between musical acts, performers included acrobats and a fire eater. Like the Beatles’ contemporaneous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and Magical Mystery Tour film, the whole thing seemed like a fantasy dreamed up on somebody’s acid trip.
Like many such fantasies, it didn’t exactly work out as planned: the film never aired on the BBC and in fact went unreleased for 28 years, reportedly because Jagger wasn’t satisfied with the Stones’ performance and also because of the departure from the band and subsequent death of the group’s Brian Jones. (This was his last formal appearance with the band before he was fired; he drowned only about seven months later.) The film finally had its theatrical release in 1996, when it also appeared on VHS and laserdisc and the soundtrack came out on CD. A DVD with assorted bonus features showed up in 2004.
Now, 15 years later, the circus is back in an edition that will be out June 7 and incorporates a hardcover book with 44 pages of notes, credits, and photos. Expanding dramatically on the earlier releases, it includes the film on both Blu-ray and DVD and in original 4×3 and widescreen 16:9 aspect ratios. The audio (with a surround-sound option) and video have been remastered, and extras now include three commentary tracks: one with the Stones’ Jagger, Richards, and Wyman, plus Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Taj Mahal, and Ono; one with Faithfull, writer Dalton, and a Stones fan who attended the show; and one with director Michael Lindsay Hogg and cinematographer Tony Richmond. Two CDs, also with remastered sound, respectively feature the film soundtrack and additional material, including three numbers by Taj Mahal and the Dirty Mac’s previously unreleased takes on the Beatles’ “Revolution” and “Yer Blues.”
The best music is in the original film, though. You can see Pete Townshend working his way toward Tommy as he and the Who, featuring original drummer Keith Moon, deliver a blistering version of their early mini–rock opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” Another highlight is Faithfull’s baroque pop reading of Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin’s “Something Better.” But the biggest treat is the Stones, who dominate the film with six numbers: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Let It Bleed’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and four songs from Beggars Banquet, which had been released just a few days before the concert took place: “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Salt of the Earth.” (That show-closing final number is lip-synced but the other five are live.)
It’s difficult to understand why Jagger would have been unsatisfied with these renditions. (Rumor has it that he felt overshadowed by the Who.) He seems fully engaged with the audience and the music and delivers a consummate performance. The rest of the band is in fine form as well, with Jones’s slide guitar on “No Expectations” a particular treat.
As noted earlier, it’s hard to imagine anything like this concert happening today. As Dalton says in a 1995 article included with the package, “The Rock and Roll Circus captures the delirious optimism of an era. Depending on your point of view, it was either the high point in the history of the cosmos or a period of mass hallucination (or both). But call it what you will, for a brief moment it seems that rock ’n’ roll would inherit the earth.”
Indeed. And while rock may today seem less likely to take over and remake the world, most of this music still sounds just as good as it did in 1968.
Richard X. Heyman, Pop Circles. Power pop artist Richard Heyman’s 13th album concludes with a reprise of its opening number, “Guess You Had to Be There,” that includes audio snippets from the 1960s—Ed Sullivan presenting the Beatles, Bobby Kennedy campaigning, and so on. But you don’t have to dig nearly that far into the CD to figure out what decade Heyman left his heart in. The music sounds fresh but you can tell that it comes from someone whose record collection probably includes acts like the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. Heyman is known for playing all the instruments on his albums, and he supplies the lion’s share of them here—most notably, lots of jingle-jangle guitar—but his wife Nancy capably handles the bass parts. Among the many highlights in this melodious self-penned set are the aforementioned lead-off track and the hard-rocking “Until the Clock Strikes Doom.”
The Forty Fours, Twist the Knife. On their first album in seven years, the blues-rocking Forty Fours return with a lineup that pairs longtime leader, vocalist, and guitarist Johnny Main with four new recruits: bassist Mike Hightower, drummer Gary Ferguson, guitarist Junior Watson, and harmonica player Eric Von Herzen. Their performances are strong, and so is the program, which includes one song by Main but mostly taps the blues greats he admires, including Muddy Waters (“Champagne and Reefer”), Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Too Many Drivers”), Howlin’ Wolf (“Howlin’,” with a vocal that sounds a lot like Dr. John), and T-Bone Walker (“44’s Shuffle”). Harmonica fans will particularly enjoy this: while many players of that instrument double as vocalists, Von Herzen sticks to his blues harp and makes it a key element of this album.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.