Roll up, tune in and drop out: an oral history of The Rolling Stones’ star-packed folly, Rock And Roll Circus

Roll up, roll up, to the maddest, baddest, wildest, druggiest and most devil-tatted show on Earth!

In 1968, envisioning their very own surreal cross between Magical Mystery Tour and Top Of The Pops, The Rolling Stones gathered a staggering array of stars of the age – John and Yoko, Clapton, The Who, Marianne and more – dropped them in a circus tent full of ageing acrobats and voodoo fire-eaters, rocked them ragged until dawn and created what director Michael Lindsey-Hogg calls “The World Series of rock’n’roll”.

Then, amid a turbulent year of tragedy and tension, the film was lost for 28 years, a priceless document of the superstar camaraderie of the late 1960s fallen into myth.

Rediscovered in a shed, the film was restored for the New York Film festival in 1996 and, as it receives a Dolby Surround upgrade for a brand new deluxe release, here the surviving main players – in new interviews and snippets from the DVD extras – tell the tale of this legendary sideshow.

So come and witness with your very eyes, the Amazing Bagged Yoko! The Strangely Green Keef! John Lennon versus the boxing kangaroos! And the Massive Mouthed Man possessed by diabolical forces! Roll up, roll up for the long-read of your lives!

The cast and crew of Rock And Roll Circus by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg, director: “I’d gotten to know and work with The Rolling Stones on Ready Steady Go! and I first met them in 1965. Mick asked me to do their first video, which was ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, and they liked it a lot. I get a call a month or so later saying ‘we’ve had this idea that we might want to do a television special… we’re free in December, let’s try to get a show ready to shoot’.

“They had offices then in Maddox Street in the West End, they had a nice little conference room. I’m doodling on a pad, little stick figures or faces. Then I keep drawing a circle and I go round it and round it. This god of titles ran into my shoulder, I called Mick and said ‘I’m gonna say seven words to you…The Rolling Stones Rock’n’Roll Circus’. Immediately he got that that might be the umbrella under which we could have various groups and various participants in a TV special.”

Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones singer: “The whole idea is to make it a mixture of different kinds of musical acts and circus acts, taking it out of the normal and making it slightly surreal, in a rather strange circus mixing the two up. And also we wanted as varied, as many different kinds of music as possible.”

Mick Jagger by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “Mick said ‘what kind of circus should it be?’ and we decided it should be a small, European traveling circus. There was a small touring English circus called Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus who would play in Yarmouth or Penzance, touring around England making a modest living. They had a cowboy on a horse and they had a very sweet aerialist act of an older married couple.”

Tony Richmond, cinematographer: “Some of the acts were pretty dreadful. You watch it and see the guy on the trapeze about three feet off the ground. The lady on the horse kept falling off and there was a guy dressed up as an American Indian throwing knives at his daughter on a spinning wheel. Sometimes he completely missed the wheel.”

Marianne Faithfull by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “Either Mick or Allen had the idea of shooting it in the original circus, which was the Coliseum in Rome. Whoever was sent out to book the Coliseum…tied up all the necessary rights like the balloons and the programs but didn’t get permission from the city fathers of Rome, and we were denied to shoot in Rome… It couldn’t have been done today because there were no record labels involved, there were no lawyers. Most of the people on the show came out of Mick’s little address book he kept in his back pocket. Both of us loved The Who and they’d also been a really wonderful group on Ready Steady Go!, so the first call went to Pete Townshend to see if he’d like to do it… Mick pulled out his little book, went down to T and called Pete Townshend, The Who were the first. Then Keith Richard was keen on Taj Mahal so Taj was probably the second.”

Taj Mahal, artist: “We were playing a show, an engagement at the Whiskey A Go-Go, in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard. I was on stage playing harmonica, at this particular section of the song, had my eyes closed. I opened my eyes up because I started hearing the cow bell and I looked down and Mick Jagger was dancing on the floor. Keith Richards was dancing on the floor. Eric Burdon, Hilton Valentine from The Animals, and a bunch of these guys are dancing on the floor… So when the set was over, I got off the stage and made a beeline to the table where Mick Jagger and everybody were holding court in the back of the club.”

