The late '60s were a time of great experimentation and great silliness in rock, both of which are present in large doses in "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus," a 1968 performance filmed as a BBC-TV special but never aired. It was 1995 before it surfaced on video, and now it's available on DVD in 5.1 SurroundSound and packed with the extras that have become de rigueur in the DVD age.
As the Who's Pete Townshend explained in a recent interview for the DVD, he, Mick Jagger and the Faces' (and later Stones') Ronnie Wood started brainstorming about mounting a circus-themed extravaganza tour of the U.S. That never panned out, but Jagger and the Stones jumped on aspects of the idea and invited numerous established and soon-to-break stars for this freewheeling event.
Those guests include such classic-rock all-stars as John Lennon, Eric Clapton, the Who and Jethro Tull as well as bluesman Taj Mahal, pop chanteuse Marianne Faithfull and the ineffable Yoko Ono.
The result seems to be the Stones' answer to the Beatles' rock-show-within-an-album concept of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" combined with the Fab Four's often nonsensically experimental "Magical Mystery Tour" film.
The moment in "Rock and Roll Circus" that may best capture the juxtaposition of musical greatness with sheer weirdness is the segment right after Lennon inaugurates his ad hoc band the Dirty Mac, which included Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass) and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. It was Lennon's first public venture apart from the Beatles.
After a blistering version of Lennon's "Yer Blues," they bring Israeli classical violinist Ivry Gitlis and Ono up for a number accurately titled "Whole Lotta Yoko." This consists of a quartet of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers riffing a three-chord rock progression while Gitlis saws energetically and Ono caterwauls exuberantly. The show also includes a segment with a fire-eater.
From a purely musical standpoint, the high point is the Who's running through its rock mini-opera "A Quick One (While He's Away)," the group's first successful attempt at the expanded form it would take to greater heights the following year with "Tommy."
The focal point of the program, however, is the Stones in their original lineup: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Brian Jones. Six months after this Dec. 11, 1968, show, Jones announced his departure from the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band, and a month after that, he was found dead in his swimming pool.
Their six-song performance that closes the show catches the Stones at their satanic majesties' best, shortly after Jagger had worked on his film debut in "Performance" and was feeling especially dramatic. The intensity of his performance is balanced during Jagger's playful midshow interview with Lennon that serves as introduction to the Dirty Mac's set.
Richards also gets in on the goofiness, appearing in a top hat and an eye patch and puffing a cigar while introducing the Who. As was true of the period in general, "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus" yields a few terrific moments in music along with a fair amount of "we're rock stars so we can get away with anything" pretension. Depending on your tolerance for such indulgences, you'll come away thinking either "Ahh, those were the days" or "I guess you had to be there."