Contributing Editor Ken Sharp talked recently with director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, for an interview published in Beatlefan #237. Here is an expanded version of that conversation. …
John Lennon and the Dirty Mac performed “Yer Blues” as part of “Rock & Roll Circus.”
Some things are worth waiting for. Presumed lost for decades, “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus” TV special was filmed in December of 1968 and tragically was shelved for decades. Fast-forward many years later, the footage was discovered in a barn in England and, 28 years on, the landmark rock ’n’ roll TV spectacular finally saw release in 1996.
It was a fantastical music event, its playful traveling circus big-top atmosphere replete with clowns, trapeze aerialists, fire eaters, colorful staging and powerful performances captured some of rock’s legendary icons at the peak of their career — The Rolling Stones (marking Brian Jones’ last appearance with the group); The Who unveiling a supercharged rendition of their mini- pop opera “A Quick One (While He’s Away)”; the Dirty Mac, a one-off unit featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, delivering a raw take of the Beatles tune “Yer Blues”; plus guest spots by Jethro Tull (with future Black Sabbath founding member Tony Iommi on guitar), Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull.
Newly restored and having had a recent limited theatrical run, along with a DVD/Blu Ray release in the offing, we sat down with the show’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, for the backstory behind this spectacular once in a lifetime musical event.
What sparked the idea of “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus”?
I’d worked with The Rolling Stones on this TV show I used to direct in England called “Ready Steady Go.” We’d worked together several times on that; we did “The Last Time” together, we did “Satisfaction” twice on two separate shows. We did “Paint It Black,” we did “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby (Standing in the Shadows).” I’d worked with them about five or six times on “Ready Steady Go,” and we got on very well from the beginning. This was early on, when Andrew Loog Oldham was their manager. Then “Ready Steady Go” went off the air at the end of ’66 and they didn’t particularly like being on “Top Of The Pops,” which was another big English music show ’cause it was very staid and dull to look at. Also, the big groups, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, were looking to take their visual presentation more into their own hands and also to make videos so they didn’t have to go to all the plug shows in Amsterdam and in Paris. It was also done to show them on American television. There was “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the Smothers Brothers show, who both showed videos. I did “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” with The Beatles, so they were early to jump on that line of thinking. Then I did “Happy Jack with The Who.
It’s crazy, you’re rifling off these titles of videos that stand today as iconic in rock ’n’ roll history.
[Laughs] I also realize that, and I’m grateful, but however my fate in the stars aligned, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, I was very lucky with the people I got to work with. I did many videos for the Stones. The first one I did for them was “Jumping Jack Flash,” that’s the first video they ever did, and I also filmed a video for the B-side, “Child of the Moon,” which we shot the next day.
You were in good stead with The Rolling Stones already.
Yeah, and that’s a very good question because they very much liked those two videos, especially “Jumping Jack Flash,” because that was the single. They’d never done a video before. We did two versions of it; but the one I’m referring to is the one with the makeup, which we shot second. When you said I was in good stead with them, that’s important, because they at that time were quick to judge, “That’s good” or “That’s bad.” They’re very smart; not only is Mick smart, but Keith, Bill, Charlie and Brian. They were very, very bright guys, otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted almost 60 years. So, the first video I did for them was “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Child of the Moon,” and subsequently I worked with them on a number of other videos. I did “Angie,” “It’s Only Rock & Roll,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Dancing With Mr. D.,” “Miss You,” “Far Away Eyes,” “Start Me Up,” “Waiting on a Friend,” and “Neighbors.” Usually, we’d do a three or four at the same time. It was usually a pretty full day.
You clearly passed the audition with them. What was the genesis of them wanting to do a TV special?
I think the genesis was that The Beatles had done “Magical Mystery Tour.” But it was not that the Stones wanted to copy what The Beatles did in any way. They didn’t want to copy The Beatles, because The Stones were The Stones and The Beatles were the Beatles, but The Beatles set an example. They laid down a big footprint of how to go ahead with your career. Although Andrew Loog Oldham was out of the picture by the time came to do the “Rock & Roll Circus,” he was always trying to get them to do a movie. He wanted to do a Rolling Stones movie, and there were various projects being kicked around, but, for some reason, it never happened, mainly because Mick at a certain point went off to do a solo acting career with films like “Ned Kelly,” “Performance” and other things, whereas The Beatles had a couple of fiction pictures made, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!” Then, there was that good picture that John Boorman directed for the Dave Clark Five, “Catch Us If You Can,” which was pretty good. He went on to have a big career and directed the film “Deliverance,” among other films.
