The Rolling Stones’ ‘Rock and Roll Circus’ was one of the most iconic evenings in the band’s history. Not only did the event see the band debut new material including the timeless ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ for the first time, but it would also tragically mark the final time in rock history as the band called in favours from some of the biggest stars in music. The show, which saw the birth of one-time supergroup The Dirty Mac, teamed up John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards to wonderous results but Lennon’s reaction to hearing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is perhaps the greatest moment from the whole evening.
The amount of legendary talent crammed into one tent makes it officially one of the greatest moments in popular music. The Rolling Stones were nearing the peak of their powers in 1968 when the film was recorded and, at the time, London was overflowing with mercurial talent. With supreme optimism, the band wanted to celebrate their contemporaries by joining together for a television special which was arguably the pinnacle moment of this scene.
The event, initially conceived by Mick Jagger as an innovative way to promote the new record Beggars Banquet, allowed the band space to explore unconventional methods and avoid the more formal press conference approach. Jagger got in touch with Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who had previously directed two videos for The Stones, and approached him to make a full-length TV show for them. The idea of Jagger’s was to combine rock music and a circus with the unusual setting coming to him immediately once he began to conjure up ideas.
“It was an incredible shoot, I think, 36 hours or something,” Keith Richards later remembered. “I remember not remembering everything towards the end but it was fun, we went through two audiences. Wore one out, it was great.”
The Stones performed a blistering 30-minute set in the makeshift Big Top tent which was situated in a TV studio in Wycombe and, admittedly, doesn’t quite have the same romanticism that the film suggests. Despite the less than glorious reality check, Jagger and his band were especially being on fine form, delivering a performance full of his trademark energy. Together, they carried out a blistering six-song set which would see ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ receive its first airing and, as a result, everybody in the tent was hypnotised by its magic — John Lennon included.
The classic track, which is now widely considered to be one of the Rolling Stones’ greatest creations, was written by The Glimmer Twins and arrived as the opening number on their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger opened up on the origin of the track, “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing.”
He added: “I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” Richards then came in and gave it a riff-filled makeover after he suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, a decision which transformed it from a traditional folk song into the party starting anthem that we all know and adore.
That night would be one that John Lennon remembered fondly, later recalling: “The first time I performed without The Beatles for years was the Rock And Roll Circus, and it was great to be on stage with Eric and Keith Richards and a different noise coming out behind me, even though I was still singing and playing the same style, I thought: ‘Wow! It’s fun with other people’.”
The clip is astonishing as you see a star-studded audience in absolute awe of The Rolling Stones who were arguably at the peak of their powers and were in full rock-star mode. They provided infectious energy that sent ripples across the whole tent as everybody in attendance knew that they were in the middle of watching something which would almost certainly enter the history books.