Resurrected Stones Film Finds Pivot Point In Rock History

Jul 26, 2019

In December of 1968, some of the biggest names in rock and roll came together to film a concert organized by The Rolling Stones. Over the two-day lifespan of the "Rock and Roll Circus," which was intended to air on the BBC, the Stones recorded performances from that era's most celebrated artists — the Who, John Lennon and Eric Clapton, to name a few.

But the Stones wanted some re-shoots, and the production lost momentum. Then, the filmstock went missing.

Decades later, the Circus' reels were found leaning against a hay bale in a barn in France. Recordings from the event were subsequently released in 1996. Now, a remastered film and concert album presents unreleased outtakes from Lennon and others. The 4K restoration captures a snapshot of a critical moment in rock and roll history — a time when the Stones and their contemporaries sat at the height of their fame but teetered on the brink of Altamont-esque unraveling.

Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a young director in the 1960s, shot the show. He recalls how the Circus — complete with a live tiger, trapeze artists, and a 25-year-old Mick Jagger dressed as a ringmaster — symbolized the decade to an almost-surreal degree.

YouTube

"The Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones was the 1960s in one room," says Lindsay-Hogg. "On the day, I knew that it was more than a rock and roll show. It was almost a document of its times."

David Dalton, who covered the event for Rolling Stone, shared a similar impression with filmmaker Robin Klein in a 2003 interview included in the film's re-release. "It was just still at the point when everybody thought rock was going to inherit the earth," Dalton says in the film. "We all assumed Mick and Keith [Richards] were on the phone to Fidel [Castro] and Mao [Zedong], and you know, Mick was going to become a member of Parliament. And say delusionary if you wish, but it really was sort of an inspiring time."

The Who perform at the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus.
Michael Randolf / Courtesy of the production company

The Circus' legend-studded line-up came together in a quintessentially easygoing '60s-fashion. "All the performers in the show had basically come out of a little address book in Mick Jagger's back pocket," Lindsay-Hogg explains. "He looks up L, he calls John, and then John says he'll do it." Lennon, Richards and Eric Clapton joined forces to play as The Dirty Mac, a last-minute addition to the show and the group's one and only performance (which featured a jam with a classical violinist and Yoko Ono).

Still, Lindsay-Hogg says, there was a palpable sense of oncoming change amidst the Circus' fun. "In the middle '60s, no one had been wounded or damaged by drugs. But then, as we come into the last year of that decade, there was starting to be casualties. And I had a sense that things could not last in this glorious way."

Indeed, spontaneous supergroups aside, attendees of the Circus say there was a certain darker messiness about the event. The concert film was being shot with new French cameras that no one quite knew how to use and that kept breaking down. And as the event went on, the artists grew less and less sober.

In the remastered version of the film, Dalton describes watching Brian Jones onstage. "He almost looked as if he had become the kind of scapegoat for all the sins of swinging London," Dalton remembers. "He just looked like the gods had shunned him and turned their backs on him, you know?"

At the time of the Circus, heroin hadn't fully taken over the rock-and-roll scene — but it was looming. Marianne Faithfull, who played the Circus and spent many years struggling with addiction herself, also spoke with director Robin Klein about that moment in the rock and roll scene. "Everybody knew something was coming, and it did. Jimi Hendrix died, Janis Joplin died, Jim Morrison died, Brian Jones died," she says in the film. "There was an apocalyptic air about the whole thing."

A year after the Rock and Roll Circus, almost to the day, the Stones played at California's Altamont Speedway. An audience member was stabbed and died, and the show went down as one of the most infamous in popular music history. James Riley, a lecturer at Cambridge University and author of The Bad Trip, a book about the end of the '60s, traces a trajectory between the two events.

"When you watch the Rock and Roll Circus, it looks like a rehearsal for the terrible events that happened at Altamont," Riley says. "You see a band in transition. They're moving into a sort of diabolical, Luciferian set of personae, particularly on the part of Mick Jagger."

It is precisely for showing that moment of transition, Riley suggests, that the new concert film is so valuable. "I think it is impossible to see this without thinking of the tragic histories that befell a lot of these individuals," he says. "But what this film has captured is that pivot point. It captures all these characters just as they are moving from one phase to another."

Listen to the full aired story at the audio link.

: 7/26/19

Because of a production error, in a previous version of this report the photo of Keith Richards, John Lennon and Eric Clapton was reversed and made it appear as if they were left-handed guitarists.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In December of 1968, some of the biggest names in rock 'n' roll came together to film a concert organized by The Rolling Stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS")

MICK JAGGER: 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.

SHAPIRO: Over two days, the Stones recorded with the hottest musicians of the time - The Who, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, among others. The concert was meant to air on the BBC.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

But the band wanted some reshoots. Momentum got lost; even the film got lost. Decades later, the reels were found in a barn in France. Recordings were first released in 1996, and there is now a remastered film and concert album. Producer Kat Aaron brings us this look at that nearly lost recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS")

JAGGER: Welcome back, everybody.

KAT AARON, BYLINE: Picture a 25-year-old Mick Jagger dressed as a circus ringmaster - top hat, red tails, bow tie. December '68 - The Rolling Stones are young and world-famous, and they wanted a concert film for their new album. Not just any film; they wanted a circus, a real one - trapeze artists, knife-thrower, fire-swallower, a live tiger and the bands.

MICHAEL LINDSAY-HOGG: The Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones was the 1960s in one room.

AARON: Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a young director, shot the show.