So, The Stones under Andrew Loog Oldham’s prodding were looking for film projects, which just never happened. But, because of “Magical Mystery Tour,” they wanted to do a show of their own. So, we’d done the videos for “Child of the Moon” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” and they felt confident working with me and that I would come up with the goods and make something with them that people would be interested in.
Lennon and Mick Jagger on the set of The Rolling Stones’ TV special.
So, I went over to talk to Mick. Mick was mainly the one you’d talk to. Not that when you were all sitting in a room Keith wouldn’t have his extremely bright ideas, but Mick was usually the one who originated the conversations. In other words, that’s who you got the phone call from. So, I went to meet up with him and he said, “Let’s try and come up with an idea for a television special. Do you want to do it?” I said, “Oh yeah, OK, I’ll do it.” And so that was my job, and I went off to try and do it. Then that set in a period of frustration and anxiety, because I didn’t have any ideas. I used to sit in their board room in their offices on Maddox Street in London and think, Jesus Christ, what can this be? Then I thought, Are there any other rock ’n’ roll specials around? Jack Good had done a good one called “Around The Beatles,” which had I think PJ Proby, the Vernon Girls. In the show, The Beatles were doing Shakespeare and things like that. It was a very good show. It was very well-paced, but I didn’t want to copy it. It also didn’t quite have a Rolling Stones feel, because they not only are a unique band, but at that time they were carving out an image for themselves like someone said of Lord Byron, mad, bad and dangerous to know. So, they were distinct from The Beatles, and you had to figure out a way to make their particular quality, not only as a band but a group of five people, distinctive. So, I’m sitting in their office and I’m doodling, because I didn’t have anything else to do. I doodled a circle and looked at it and I kept drawing circles around it. The god of titles was on hand that day, because circle turned into circus and then I thought of “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus.” I thought, if nothing else, we have a good title. I called Mick up and said, “Try this on for size I’m gonna say seven words to you … The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus, and then tell me what you think.” And he said, “Yeah fine, great.” He got it right away, because he is very quick, and immediately he started to talk about different ideas, like it’s an idea we’d been discussing for week as opposed to 2 minutes. He asked, “What kind of circus do we want?” We were pretty collaborative at that time. If I had an idea, I’d run it by him and he’d say, yes, no or maybe, and I could sort of move on from there. I liked collaborating with him, because he was very, very smart and he also had a very firm sense of who The Rolling Stones were as an image and as a brand. He’s the one who came up with the tongue image, along with Andy Warhol, which is now one of the famous logos of all time. So, he very much understands their brand. We decided the kind of circus we wanted was not a very successful one. We wanted something that looked like a traveling circus of a medium standard, not a very fancy one like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As for the circus performers, we wanted them to fit the vibe of the Rolling Stones version of a circus. The man and woman aerial act were not in what you’d call, their first youth. They were seasoned, old-school circus performers, and they enjoyed it. The fire eater was someone we got in; l I don’t know if he was with the circus, I can’t remember. So, there were the aerialists and there were the clowns. In an earlier cut of the film we had some stuff going on between the clowns, hitting each other with a plank of wood like clowns always do, but it didn’t stay in. It wasn’t really funny, but it slightly took the air out of the show and also it wasn’t necessary. The aerialists were good and the guy doing the fire eating was good.
Wasn’t there another circus animal left out of the cut?
John and Yoko in the costumes they picked for the players entrance.
The circus people brought various things, which they thought we’d like. I don’t know if it was the rehearsal day or the day of shooting, but it was in the morning, and John was there with Yoko and his son Julian, and I think Eric Clapton was there. We were auditioning boxing kangaroos. These are kangaroos who stood up on their back legs and wore boxing gloves and boxed. Yoko came up to me afterward and said, “If the boxing kangaroos are in the show John won’t be in it,” ’cause she thought it was a cruel act. If you’re given the choice between boxing kangaroos and John Lennon, you choose John Lennon. [laughs] I don’t know if she talked to John about it; it may have been something that she thought. But, she sort of spoke for him in many ways as well. Anyway, we didn’t have the boxing kangaroos, but we did have John and the others. At one point, we had a classical pianist called Julius Katchen. He was good; I can’t remember what he played. We brought out a grand piano and put it in the middle of the circus ring. In and of itself, it was good, but it didn’t fit the circus. Mick and I wanted to see if a classical element would work, but it just didn’t fit. It wasn’t ’cause he didn’t play well, he played beautifully.
