John Lennon appears in The Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus

6.00pm, Wednesday 11 December 1968 (45 years ago)

On this day John Lennon and Yoko Ono were among guests performing on The Rolling Stones’ television spectacular, Rock And Roll Circus.


The event was filmed on this day at InterTel, an independent video facility at Stonebridge House in Wembley, London. The footage was captured on video and film, with sound recorded by Glyn Johns and Jimmy Miller on Olympic’s mobile studio.

The Stones enlisted a range of guests for the show, including Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull, The Who, drummer Mitch Mitchell, pianist Julius Katchen and blues singer Taj Mahal. The groups Traffic and Cream had also both been invited to perform, but had split up just before filming began.

Rehearsals and camera tests began on 6 December at the Marquee Club, and preliminary recording took place on 8 December at Olympic Sound Studios, both in London. Lennon attended neither, but may have joined rehearsals at 8 and 9 December at the Londonderry House Hotel. He was definitely present at filmed rehearsals the day before this.

A photocall took place at midday, with the performers dressed in costume. Lennon wore a glittery jumpsuit, black hat and purple scarf, and Ono wore a black cloak and witch’s hat. They and the other performers were then filmed entering the “big top” area, pretending to play various instruments; Lennon’s was a trumpet.

Lennon was part of a temporary supergroup known as The Dirty Mac, which also featured Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Mitch Mitchell. The group played a version of Yer Blues from the White Album.

It was followed by a piece known variously as Whole Lotta Yoko or Her Blues. Yoko Ono emerged from a black bag on the stage, and she and violinist Ivry Gitlis performed an improvised 12-bar blues with the Dirty Mac.

A simple stage is set up for the Supergroup. John is wearing his Levi outfit, and Mitch Mitchell looks almost unrecognizable with his straight blond hair. Keith plays a simple bass line, and Eric performs with masterful imperturbability. John looks a little apprehensive, but once they start playing he relaxes, turns his back to the camera occasionally in the classic jamming position. Yoko gets up on the stage, climbs into her black bag, and during the breaks, holds John’s hand. Even while you are watching, it is hard to believe all this is actually happening.

Mitch’s drumming is a little brisker and he is more in control of the cymbals, but this is not a jam session, in fact, Yer Blues is almost identical to the album track. Why is Eric following the record so closely? It is a strange paradox, but simply the presence of all these magicians together is completely overwhelming. What more can you say?

But the effect of Yer Blues live is very different to hearing it on the record. To begin with it is obvious that John means every word of this song. He has used the form because the blues is the ultimate expression of a down trip. “Even hate my rock and roll” screams at you like a nightmare. The day before at the rehearsal, John, Mick and Eric played Peggy Sue together and John did a wry version of Elvis’ great hit, It’s Now Or Never. After Yer Blues, Yoko gets in front of the microphone and wails, while virtuoso violinist Ivry Gitlis saws away like a country fiddler, and the Supergroup is playing behind them. The audience is totally awestruck; they do not move or talk. It was breathtaking.

David Dalton
Rolling Stone, 19 March 1970

The Rolling Stones’ own performance began 2am the following morning. By this time Lennon and Ono had departed to do a BBC radio interview, but they returned for part of the Stones’ set. The couple were also filmed at various times offstage earlier in the day, and Lennon and Jagger traded jokes for a link sequence to introduce The Dirty Mac.

Upon viewing the footage, The Rolling Stones felt their performance was lacklustre, and that they had been upstaged by The Who’s A Quick One While He’s Away, so decided not to release Rock And Roll Circus. The audio and video footage circulated widely on bootlegs before being released officially in 1995.

One Response to “John Lennon appears in The Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus”

  1. Pat Mendus

    The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus had more ups and downs than the last days of Elvis: Jethro Tull and The Who lead with forgettable performances, followed by a decent show of Taj Mahal, then another forgettable performance by Marianne Faithfull. Lennon takes the stage and gives a stellar performance with his supergroup Dirty Mac. His second song starts off with a refreshing violin rock compilation, but ultimately, the song is utterly ruined by Yoko’s dead cat impersonation that is persistent throughout the rest of the song. Possibly bolstered by the abysmal performance that preceded them, The Rolling Stones then performs at their best, making the rest of their show entertaining and uniquely enjoyable, allowing you to (almost) forget about the previous forty minutes you wished you had back.

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