“The first words out of my mouth was, ‘Listen, Mick, we got a snowball’s chance in hell to get out of this place… If there’s anything we can ever possibly do together, just give me a shout’. About three months later, I get a call from the manager, and he said, ‘Hey, would you believe this? Eight tickets had been sent for us from England for you guys to come over and bring over whoever else along with the band, and the Stones are doing this big Rock and Roll thing and they want you to be a part of it’.”

Taj Mahal by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “Then Mick and I thought it’d be great to have a group just coming together for the show and Steve Winwood, we thought would be good. We thought he’d have a tap on even younger musicians. He said ‘sure, I’ll try to come up with some guys I’d like to play with’. So we thought we had this supergroup to be, Taj Mahal, The Who, Marianne Faithfull, who was going out with Mick at the time was going to be the female on the show… Mick and I wanted a new group to give someone a break. We both watched a late-night television show that Jethro Tull was on, and we thought they’d be good. Ian Anderson’s a wonderful showman. We turned down Led Zeppelin, which would’ve been a great show.”

Keith Richards: “We just sort of said, we’re going to do this circus. Who wants to turn up? And basically you got that.”

Pete Townshend, The Who guitarist: “It wasn’t just about music that [Mick] liked. It was about people that he wanted to spend the day with, to some extent. So I felt flattered that we were invited.”

The Who join the Circus, by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “About three days before we were gonna start – we had one day or rehearsal and one day of shooting – Steve Winwood hadn’t been heard of for a while so we called him and he said ‘I just can’t get it together’. Fair enough but this leaves us with a big hole in the show because that’s a key spot, the supergroup spot – there were no supergroups at the time. The Stones and The Beatles were quite friendly so we thought maybe McCartney would like to do it, but we thought he probably wouldn’t want to perform without the other Beatles, and then of course if The Beatles are on the show that capsized The Rolling Stones as being the stars.

“So we thought John Lennon might have the temperament to just jump in. So Mick called John and he said ‘yeah, I’ve been playing with Eric Clapton just for fun, he could play, who could play bass?’ And Mick said ‘maybe Keith could play bass’. We all liked Mitch Mitchell from the Hendrix Experience so in that one phone call we had John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richard and Mitch Mitchell to fill that supergroup spot. So that’s not too shabby. That’s the way it was at the time. It was partly to do with the friendship and the mutual admiration that the key players had for each other that made the show possible in the first place.”

“There was this day prior when everybody did a bit of a rehearsal but it was more of a hanging out day. The circus had boxing kangaroos and at one point we thought of having the boxing kangaroos but the day before, John Lennon was there with Yoko and Julian and the kangaroos were hopping round wearing boxing gloves. Yoko came and said ‘if you have boxing kangaroos in the show John’s not going to appear’. If there’s a choice between boxing kangaroos and John Lennon, you put your finger on who to go with.”

Tony Richmond: “Although it was going to be shot on film, they wanted it to be like a live TV show. So Michael sat out in a truck, directing like he’d direct a live TV show. It was probably the most exciting twenty hours of my life. It was erected in an old television studio in White City in West London.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “The day was so crowded and such a long day, they all wanted to do as good as they could because they knew they were all playing on the same court and each one wanted to be a little better than the other. It’s kind of like if Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all being there and all wanting have a good time but all wanting to be a little bit better than the other ones. We’d called them for noon because they didn’t get up before then, and they all turned up more or less on time. There they all were, rummaging through the costume shop choosing something they might want to wear, like John Lennon wearing that ruff and black hat. They were like kids let out of school for a day.”

Bill Wyman, Rolling Stones guitarist: “Keith was a ringmaster. I was a clown. Brian was a clown, I think. Charlie was in another outfit. Mick was like a ringmaster, of course. And of course we had Eric with us, and John Lennon, and all those people, Yoko, they were all dressed up as well. And that’s what I remember mostly, the dressing up and the fun of the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of the audience.”