How did you decide upon Mick being the ring master?
Well, what happened is, we wanted to figure out who would be the best person to be the ring master. So, we decided the perfect person to be the ring master was not a man, but a woman, and that woman would be Brigitte Bardot. So, I go over to Paris for a weekend with the cameraman Tony Richland, and we were there to negotiate getting some cameras for the show, and then we also went to meet Brigitte. She was an extremely beautiful woman. The movies barely did her justice, she was beautiful, she was funny, and she spoke English pretty well.
John Lennon was infatuated with her and met her in the mid- to late ’60s.
For that generation, I’m the same age John would have been … the film, “And God Created Woman,” which came out around ’56, and she was the gorgeous, sexy gamine girl. As for the “Rock & Roll Circus” TV special, she immediately got the idea, and was thinking how to do it. She wanted to come in on an elephant [laughs], and then she wanted to know if she could be taught how to swallow a sword. She was totally into it. However, the problem was she had a deal with CBS to do a television special, and they had some kind of hold on her. Although Brigitte wanted to do it, her agent couldn’t get her out to do The Rolling Stones’ special. The other show didn’t happen, but they had her under contract to try and get her a TV special. So, we didn’t get Brigitte Bardot. What a show that would have been if we had The Rolling Stones, The Who, John Lennon and Brigitte Bardot! That would have been great. So, after we found out we couldn’t get her, Mick said he would be the ring master, which made sense. Then we stayed to figure out who would be on the show.
That brings up my next question, given your close connection with The Beatles, had they been approached to appear?
Hmm … No, that’s a good question. Just the way the balance was at the time, it wouldn’t have worked; The Beatles were the biggest rock ’n’ roll act in the world, and they were the most famous, no question. Therefore, I think The Rolling Stones thought, if they had The Beatles on the show, then The Beatles would be the tsunami and The Rolling Stones would be the high tide, you know?
How did you manage to land John Lennon for the TV special?
Lennon with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell.
Well, Lennon came late into the production of the show. The Rolling Stones wanted the show to be great, but they wanted to be the greatest thing on the show. Mick wanted really good acts on the show, but acts that would not quite come up to the Rolling Stones’ standard, so that was the idea. The first person that he asked to take part in the show was Stevie Winwood. Mick wanted him to form a band and play on the show. I think Stevie had left the Spencer Davis Band by that point. So, we rang him up and Stevie said he would do it. But, then, time went on, and he wasn’t communicating very well. This was before he was in Traffic. He didn’t come up with any musicians that made sense to him. About three or four days before the show was gonna be shooting, this was early December of ’68, Mick and I spoke to him on the phone and he said, “I’m really sorry, I just can’t get it together.” And, in those days, rock ’n’ roll people gave other rock ’n’ roll people a lot of leeway here, so if the person says they can’t get it together it means it’s not gonna happen. So, Stevie said he couldn’t figure it out, and Mick and I were sort of stuck. Then we first thought, would Paul McCartney want to form a group for this show? Paul would leap into anything if he thought it was right, but given all the other stuff that was going on, we didn’t think that Paul would want to appear without The Beatles. Mick and I didn’t think it was gonna happen. Then, we thought John might have the temperament to jump into the water without his flip-flops on. We also knew he’d been playing for fun sake with Eric Clapton. It was Mick on one phone, and I was on the other phone, for our call to John. The advantage there was I was also a known quantity to The Beatles, because of “Rain” and “Paperback Writer,” and a few months before the “Rock & Roll Circus” show we’d done the videos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution.”
What was the conversation like with John? Did it take some prodding for him to agree to appear on the show?
No. Mick said, “Here’s the deal, we’re doing this TV special and here’s who’s on it, The Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull.” He told John it would be good to get a super group, a group of musicians who don’t usually play together. John said, “That’s great.” If John was enthusiastic for something, he’d jump right in. John said, “I’ve been playing with Eric, let me ask him if he wants to do it.” Everybody knew Mitch Mitchell, because he played drums with Hendrix and was very good. Then John asked, “Who can play bass?” And then Mick said, “Well, I think Keith would like to do that.” Before the call began, we didn’t have the super group, and 10 minutes later, we had the super group.
Who came up with the name of the ad hoc group, the Dirty Mac?
That was John.
I wonder with ‘Mac’ in the title if it was dig at Paul McCartney?
