The liner notes to the Rock And Roll Circus CD by The Rolling Stones read, “an entertainment extravaganza planned and put on by The Rolling Stones in December, 1969.” The original intent for Rock And Roll Circus was to broadcast it on the BBC as a television special. Alas this never materialized. It would be years before the music from Rock And Roll Circus would be released on CD and longer still before the program itself became available on video.
The idea behind Rock And Roll Circus was not bad and the artists involved were top notch. In some ways I prefer the CD over the DVD mainly because while I can still hear the bad parts, at least I don’t have to see them. The bad parts include almost every spoken word, some of the costumes involved, the basic production values and any time Yoko Ono opens her mouth.
Rock And Roll Circus could have been even more interesting or bizarre. Brigitte Bardot and Johnny Cash both turned down invitations to appear. Having them appear on the same stage together may been enough to push the whole affair over the edge. Mick Jagger turned down Jimmy Page and the New Yardbirds because he did not have a tape of their music. Their name change to Led Zeppelin and the music from their first album would have been historic if Mick Jagger had just trusted Jimmy Page.
The brand new group, Jethro Tull, kick off the show with “Song For Jeffrey.” Ian Anderson’s flute has become an accepted part of rock history but this was a new concept in 1968. The vocal is strong and Tull rocks but it is the harmonica playing of Glen Cornic that makes the song worth listening too.
The Who almost steal the show. “A Quick One While He’s Away” finds a pre-Tommy Who just beginning to experiment with the rock opera concept. While the song may meander around a bit, Pete Townshend’s guitar always brings it back home. There are some interesting falsetto vocals by Keith Moon and John Entwhistle. The Who are just about to leave their early raw period behind but have not quite reached the smoother sound that will begin to creep into their music after Tommy.
Taj Mahal can simply sing the blues. “Ain’t That A Lot Of Love” is my favorite track on the album. Jesse Ed Davis lays down his funky guitar licks as the backbone of the song and his guitar bridge in the middle of the song is hard to beat.
The CD release finds Marianne Faithful providing a powerful vocal to “Something Better.” The DVD version shows a burned out, no doubt high Marianne Faithful just getting through the song. Ironically, “Something Better” was the B side of her single release “Sister Morphine” which was a tortured rendition of drug abuse. It was considered to raw for the show. It was alright to be addicted but not to sing about it.
The Dirty Mac consisted of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, on bass, and Mitch Mitchell, the drummer for Jimi Hendrix. John Lennon gives a competent vocal but is basically just going through the motions. Clapton provides some good guitar work but the song never really jells.
Ivry Gitlis was an excellent classical violinist and the song “Whole Lotta Yoko” starts out promising with Dirty Mac providing a background for some violin jamming. It was quite creative. Then of course Yoko Ono opens her mouth.
The Rolling Stone play a six song set.
“Parachute Woman,” No Expectations” and “Salt Of The Earth” are all taken from Beggar’s Banquet. These three songs were the heart and soul of a great rock album and years later it is nice to see them performed together from that time period. “Parachute Woman” is superior to the studio version. “No Expectations and “Salt Of The Earth” feature Keith Richards acoustic guitar set against Brian Jones slide guitar, playing in what would be his last Rolling Stones live performance.
“Jumping Jack Flash” and “Sympathy For The Devil” are competent but need some filling out here. There would be better renditions of these songs over the years. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” would have made its Rolling Stones debut if this concert had been released at the time. It was a little different from the album version but would build nicely throughout.
Today, Rock And Roll Circus is an interesting period piece and has historical value, especially for fans of The Rolling Stones. In the final analysis I could have done with less circus and more rock & roll.