Seeking the variety of live performance in The Rolling Stones’ Rock n Roll Circus (1968)

Curator's Note

Variety meets rockumentary in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968). Produced by The Stones and filmed in a small TV studio over just two days, it was made for television but remained unseen until its eventual transmission in 1996. The show opens with circus music while Jagger as ringmaster enters promising ‘Sights and sounds and music to delight your eyes and ears!’ Following this preamble, title cards reminiscent of old music hall programmes serve to introduce the main players.

David Dalton, sitting in the studio audience, would later recall that the atmosphere created by the sight of the whole spectrum of sixties rock royalty assembled amid the pomp of the circus was one which was tinged with an air of unreality:

"It was hard to believe it was actually happening. Lennon, Keith Richard, Clapton and Mitch Mitchell playing together in a Supergroup, a real circus with tigers, plate spinners, a boxing kangaroo, the Stones, the Who, acrobats, clowns, midgets and a fire eater, and entirely planned and produced by the Stones themselves."

One can imagine these stars with their own attendant celebrity myths and media-constructed identities meeting at once in that already cramped environment; pop, rock, celebrity and music of the 1960s merging with public spectacle, with vaudeville, with the charged air of the carnival. Though this was a made-for-TV-movie, the idea of space and public spectacle is of critical importance here, where the experience (and the nostalgia) associated with traditional public entertainment collides head on with the emerging format of the rock documentary.

This raises questions about the history of live music and its links to the music hall and variety show, whilst also encouraging us to think about how rock stars curate their own performances and carefully craft their own public images. This is especially relevant when we consider that The Stones, having gone to the trouble of producing this spectacular, were the reason it was never screened; they felt their performance was not up to standard. Such a decision also provides some small insight into the ways in which a band like The Stones strove to shape, define and protect their own image.

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