Well, it could have been an early little stab at him, who knows? In any case, as well as showcasing a one-off band on the show, we also wanted to include a newcomer band and give someone a break. By coincidence we’d seen Jethro Tull on a late-night TV interview show, and we thought they were pretty good. Ian Anderson was a very interesting performer. The Who came into play early on. Mick and I together got them on the show. I think when I met up with The Rolling Stones in their offices, and we were tossing around ideas about who would be on the show, pretty much unanimously everyone said we’ve got to have The Who, so The Who were the first in. The call came from Mick on one line and me on the other to Pete [Townshend] and he agreed right away. Fortunately, I had the connection with The Who previously having worked with the on their video “Happy Jack” and from them appearing on “Ready Steady Go” and liking it. Also, I was personally very friendly with their managers, Kit Lambert and Chis Stamp.
We’d also been soliciting music from newcomer bands. We were thrilled with Jethro Tull, so we got them, but we turned down Led Zeppelin. Early on, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and the rest of the band were getting themselves sorted out, and we got a demo from them, but Mick thought it was too guitar-heavy. Also, maybe he thought that it would be very competitive to have a band like that led by Jimmy Page on the show. Can you imagine [laughing] if we had Brigitte Bardot, The Rolling Stones, The Who, John Lennon and Led Zeppelin on the same show? That really would be one for the ages.
Marianne Faithfull was one of the performers in “Rock & Roll Circus.”
We also had Marianne Faithfull on the show. She and Mick were going out at the time. That period of English rock ’n’ roll was a very guy world. There was Dusty Springfield, there was Marianne, there was Sandi Shaw, there was Lulu and there was Cilla Black. There weren’t many women at all, five women and 50 men kind of thing. So, it was really important to a have a woman on the show. Marianne typified so much of what was going on at the time. Yes, there was the sub story of her and Mick going out together. She was a very beautiful woman, a very sensitive woman. I liked her performance in the show enormously. I think she was really good, really sensitive. She had the advantage of being very beautiful and she was so still, and so within herself, when she did it. I think it’s a wonderful performance and it comes at a really great part of the show, which is before the great chat between John Lennon and Mick Jagger. They were doing their best to kind of mimic the American talk shows they’d either seen or been on.
Getting Taj Mahal on the show was Keith’s idea. He thought he was terrific, and so we did we. I wasn’t as familiar with him as Keith and Mick. We wanted an American act. The shooting of Taj was a little different than some of the other acts, because I couldn’t shoot it as wide as I wanted in some cases, including the audience, because there really wasn’t any audience except for five or six people. We shot him for the show the day before, because he was gonna be deported. The Rolling Stones office had screwed up getting the work permits for an American band coming over, so he didn’t have a work permit. There were lots of issues to do in those days with musician’s unions and Americans coming over and English artists going to America. When Taj and his band were stopped at the airport, they said, “You can come into the country, but you have to leave in three days and you can’t work.” So, we got that news the day before rehearsals. We were at Mick’s house in Chelsea and Mick and I were talking about who would take over from Taj, because we didn’t want to have any police problems and immigration problems. When Keith came over, he was vitriolic against Mick and me, saying, “What kind of pussies are you two guys? I want Taj on the show. Taj needs to be in the show. Let’s just figure out a way and not go to anybody else. It’s gotta be Taj.” So, faced with that kind of dilemma, Mick and I said, “OK, whatever.” [Laughs] Mick and Keith have a wonderful dynamic, the yin and yang, where one is soft in one way and the other one is hard, and when the other is hard, then the other one is soft. But Keith can be very demanding if he thinks something is not right. As can Mick. God knows, these are two extraordinary men who’ve been friends for 70 years. So,, we figured out what we would do is we’d shoot Taj the day before, with no audience except for a few people wearing ponchos and floppy hats. That’s why he looks different in the shooting of it and also he doesn’t get an introduction. I still wonder why I didn’t shoot an introduction.
Here’s another little aside for you: We didn’t shoot an introduction for The Rolling Stones, and I realized we’ve got to have an introduction for The Rolling Stones because it’s called “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus,” and so, when I was doing “Let It Be” with The Beatles, I got John to do that very funny sort of mimed introduction. So, for the trivia buffs, we shot John’s introduction for the Rolling Stones a couple weeks later, when we were doing “Let It Be.”
Tell us about the staging, the circus performers and where it was shot.
Brian Jones, Yoko, Roger Daltry, Clapton and John and Julian.