Mick and Keith by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “I liked Jethro Tull because Ian Anderson was playing his flute and looking like someone who’d been sleeping in a ditch the way he dressed and the wonderful way he pulls his knee up when he’s playing.”

Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull: “At the time we were stuck. We didn’t have a guitar player. So the only guy we could call upon was someone that we’d had a little afternoon in the studio with to try things out, and that person was then unknown, Tony Iommi, who of course went on to be the instigator of everything that we call Heavy Metal, I suppose.”

Jethro Tull by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “We had imported these cameras from France that were unusual in that they could be operated on a pedestal like an old-fashioned television camera… but mounted on the side of this television camera was a reel of 16mm film. These cameras kept breaking down all the time because it was such a new invention. Some technicians had come out from Paris with them and every twenty minutes or so they’d come out of their little truck with a screwdriver and try to figure out why it wasn’t working. So there were long delays in the day.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “The Who came on around 4 o’clock. They’d been on the road, they were very tight, they knew what they were doing. We did them in a couple of takes and they were electric because not only were they a pre-punk rock ‘n’ roll band but they also had Keith Moon as the great showboat rock ‘n’ roll drummer of all time. While that amazing set was going on and everything was going crazy, he tipped a little cup of water [onto his drums] and it looks fantastic because he’s wearing a sequinned outfit, he looks half insane and he’s got all this water spraying up, it looks wonderful.”

Keith Richards: “They were just starting to really stretch out at the time we were doing this, starting to go into extended versions and rock operas and stuff, which is another story. But I think maybe some of that came from doing this.”

Pete Townshend: “The piece that we played, which was the mini-opera, had become almost a model. I started to get this sense of the shape of it being a model for something that might work on stage with The Who with this thing that I was working on called ‘Tommy’.”

John and Mick by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “I went backstage to see if everyone was alright and I found them all in a dressing room – Mick, Keith, John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend – playing with each other, songs they all know, which were mainly old Tamla Motown songs, just a group of guys together in a room, and Keith Moon was playing spoons on the table. That was very symptomatic of the times, how genuinely close these musicians were to each other. They were just guys in their twenties who loved playing music. The underlying theme for me about the Rock And Roll Circus is that it’s almost a document of the times and this friendship, this comradeship between these kids.”

Keith Richards: “[The Dirty Mac performance] was really right off the cuff, and I mean, make it up as you go along. What you see is what you get. One quick sound check, and that was it. But, in a way, you had a sort of feeling that it was almost amateur dramatics or theatrical… nobody actually thought about what they were going to do. It was just, ‘well, I’ve never worked in the circus before. I’m going to wait until I get there, see what job I get’, you know? As long as it’s not cleaning out the animal stalls. The amount of preparation was miniscule.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “No-one knew what to make of [Yoko’s performance] and I didn’t even know it was gonna happen. After [Lennon] does ‘Yer Blues’, which was great, a violinist comes on, a very respected violinist called Ivry Gitlis, and he very much thought it was gonna be his spot. He starts to play the riff that’s developing between Clapton and John and suddenly Yoko Ono is there. All I’d noticed vaguely was at the beginning of ‘Yer Blues’, someone was getting into a black bag at the edge of the stage, but I didn’t really take much notice of that because I was trying to figure out the best way to shoot the song. Then Yoko comes near the mike and you see John and Yoko looking at each other and John going ‘go ahead, go ahead’. Then Yoko starts to sing. I’d never heard her sing before and of course it’s very riveting and it didn’t stop…She had been a quite well-regarded abstract artist in New York in the ‘50s, so she had a reputation in the avant garde art world. She wasn’t just a girl who turned up, she came with a reputation, although not many people in England knew who she’d been in New York.”

