Think rock festivals of the ’60s had star power? Pshaw! In December 1968, the Rolling Stones, dressed as ringmasters and in other costumes, assembled a unique collection of British rock royalty, most at propitious stages of their careers, to tape a one-ring musical circus as a BBC TV special. Although instantly legendary, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus was abandoned at the band's behest, only to appear 27 years later (with their blessing) on DVD and CD, proving that this white whale, fueled by bootlegs and myth, was worth catching. While the visual element is priceless, the music on its own is still extraordinary.
The lineup, introduced by various Stones, includes the Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal and a one-time supergroup of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass) and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell. Billed as the Dirty Mac (as in Brit-slang for raincoat), the quartet slithers through Lennon's “Yer Blues” in a tantalizing promise of what would never again be. Unfortunately, their other role here is to back Yoko Ono and a violinist on five awful minutes of random caterwauling and scraping, possibly the most egregious waste of talent and achievement on record. (Stranger, but infinitely more entertaining, is the prefatory put-on yak between Jagger and Lennon.)
The Who deliver a full and enthusiastic performance of their proto-opera song cycle “A Quick One While He's Away.” In its initial incarnation as a mutant blues band with flute, Jethro Tull, with — of all people — Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi subbing on guitar, powers through “A Song for Jeffrey.” Taj Mahal ably represents the colonies with a pulsing “Gimme Some Lovin'” groove on “Ain't That a Lot of Love,” but Jagger inamorata Marianne Faithfull phones in an off-key rendition of “Something Better,” a lifeless Barry Mann/Gerry Goffin tune that she hadn't even released at the time.
Disappointment in their exhausted performance, exacerbated by the incapacity of Brian Jones, in the last year of his life, making his final appearance with the group he founded, reportedly led to the Stones'suppression of this document. And, truthfully, they do trudge flat-footed through the first half of “Jumping Jack Flash” before finding their way. But the rest of the six-song set is nothing to cry about. Delving into Beggars Banquet for most of the material, they pull out a blazing “Sympathy for the Devil,” but “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations” and “Salt of the Earth” become especially potent and detailed in the intimacy of the setting. Far from sounding like a circus, this is as fine a live document as the Stones have ever made.