It was shot at a place called Stonebridge Park, near Wembley outside of London. It was an independent studio for hire and was a studio facility not far from where Rediffusion Television was. It was big enough for our purposes, but not too big. As for the set design, the brief was it was a circus. The designer, who I think was Roger Hall, was someone I’d worked with on some other stuff. We figured out it should have the look of a circus and a royal box above the entrance way for the fancy people, and then I should have bleachers like in a circle in a round configuration. All the performances would take place under the big top in the center of the audience. The entire filming was shot in one day except for the Taj Mahal performance. The shoot began with a call time of 11:30 in the morning to get the entrance shots. One of the things that is unusual is the artists all showed up on time. As you can imagine, when we were doing “Ready Steady Go,” and we had a rehearsal at 1 o’ clock and we were live on the air at 6, the bigger the act was, the more likely they were gonna turn up late. [laughs] But, because they all respected each other — this was the creme de la creme of English rock ’n’ roll — they turned up on time. All the artists chose their costumes for the players entrance, which we shot at noon.
So, John Lennon, for example, picked out a costume?
There were different choices of costume there. Emma Porteous, who was our costume designer, she and her brother had a rack of costumes for people to wear. Mick had to be fitted for the ring master outfit, because we knew that had to happen. But John picked his costume that day for his players entrance, as did Yoko, who put on that spiked hat. All the artists, whether it’s Pete Townshend or Keith Moon, they all had chosen a costume off the rack, “Oh yeah, I’d like to wear that.”
How did you assemble the audience?
With a little bit of care. There were some audience members from the Rolling Stones fan club. We sent a scout out to some of the clubs in London and he found kids who looked right and could dance right, the way we used to do it on “Ready Steady Go.” Then there are a lot of people who heard about it and came and were let in if they had the right vibe. Although I didn’t know it, the Hell’s Angels were there, and so was Ken Kesey.
Run through the filming.
The Stones were the nominal stars of the show, but felt upstaged.
Being a part of “The Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus” TV special was a good time. I realized that, somehow, I was part of this weird collection of people standing in a makeshift circus, all coming from that doodle. [laughs] It started with me doodling a circle and then it ended up six weeks later standing there and realizing I was part of an event, which was an unusual one. During the shooting, I had plenty on my mind, but I also realized this was a one-time-only event. Because of “Ready Steady Go,” which was a weekly television show — I brought in all my camera men from that show — I was used to the kind of pressure that you have to get it done. It was a really long day, but we managed to pull it off.
Discuss the use of cameras that weren’t stationary up on a tripod and explain how the movement of cameras impacted the visual aesthetic of the film.
Well, how it’s shot and how it’s edited all goes back to “Ready Steady Go,” which was a live show. We couldn’t do it with all of the bands, because they couldn’t match how we shot them. But, if you had The Who, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles, I used to come up with ways to shoot them. If you have a chance, try to watch The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” from “Ready Steady Go” on YouTube, ’cause that was pretty good. What I always wanted was the camera to be part of it, so that whatever the musicians were doing, the camera would not only be reporting on it, but would be as active as they were. If it was The Who doing “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” on “Ready Steady Go,” there’s a bit where Roger [Daltrey] is hitting the amps and the drum kit with his mic, and it’s very wild. I put the camera somewhere, and the camera shakes. So, it’s quite an interesting event. You get the camera shaking visually as the sound is shaking also. So, for The Who’s performance on “Rock & Roll Circus” I knew when it starts getting really crazy I wanted to have the camera cuts with Pete jumping or Keith with the water on his drum kit; I wanted the intercuts of those and the close-ups to be as powerful as the music. So, it was of the music as well as watching the music, if you know what I mean. Because I had my guys from “Ready Steady Go,” the cameras we used were traditional studio television cameras, which could move. It had a wheel you could push right or left, and the camera would slide in that direction, and these guys were very skilled at moving the camera and focusing the camera. A movie camera has two or three people working it, one guy to push it, one guy to focus, but, with television, one person does the whole thing. He focuses it and moves it. I was in the control room, and all the images were coming in there, so I communicated with them with a microphone. I could say, “Give me a close-up of Pete,” or “Camera one, hold that shot of Keith on the drums.” Because I did 50 or 60 “Ready Steady Go” shows, I was used to directing rock ’n’ roll bands on the spot and in the moment. Obviously, I knew the songs, but you had to improvise a lot, ’cause everything changed all the time. It was live television at its scariest, but wonderful.