Yoko Ono, artist: “The first time I heard about this event was probably the day before or in the morning of that very day from Apple. John was always very friendly with all the members of The Rolling Stones, because I think the Beatles wrote a song for them. With Mick I think there was a tongue-in-cheek kind of nice friendship. John and I decided to go to this thing mainly because Julian was there, and ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to take him somewhere’… When the question first came about me performing there, that was very naturally done in a way. They expected that that’s what John wanted, probably, and so they were polite enough not to question it. John is the one who kept saying, ‘come on, let’s go. Do it’. The bag that I was carrying was performance art work, and it was a very important part of my performance art history in a way. I was doing that in New York… it’s just something that was part of me. John was very, very happy and satisfied with what we did. He thought that was a cutting-edge thing we did. I think that this was the first time that John performed with anybody else but The Beatles.”

Dirty Mac,, by Michael Randolph

Marianne Faithfull, singer and Rolling Stones associate: “John and Yoko would have discussed it. But I don’t remember anybody telling us what was going to happen. We had no idea. That was part of the sense of madness, surrealism. She fitted all that, you know. The theory was that the art forms shouldn’t be so separated, like they hadn’t been so much in the Surrealist times in Paris in the twenties and things, we were trying to recreate that. In an ideal world, there would be no boundaries like this is painting, this is photography, this is rock ‘n’ roll, this is classical. The dream is that you break down those things, and it’s not any genre, it’s just music.”

Keith Richards: “It was an incredible shoot, I think, 36 hours or something. I remember not remembering everything towards the end… I know we went through two audiences. We wore one out. My main memory of it is the utter chaos, people going to wardrobe and coming out in the wrong uniforms. after about 20 hours, you either lost the thread totally or you’d just gotten the hang of it. Needless to say, that day, I don’t think there was a straight act in the house. There were no straight men in this thing at all.”

David Dalton: “A good third of the people there seemed to be on hard drugs and the performers and things, you know. I mean, maybe I was imagining it. It was really heroin-drenched, I felt, that whole thing. And it was really shocking. A dark element entered the whole Brit Rock thing.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “The show began to look not like a path but like a mountain. Before John got on with his band, and the mood had changed a little bit from being a kind of euphoric thing to something which had a little more desperation to it. Mick was spending his time in the wings or backstage really trying to hold everything together, and making sure that people weren’t going to quit.”

“Then there was the sad case of Brian who had for a variety of reasons kinda let himself go. He’d been this most wonderful looking young guy, handsome, wore good clothes. But as the dynamic in The Rolling Stones changed and Mick and Keith started to take it over more from Brian he became somewhat marginalised. Brian started to drink more, drug more. Tragically, the Circus was the last time he ever played with The Rolling Stones and he looks like a man of forty pretending to be a boy of 26.

“The night before, after we did a rehearsal, I got home about ten. The phone rings and it’s him, he says ‘I’m not gonna go there tomorrow because they’re so mean to me… no-one listens to me or cares about me anymore’. He was feeling very sorry for himself, as we might if we feel like we’re being attacked or not paid attention to. I said ‘you have to come tomorrow, what would The Rolling Stones be without you?’ So he did show up but he was feeling persecuted by the others and because he didn’t have a strong character he then went into self-pity and drinking more on the day itself. So he seemed out of it. It was late at night and whatever we’d been doing he wasn’t connecting the way the others were.”

David Dalton: “I think everybody was stunned. He’d gone from this gorgeous character to somebody really pathetic that was not rescuable in some strange way. He almost looked as if he had become the kind of scapegoat for all the sins of Swinging London.”

Marianne Faithfull: “When I watched it for the first time, it was hard because of the whole thing with Brian. I got a very strong sense of that, you know, the sort of poignancy of that whole situation, more than I’d ever had before. That’s what stands out so much, is how uncomfortable Brian is and how ill he looks.”

Keith Richards: “At one point towards two-thirds of the way through, there was a definite feeling that we’re going to finish this thing. It doesn’t seem like we’re going to be able to do it, but everybody is going to pull together and we can do it. By the time we got to do our bit everybody had been up at least 36 hours, and we’ve got to pour a little energy out now. From the Stones’ point of view, we were so exhausted by that time, and really just trying to get through it.”

