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The Only Performance by John Lennon’s ‘Other’ Supergroup Didn’t Air Until 28 Years After It Was Recorded

Charlotte Bond
Eric Clapton, John Lennon (1940 - 1980) and Keith Richards perform live on stage as The Dirty Mac on the set of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus at Intertel TV Studio in Wembley, London on 11th December 1968. (Photo Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

What do you get if you put together John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell?

The answer is a supergroup named Dirty Mac that played together only once in a 1968 television special that didn’t air until nearly 30 years later.

Big names at the big top

The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus TV special, Intertel Studios, Stonebridge Park, 11 December 1968. L-R: Pete Townsend, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton (Photo Credit: Peter Stone/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus TV special, Intertel Studios, Stonebridge Park, 11 December 1968. L-R: Pete Townsend, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Eric Clapton (Photo Credit: Peter Stone/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

On December 11, 1968, a wealth of musical performers gathered at Fossett’s Big Top (actually a sound stage at Wembley’s Intertel Studio that was renamed in the spirit of the event) to record a one-off TV special called The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.

Inside a circus tent, a small audience enjoyed music by Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal, and Jethro Tull. As if those big names weren’t enough, the Who were there and performed the mini-opera A Quick One While He’s Away.

The hosts themselves performed versions of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Sympathy for the Devil.”

To maintain a ‘circus’ feel, the show also had members of Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus there to entertain the crowd, including Milton Reid as the strongman.

But the highlight of the show had to be when the Dirty Mac took to the stage.

The band comes together

Left to right: Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards performing live onstage as ‘The Dirty Mac’ for ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ at Intertel Studio, Wembley, London, 11th December 1968. (Photo Credit: Andrew Maclear/Redferns)

Left to right: Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Mitch Mitchell and Keith Richards performing live onstage as ‘The Dirty Mac’ for ‘The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus’ at Intertel Studio, Wembley, London, 11th December 1968. (Photo Credit: Andrew Maclear/Redferns)

The band was introduced by John Lennon, who called himself ‘Winston Leg-Thigh.’ This would be the first time Lennon performed live since the Beatles’ tour ended in August 1966.

Alongside him was Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on the drums.

The name had been chosen because it was a play on the name of another band, Fleetwood Mac. To Lennon and the others, the name was irrelevant – it was a one-night deal since the band would not play together again after the event was over.

The Dirty Mac wows the crowd

For their performance that night, the Dirty Mac performed a version of the Beatles’ song “Yer Blues,” a song included in the Beatles’ most recent album.

You can see it being performed on YouTube.

After that, Yoko Ono came on stage along with violinist Ivry Gitlis. The Dirty Mac provided backing music for the song “Whole Lotta Yoko,” a performance that Wikipedia describes as: “essentially an extended blues jam with Ono’s improvised free-form vocalisation.”

From left to right: Eric Clapton, John Lennon (1940 – 1980), Keith Richards and Yoko Ono perform live on stage as The Dirty Mac on the set of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus at Intertel TV Studio in Wembley, London, 11th December 1968. (Photo Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

From left to right: Eric Clapton, John Lennon (1940 – 1980), Keith Richards and Yoko Ono perform live on stage as The Dirty Mac on the set of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus at Intertel TV Studio in Wembley, London, 11th December 1968. (Photo Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

Although the show began at 2 pm on December 11, setting up between acts and other technical issues meant that filming didn’t wrap up until 5 am on December 12.

Lost to the world for 28 years

Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger rehearses for the upcoming Stones’ TV spectacular, “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.” Other acts scheduled for the television performance are Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, The Who, and Dirty Mac featuring John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Mitch Mitchell.

Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger rehearses for the upcoming Stones’ TV spectacular, “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.” Other acts scheduled for the television performance are Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, The Who, and Dirty Mac featuring John Lennon, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Mitch Mitchell.

The show was supposed to be aired on the BBC as a one-off special, but it never made it to TV screens. Instead, it was locked away in the vaults at the insistence of the Rolling Stones.

Rumors after the event suggested that the decision not to release it was because the Stones were unhappy with their performance. Due to the excessively long time it took to record the show, Jagger and the rest of the band were exhausted, leading to (in their eyes) a less than perfect performance.

Other rumors suggested that the Rolling Stones believed the Who had upstaged them in their own show.

English group The Who pose together on the set of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus at Intertel TV Studio in Wembley, London on 11th December 1968. Left to right: John Entwistle (1944 – 2002), Keith Moon (1946 – 1978), Roger Daltrey (bottom) and Pete Townshend. (Photo Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

English group The Who pose together on the set of the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus at Intertel TV Studio in Wembley, London on 11th December 1968. Left to right: John Entwistle (1944 – 2002), Keith Moon (1946 – 1978), Roger Daltrey (bottom) and Pete Townshend. (Photo Credit: Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)

Whatever the reasons, the world did not get to see the show for 28 years until The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus album was released in 1996. At the same time, a home video of this epic event was made available, and a film premiere was held at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the New York Film Festival.

The show was released in DVD format in October 2004, with a US remastered theatrical release following in April 2019.

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Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had first tried to edit the film in 1992, but some of the principal footage was missing and he had to abandon the attempt. However, as luck would have it, in 1993, the footage was discovered in a bin in the Who’s private film vault by Michael Gochanour and Robin Klein, who were able to complete the work ready for release.

Finally, the Dirty Mac was able to play to the world.