Watching the film, it exudes a real sense of spirit and camaraderie between all the acts, whether it was John Lennon, The Who, or Eric Clapton, they all stayed throughout the shooting and seem to be having the time of their lives.
No one wanted to go home. I was surprised. When I’d go out, in between takes of a song, they were all still there; The Who were there, John and Yoko were there. In the introduction to the film, Pete Townshend says that he really learned about Mick Jagger that night watching him perform “Sympathy for The Devil.” They probably hadn’t seen each other working for a while. With “Ready Steady Go,” which was kind of a collegial show, they’d turn up to watch the other artists perform. But, now, all of these artists are either touring or making their album in the studio, so John Lennon probably hadn’t seen The Rolling Stones play live for four or five years, and same with The Who. The weird thing at the time is, although there was rivalry between them all, jockeying for position and being interested in who was gonna be No. 1, and for how many weeks, there was a real friendship among that generation of rock ’n’ roll musicians.
Speaking of John Lennon, he performs The Beatles’ “Yer Blues” with Clapton on guitar, Richards on bass and Mitchell on drums. Were you witness to them running down the song in rehearsals?
Lennon participated in the Stones special just a few weeks before filming began on “Let It Be.”
There was rehearsal a few days before, in a hotel ballroom, with the Stones, Jethro Tull and The Who, but John wasn’t a part of that. John started rehearsing on the day of the show itself with Eric, Mitch and Keith. There was plenty of down time, ’cause the cameras kept breaking down and had to be fixed. They were revolutionary cameras, which fed TV images into the control room, but they had a reel of film on them. So, you would end up with film, but you could call the shots like you would on television. I remember John went onstage with Eric, Keith and Mitch around 10 a.m. and ran through “Yer Blues” a few times. But, remember, even though they were young, they were very experienced rock ’n’ roll musicians at that point. I think they rehearsed it backstage a bit, and they rehearsed it once or twice on the stage, and then they did it. I think we probably also shot the rehearsal.
I’ve heard rumors that John and the band also ran through a version of “Revolution,” do you have any memories of that?
No, I don’t think it was performed.
Post-“Rock & Roll Circus,” did you ever have a discussions with John about his impressions of the show?
Yeah. We finished the show on Dec. 11th and then I think I went to sleep for 24 hours and then I had a meeting with The Beatles later the next week. Lightning had struck, and I was in the right place at the right time. We were all assembled there to talk about what would become the “Let It Be” film, and it was at that meeting John said something like, “Hey man, that was fun last week.” He had a good time, as you can tell from the movie, and liked it and understood that it was a very rare, never to be repeated kind of event.
Let’s talk about some of the most transcendent performances in the film, starting with The Who’s electrifying version of “A Quick One.” Were you surprised that, years later, many said that The Who stole the show with their performance?
The Lennons with Brian Jones, who was in his last days as a Stone.
It happened, I think, because the show didn’t come out for such a long time, and people were always trying to think why it didn’t come out. Then, there was the rumor, which was true to a certain degree, that The Stones thought The Who were better. But, The Who got onstage at 4 in the afternoon, they’d been touring, they were very tight and they delivered. The Rolling Stones had been in the studio and they hadn’t been on the road for a while, and they did not get onstage until 2 a.m. in the morning the next day. They’d been there since 11:30 in the morning the previous day.
What was the greatest challenge you faced working on the film?
Probably the greatest challenge was doing whatever we all could to get The Rolling Stones to be their best from 2 a.m. ’til 6 a.m. It just seemed, in a funny way, unfair, because it was their show. Mick has the constitution of a marathon runner. I mean, he can go forever. Brian was pretty wrecked by that time. As Pete Townshend said in his introduction to the film, “I don’t know what state Keith was in.” Charlie [Watts) was reliable, as was Bill [Wyman]. They weren’t as collected as they usually would be for an important show, just because it had been a really long day and they were tired and who knows what they’d been doing? [laughs]
It’s also the last filmed performance of the band with Brian Jones. I understand Brian was in bad shape, emotionally and physically, and there was an issue with him possibly not taking part?