Pete Townshend: “I stayed to the very, very last minute. I also felt that we had to stay, you know. [It was] this idea, the Rock And Roll Circus being something that we all shared…I loved the whole day. I can remember there being a shortage of booze, too. We couldn’t go out to the off-license, and there wasn’t a bar. So I think a lot of the drunkenness could be play-acting.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “I’m thrilled by [the Stones performance]. It’s one of the great performances recorded by any camera medium, of one of the greatest stars of the history of rock ‘n’ roll. I said ‘if you notice the camera is on you, play to that camera, and if you notice the camera move, keep playing to that camera’. You’ll notice in ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, a lot of it is him playing directly to the camera, which is a very intimate thing. He’s not playing out to the crowd, he’s playing in to you, the audience member. That’s one of the reasons it works so well.

“It’s four in the morning, four-thirty, and we haven’t got ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ yet. At one point we thought of stopping then and coming back at six o’clock in the evening, twelve hours later, to start the Stones set again, because they’re exhausted and they feel they’re not as good as they should be. But it’s too expensive to come the next night… it has to be now or never. He then pulls out of his Mick Jagger bag this extraordinary performance of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ which is a performance of great will-power, concentration and letting loose the devil inside him. Whatever it is inside Mick Jagger which makes him one of the most startling performers of the century.”

Mick and The Who by Michael Randolph

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “We had a rough cut, we put it together just so they’d get a sense of what it looked like, and we showed it to Mick and Keith and Allen Klein sometime in January ’69. They liked it but they thought, seeing them together, that The Who were better than they were on the day. Well, The Who had gone on at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, The Rolling Stones had got on at two in the morning, The Who were tight, The Rolling Stones were coming unravelled. Keith said ‘I wouldn’t mind if it was called The Who’s Rock And Roll Circus, but it’s not’. They thought they were okay but could be better.”

Bill Wyman: “I think he was talking about himself, actually, and not the band. It was discussed afterwards that we should redo our part, which I thought was way over the top, because it meant recreating the entire thing. It would cost a lot of money again. And there wasn’t that much money floating about at the time.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “Over the years plans were made to reshoot it, but it never happened. At the time there was so much going on in all their lives, they were gonna tour, Brian was gonna leave the band, Mick Taylor was coming in, Mick Jagger was gonna do a movie Ned Kelly.”

Marianne Faithfull: “A few weeks go by, then a lot of shit happened, you know. Then we went to Australia. I took my overdose. Brian Jones died.”

Keith Richards: “It was two days of total mayhem. And at the end, when it finished, we thought it was a bummer for a while, you know? We just thought it had been rushed too much, that we should have spent more time on it, and we should have… It was only later on that we started to look at it and realise that it had more to it than just the actual performances and what was happening, that it was like a special event. That is, a unique bunch of people getting together and doing something they don’t usually do.”

Tony Richmond: “As the story goes one of the road managers passed away. He lived in the country and his wife was cleaning out the garage and she found all these cans of film. She called Allen and said ‘what shall I do, shall I throw them away?’ and he said ‘send them over here’. That was all the missing footage. That was probably around 1994 and that’s when Robin Klein began to put it all together. It’s a pretty incredible piece, imagine getting all of those groups together now to do something. Everybody would want too much.”

Michael Lindsey-Hogg: “Keith came to the screening at the New York Film Festival in 1996, Mick has seen it again, he thinks [The Stones performance is] great. It was a great success at the film festival, now it’s out in this wonderful Blu Ray version with the best sound it’s ever had, it really makes a lot of difference, Looking back it was a glorious, glistening moment of all the friends being together and it was almost as though it was the document of the end of the 1960s. It shows what was positive and extraordinary about that time.”

Keith Richards: “It’s like wine, you know? Like some good wine. It got more interesting 10 years later. Looking at it now it’s much, much better than I thought it was at the time. You’ll never see 1968 again, and it catches the flavour. It’s aged well, which is more than you can say for a lot of us.”

Yoko Ono: “There are many big charity shows where musicians get together and do things… I think the reason is because we were like that at the time, and that really influenced the next generation. So it was the start of that – the start of ‘come together’.”

The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus Reissue is out now on Deluxe Edition with Blu-Ray/DVD/2CD, a Vinyl 3LP Set and Double-CD