Looking to promote his band’s recently released album, Mick Jagger had hatched an idea for a TV show to be called The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. According to The Beatles Bible, the Stones, “always keen to keep up with The Beatles, wanted a television special to rival Magical Mystery Tour.”

It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to imitate or associate themselves with that disaster in any way, but it’s certainly true that the Stones were always looking for some way to one-up The Beatles, and Magical Mystery Tour had set the bar very low. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who also had several Beatles promo films on his resume, Rock and Roll Circus boasted appearances by the Who, Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, and Marianne Faithfull.

But the really big name in the lineup was John Lennon. In his first live performance as an adult without the other Beatles, John played with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass), and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell in a supergroup he named  “the Dirty Mac” — which according to John McMillian’s book Beatles Vs. Stones was “a slang expression used to describe the type of trench coats favored by perverts,” but also has to have been at least a little bit of a poke in Paul McCartney’s eye.

The Mac rehearsed on the 10th:

and recorded on the 11th. Their performance of “Yer Blues” was quite smashing:

But after that, says McMillian, things went wrong when the Mac launched into…

… a five-minute blues jam that was supposed to to be a showcase for Ivry Gitlis, the legendary Israeli violinist. Shortly after [the] song got underway, however, Yoko Ono wriggled out of a black canvas bag near the side of the stage and (with John’s encouragement) started screaming into the microphone…. Gitlis tried to smile as he played along, while Clapton and Richards mostly just looked away.

Of all John and Yoko’s many stunts, this was one of the most obnoxious. If you’d like to get a taste of it, and I can’t necessarily recommend that, you’ll have to watch this video someone made by pointing their camera at a TV screen:

In truth the whole history of the Rock and Roll Circus is fraught with twists and turns. After it was shot and edited, a preview screening was held at a movie theater in Soho. The Stones were displeased with their performances — by the time they’d gone on, it had been well into the wee hours of the morning — and even more displeased that everyone else was on top form, especially the Who. McMillian quotes Stones business manager Allen Klein as saying, “I don’t like it. Why? Because the Who blew you off your own stage.”

And so The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus was buried in a sealed vault, unseen by the public until it was finally released on VHS in 1996. It was subsequently issued on DVD, but is now out of print, and the Circus is not available on any streaming platform that I could find. Parts are on YouTube but the Who’s rendition of “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” is available only as audio:

Of the Stones’ performances, the only ones readily available are “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which had not yet appeared on record:

And the closing number, “Salt of the Earth,” presented here in a bizarre double-size format:

22 years after it finally emerged into the light of day, The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus appears to be slowly drifting back into the shadows. All the video footage posted here is unofficial and subject to disappear at any moment; enjoy it while you can.

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