Yeah, we lived near each other in Hampstead, which is an area in London. After the day’s rehearsal, he called me around 10:30 at night to say he wasn’t gonna come to the filming the next day. I said, “Oh my God, you have to!” And he said, “They’re being really, really mean to me, and they’re not giving me any respect.” I said, “You have to come, what would The Rolling Stones be without you?” And, we know, a few months later he wasn’t a Rolling Stone anymore, and after that he wasn’t alive anymore. But, he felt he was being marginalized, and he may well have been marginalized, because he was not in good shape. He was only 26 or 27 when he died, and he’d been the golden boy of the Rolling Stones two, three years earlier. The Rolling Stones had been his band, and he got pushed aside by Mick and Keith, who have much more powerful egos and willpower. But, he turned up, and you can tell by looking at him in the show that he really isn’t in good shape.
The Rolling Stones’ performance is a master class led by Mick Jagger. He stepped to the table and became Mick Jagger when he needed to become Mick Jagger. It’s notable how he instinctively knew how to play and work the camera.
Keith Moon and Pete Townshend with Mick Jagger.
On “Ready Steady Go,” the cameras were part of the frenzy of the crowd. The Rolling Stones used to get mobbed on the show and pulled off the stage, which made for very good television. Then, when we did the videos for “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Child of the Moon,” that was a very controlled situation. There was no audience. There was just Mick playing to the camera and the band playing. But, here, he had to pull out of himself, especially on the last song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” at 5:30 in the morning, the last shred of the great performer that he is. Also, he was playing to the crowd, and the camera was right there in front of him to use as he wanted. It wasn’t observing him from a distance; it was 2 feet away from him, and he and the cameras were molded to each other, almost, because he used it so wonderfully. He got the difference between The Rolling Stones doing a big act onstage, The Rolling Stones with a crowd in front of them, or just Mick Jagger and the other Rolling Stones and the camera. Mick is a human being who will not lose. Even though it was 5:30 in the morning and maybe 6 o’clock in the morning when we finished with “Salt of the Earth,” he was determined that he would not lose the battle, that he would be able to give a performance that you wouldn’t forget, and do it directly to the camera, which is directly to the audience. It is as though he is looking at you and the audience with the camera in between, but he’s playing directly to the audience. I mean, The Who were playing to each other, they weren’t really playing to the camera so much. They were playing within their foursome, whereas Mick was actually playing to the camera, which I’d never really seen in a show before. I’d seen it on videos, if you want to do that, but I’d never seen six performances like that over six songs in a show.
There’s talk that outtakes exist of The Rolling Stones performing a song “Confessin’ the Blues,” any recollections of that?
Not that I remember.
After the show was finished, what were your next conversations like with Mick?
Mick was very pleased that we pulled it off. It started with me going to see him a few months earlier, September or October of ’68, we talked about the show and had come up with the idea and got all these people together and the occasion was great. He was very high on it saying, “Yeah, we pulled it off.” Then, two days after we finished shooting, like I said, lightning struck and I was over with The Beatles starting to talk about another project, which turned out to be the “Let It Be” film. Then, Mick went on vacation — it might have been when he and Keith went to South America for Christmas vacation — and I didn’t see Mick until January of ’69, when we played the rough cut and his initial feeling was that the show was terrific, and The Stones had done terrific on the show. It was only after that, when we put the cut together, and he saw some of The Who, that he thought maybe they were just better on the day. As Keith Richards has said, “The show was not called ‘The Who’s Rock & Roll Circus.’”
Do you think that’s the reason why it was shelved?
Yeah. That’s why it was postponed.
For 28 years.
For 28 years. They didn’t regard it as finished, because they weren’t happy with their bit, and then they went on. I went on to do videos with them and they went on to tour and record.
The footage of the show was lost; where was it discovered?
The Stones special was lost for many years.
Yes. That’s right. It was discovered in a barn in England. Then, Allen Klein got in the loop, because he owned the pre-1970 Rolling Stones material as part of a deal with them. He’s the one who got the footage sent over to America. He’s the one who paid for its restoration. We had the rough cuts, and took that apart and re-edited it. A lot of it was very much like it was in the beginning, but it was tighter. Some footage had been lost, and Allen traced it down. He was very important.
So, you finally were afforded an opportunity to see the footage again a quarter of a century later. What was your fresh perspective upon seeing it again after many years?
I think it was better than I’d remembered. It was still there, and hadn’t been thrown out. Just to see it again, I thought it was very, very good, but that we could make it better with some editing. But, I was thrilled to have it exist again, because it had the hallmarks of being good and it still is very good. The Rolling Stones were happy it was released, and they acknowledged that the event was wonderful. They were satisfied with their performance and were thrilled that they got John and Eric in it, and they were thrilled with The Who. They just embraced the whole experience.