LINDSAY-HOGG: On the day, I knew that it was more than a rock 'n' roll show; it was almost a document of its times. And I had a sense that things could not last in this glorious way.

AARON: This was on a small soundstage in West London with striped walls and a U of bleachers surrounding the circus ring. The audience was invited through an ad in a rock magazine and the Stones' fan club. They all look very late '60s, with both men and women wearing bright ponchos and felt hats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A QUICK ONE WHILE HE'S AWAY")

THE WHO: (Singing) Her man's been gone for nigh on a year. He was due home yesterday, but he ain't here.

AARON: In the ring, The Who's lead singer, Roger Daltrey, is wearing skintight leather pants and an open vest over a bare chest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A QUICK ONE WHILE HE'S AWAY")

THE WHO: (Singing) Ooh, you know you're...

AARON: The Who had just come off tour, and they are at the top of their game - tight and ferocious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A QUICK ONE WHILE HE'S AWAY")

THE WHO: (Singing) Forgiven, forgiven. You are forgiven. You're all forgiven.

(APPLAUSE)

AARON: The John Lennon, Eric Clapton supergroup, The Dirty Mac, was a little looser. They were a last-minute addition, explains Lindsay-Hogg.

LINDSAY-HOGG: All the performers in the show had basically come out of a little address book in Mick Jagger's back pocket. He looks up L, he calls John, and then John says he'll do it.

AARON: In the film, there's an interlude where Lennon and Jagger are sitting down, mugging for the camera and pretending they're on an American talk show.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS")

JAGGER: John, I want to talk to you about your new group, The Dirty Mac...

JOHN LENNON: Sure.

JAGGER: ...Which you got together for tonight's show.

LENNON: We've got Mitch Mitchell from The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

JAGGER: Are you really? Experienced?

LENNON: Oh, very, very.

AARON: The Circus was The Dirty Mac's one and only performance. At rehearsal, they did The Beatles' "Revolution," and Lennon couldn't quite remember how to play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS")

LENNON: I can't remember what happens in the solo (ph). Just...

AARON: For the show, they did a jam with a classical violinist and Yoko Ono.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS")

YOKO ONO: (Vocalizing).

AARON: The film was being shot with fancy, new French cameras that no one quite knew how to use. They kept breaking down. And as the day went on, the artists got less and less sober. Brian Jones, the Stones' first bandleader, was in rough shape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID DALTON: Brian Jones was, you know, a sad character.

AARON: David Dalton covered the event for Rolling Stone magazine. He spoke to filmmaker Robin Klein about it for a commentary track on a previous release of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DALTON: He almost looked as if he had become a kind of scapegoat for all the sins of Swinging London. You know, he just looked like the gods had shunned him, turned their back on him, you know.

AARON: Jones wasn't the only one struggling with drugs. Marianne Faithfull had a sweetheart image at the time, but she, like so many others in that world, was using heroin. In the film, Jagger sings "You Can't Always Get What You Want" straight into the camera. But Dalton says he was also singing to Faithfull.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DALTON: Because the song was written for her and about her.

AARON: At the time of the Circus, heroin hadn't fully taken over that scene. But it was looming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) But then you might just find you get what you need.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DALTON: I guess that's kind of the first time I sort of felt, oh, my God. You know, it's not getting better all the time.

AARON: Marianne Faithfull also spoke to Robin Klein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIANNE FAITHFULL: Everybody knew something was coming, and it did - Jimi Hendrix died, Janis Joplin died, Jim Morrison died, Brian Jones died. There was an apocalyptic air about the whole thing.

AARON: Faithfull herself overdosed the next year and spent many years struggling with addiction. But in this moment, that was all in the future.

David Dalton.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DALTON: It was just still at the point when everybody thought rock was going to inherit the earth. We all assumed Mick, Keith were on the phone to Fidel and Mao. And, you know, Mick was going to become a member of Parliament and - say delusionary if you wish, but it really was sort of inspiring time. And of course, it was just a little over a year later that everything would fall apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL")

AARON: A year later, almost to the day, the Stones played at California's Altamont Speedway. An audience member was stabbed near the foot of the stage and died.

JAMES RILEY: When you watch "The Rock And Roll Circus," it looks like a rehearsal for the terrible events that happened at Altamont.

AARON: James Riley is a lecturer at Cambridge University and the author of "Bad Trip," a book about the end of the '60s.

RILEY: You see a band in transition. They're moving into a sort of diabolical, Luciferian set of personae, particularly on the part of Mick Jagger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of wealth and taste.

AARON: At 5 a.m., the Circus is finally winding down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROLLING STONES ROCK AND ROLL CIRCUS")

JAGGER: There's nothing left for us to say, really, but to sing you one last good-nightly song and to wish you all good night.

AARON: Everyone's sitting on the bleachers, too tired to stand - the Stones, the other artists, the fans. They've cycled through two audiences. They'd been filming for more than a day. And parents were calling the studio looking for their kids Mick Jagger and Keith Richards swaying and singing. Marianne Faithfull's in front of them. Lennon's in the back row.

James Riley.

RILEY: I think it is impossible to see this without thinking of the tragic histories that befell a lot of these individuals. But what this film has captured is that pivot point. It captures all these characters just as they are moving from one phase to another. We also see a sort of classically '60s attempt to create a sort of temporary new world. But those are always going to be somewhat fragile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALT OF THE EARTH")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Let's think of the humble of birth.

AARON: For NPR News, I'm Kat Aaron.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES SONG, "SALT OF THE EARTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.