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Step right up to The Rolling Stones' 'Rock and Roll Circus'

Go under the big top with Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson for a first-hand look back at the the one-of-a-kind gathering of the superpowers of rock and roll.

By Lee Zimmerman

Jethro Tull’s band members were relative rookies when they found themselves plopped in the midst of the over-the-top superstar summit known as the “The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus.”

Yet, even though Tull had only recently released its debut album, “This Was,” the band was already in transition. Original guitarist Mick Abrahams had recently left the fold, and the band had yet to find a permanent replacement.

Consequently, for this single performance only, Tull was augmented by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, whose own band was, at that point, known simply as Earth. The show served as the only record of Iommi’s participation with Tull before the band recruited guitarist Martin Barre.

Jethro Tull Rock and Roll Circus

With his flute in hand, Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson pops his now-famous, one-legged pose while performing with the band for "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus." Publicity photo.

Introduced by a smiling Mick Jagger and an agitated little person in a clown costume, Jethro Tull — which then included founder and mainstay Ian Anderson, bassist Glenn Cornick and drummer Clive Bunker — immediately launched into an early signature tune, “A Song for Jeffrey.”

However, the band was forced to mime its performance after being told by the hosts that there was no time for rehearsal. (That edict also forced Tull’s other contribution, a take on their song “Fat Man,” to be excised entirely.) Notably though, Anderson’s vocals and flute were recorded live, and his manic facial expressions and early attempt to play while balancing on one leg provided a preview of the exaggerated stage stance for which he’d soon become famous.

Goldmine recently had the opportunity to chat with Anderson, who graciously agreed to provide an exclusive insider’s look at the Stones’ colorful caper.

Goldmine: What memory do you have of participating in “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus?”

Ian Anderson: I have lots and quite detailed memories of playing “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.” It was one of those moments where we knew we were the new kids on the block, and in musical terms, we were well advised to just sit quietly along the sidelines and not make our presence too overly felt because we were among the good
and the great — The Rolling Stones, The Who, Eric Clapton, John Lennon. So, we were the token new band on the bill. If the stories are to be believed, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts had heard our first album and suggested to Mick that we should be guests on the show, as Mick was trying to put a bill together.

Dirty Mac John Lennon Eric Clapton Keith Richards Mitch Mitchell Rock and Roll Circus

The Rolling Stones' "Rock and Roll Circus" brought together plenty of big names on the British music scene — and not just in the expected combinations. Eric Clapton (from left), John Lennon, drummer Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Stones’ own Keith Richards performed as the one-off supergroup The Dirty Mac. In addition to performances by show’s hosts, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and MarianneFaithfull also took part. Publicity photo.

GM: As the new kids on the block, so to speak, were the other Circus participants hospitable and accepting of you?
IA: Without overdoing it, yes, they were quite polite, but we sat on the sidelines. We knew our place. We didn’t feel it would be proper to go over and start having conversations with John Lennon or whoever and push ourselves on them or to try to hobnob with the stars that were already hugely successful. We tended to just kind of watch and keep our heads down. Apart from anything else, the whole “Rock And Roll Circus” kind of thing was kind of embarrassing. And we had to dutifully dress up and appear in some kind of fanfare, encorelike moment. It was pretty embarrassing, so we just kind of stood off to the side and in the back where we really couldn’t be seen, because we just didn’t feel very comfortable with it. I was probably the second-most uncomfortable person in the room. I think the most uncomfortable was probably Keith Richards, who was probably thinking, “Screw it; let’s just get this over with and get out of here.” He was smiling and acting OK about it, but he looked like underneath he was thinking, “For God’s sake, Mick. What have you gotten us into this time?” (laughs)

GM: Was Mick Jagger aware of you at that time? What role did he play in the proceedings?
IA: In truth, though, Mick Jagger himself didn’t really have anything to do with us at all. He was trying to play his very important and pivotal role, which was to get this whole show together. It was his idea, his motivation, and the rest of the guys in the Stones weren’t really sure what was going on. They were playing along, but they looked a little uncomfortable with the dressing up and the circus atmosphere that Mick was trying to create. In fact, it wasn’t an easy atmosphere. It was a self-conscious and slightly edgy atmosphere. It was difficult, because Brian Jones wasn’t really a fully functioning musician anymore, and he was ostracized by the other members of the band because
they knew he couldn’t really contribute. So there was this feeling of strange embarrassment and awkwardness about it all. But Mick Jagger was really, really energetic, and he was pushing everybody to try get this to work. So without his enthusiasm and hard work and self belief, it couldn’t have ever been made.

GM: Why do you think it took so long for the film to be released?
IA: It wasn’t shown for many years afterward, because Brian Jones died soon after, and no one really wanted to see it released, because it wasn’t really a good testament to Brian Jones and his involvement with the band, nor was it a good representation of The Rolling
Stones. It was their first attempt to play together outside the studio for two or three years, and so they were all pretty rusty as performers. It took a bit of brute force by Mick to get them on to a performance level, obviously without any input from Brian Jones. I don’t think The Stones thought it was them at their best, and they presumably and reluctantly agreed to let it go out when Allen Klein, who had the copyright as part of some deal he had done at some point, got permission from Eric Clapton and members of The Who and from me. Apparently, he sought approval from the other performers to release the product so that he could use that approval to convince The Stones that they shouldn’t stand in his way to releasing it. I’m assuming they reluctantly agreed to go out there.

GM: What’s your assessment of the film?
IA: It was released, but not to any great acclaim. Rather, it is a historical document of a particular era. It was just that little moment, a crossover point between the hippie era and The Stones’ return to performance with a very good album, “Beggars Banquet,” which they were essentially there to promote. But for some peculiar reason, Mick’s idea of promotion was kind of a hippie idea of having us all there in an indoor circus tent surrounded by circus performers, and it was a bit hippielike in that it was all dressed up in some sort of fake theatrical context. The songs The Stones were playing from that new album was really more about brothel music; it was smoky barroom music, it was blues and it was rock ’n’ roll. It was a great album presented in the wrong setting as Mick chose to portray it. That’s just my personal view.

GM: Perhaps they should have taken their cue from The Beatles’ failure with “Magical Mystery Tour.” The Stones always seemed to follow The Beatles in certain regards.
IA: Indeed. But The Beatles exited more or less on a high note from that hippie progressive-pop kind of era, due to “Sgt. Pepper” and all that. Th e Stones came to it kind of late and didn’t really acquit themselves terribly well. It was a difficult time. There was a lot of competition between the various great artists of the U.K. Th ey were sometimes uneasy bedfellows in the same pubs and clubs and parties because they had a high regard for each other in that peer group of high-ranking and very successful pop musicians. I can’t help but think that some were more overly influenced than others, and Mick always seemed strangely too readily influenced by The Beatles. The Beatles’ strength was clearly to write their own songs, and for awhile the Stones didn’t seem to have that. It was only when Keith Richards and Mick Jagger found this songwriting partnership in a way that did rival the Lennon-McCartney thing that The Stones really began to have that self-confidence, and I think that really began at the time of “Beggars Banquet.”

Sadly, it was after the demise of Brian Jones that The Stones really kicked into gear, and the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards partnership produced big results and big riffs and big rock ’n’ roll and confident anthems.