Over 50 years have passed since “The Rolling Stones Rock & Circus” was filmed; what would you like its lasting legacy to be?
That’s a good question. I’d like it to obviously still exist, and for many years [laughs] it didn’t exist, because it really was lost. I would like it to remain not only as a great rock ’n’ roll show, but also as a really insightful document about the times. There were all these talented people, and they were all in a room together. This is before rock ’n’ roll started to go sour. This is before Brian died, and before Keith Moon was gonna die. It was before the bad stuff started to happen, so it was really like the great flowering of this extraordinary movement, which came out of this little country, England, except for Taj Mahal. England was able to show itself to the world, so I would like it to be seen, not only as musically wonderful, especially given the recent restoration work done on the soundtrack, but also as a surprising little view of what the times were and what the potential of the times were, before things started to go bad with Nixon, Watergate, with Vietnam. England didn’t have Vietnam, so they were kind of sheltered, unlike what was going on in America at the time. So, it was the end of an era, really. Although ’69 saw the Woodstock concerts, it was also the Stones’ thing at Altamont.
Lastly, as the director of The Beatles’ “Let It Be” film, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask your thought about the Peter Jackson Beatles “Let it Be” sessions film and the long overdue accompanying reissue of your original.
What happened was “Let It Be” came out, it had a theatrical release and it won an Oscar for the soundtrack. But, unfortunately, by the time it came out in England, and certainly by the time it came out in America, The Beatles had broken up. So, as Peter Jackson called it, the film had become a little orphan ’cause there was no one really looking after it. They didn’t care anymore; they were off fighting amongst themselves and doing what they were doing. And it also represented to them, as Paul said, a kind of sad time, too, with The Beatles, as we learned, breaking up. Then, for many years, Apple in itself, with an archivist, were working on a documentary about “Let It Be.” I used to see cuts once a year, and would go over and look at them. I was interviewed for it, too, about what my memories were working on the film, and the rooftop performance. I kept agitating for “Let It Be” to be re-released in some form, because I knew it was very good. So, then, when I was over in London in October of last year, I had a meeting at Apple and they said, “We have a new plan, which is Peter Jackson is gonna have a whack at the material.” And I said, “fantastic!” because I would not have wanted to go in a time capsule back 50 years and do it again. The reason “Let It Be” is as it was 50 years ago is The Beatles were the producers as well as the stars, so there was a certain amount of stuff they didn’t want in the picture, because they thought they’d stay together at the time when we were editing. I did do some slightly self-censored editing of footage, but I did manage to get in some things, which were telling about the relationship between them, which was sometimes good and sometimes not so good.
For example, the argument between Paul and George takes on a life its own, captured in posterity on the film, and that has colored The Beatles’ own perception of that period.
Yes, you’re right. That argument was a small thing, but it suggested there was certain amount of tension between them at this time in their life and, indeed, why wouldn’t there be tension? They’re musicians and artists, and they’ve known each other since they were teenagers, and so they got married very young.
After viewing hours and hours of footage, Peter Jackson has asserted there are some very positive moments that negate the perception that the “Let It Be” sessions were miserable.
The rooftop concert provides the big finale in “Let It Be.”
Oh yeah. That’s what attracted Peter to the project. We only had an hour and a half of screen time, so we could only put in certain things in the original film. Some stuff was cut out for political reasons, internal reasons and length reasons. I think what Peter has been finding, as he started to look at the footage, is a lot of more fun stuff between them, which was a part of the the original cut of the film, but we had to get rid of it because of time, and some contractual obligations, stuff like that. We had a cut, which was half an hour longer than what was released. There was a lot of good stuff, but, for 15 different kinds of various reasons, we had to cut it out. So, I’m really thrilled and fascinated with what someone of Peter’s talent, who also loves The Beatles, is gonna come up with.
Apple is also going to finally release the original version of “Let It Be,” too, right?
Yes. That’s what makes me the happiest. They’ve restored it, and it looks great. We’ve been working on both sound and picture. It’s very good. So, that’s ready to go, and that makes me thrilled, because people will get a chance to see the film again, and then you’ll have the one Peter comes out with, which will have a lot of the footage of what it was like at the time. That’s what we tried to do in “Let It Be.” The Beatles had never had any extensive filming done of them rehearsing and recording in the studio ever, so this was really it. There’s plenty of wonderful material, and Peter will dig that out, “Let It Be’ will come out again, and we’ll all be happy.