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Roll Up! Rock ’n’ Roll Circuses And Kaleidoscopic Carnivals

’Twas, most famously, a company of Stones and some special friends back in late 1968 (as unravelled in Shindig! issue #87). But the ’60s and early ’70s knew plenty of charismatic ringmasters and decidedly groovy clowns. Some of them are back in town –CAMILLA AISA sees if they can still work their magic


The United States of America – ‘The American Metaphysical Circus’

The United States Of America album cover

Our way in to the kaleidoscopic ’60s circus tent couldn’t have a different soundtrack. So here’s one of the finest and trippiest psychedelic songs of all times to welcome us all. It’s 1968 and it’s finally time for the world to understand what the psychedelic experience tastes like. Impossible to describe, isn’t it? Then let’s turn to a powerful, comprehensive metaphor: the circus. Ringmasters of rock, acrobats dancing over electric strings, freaks of all kinds. C’mon, the cost of one admission is your mind.

July – ‘My Clown’

July album cover

Sweet memories, sure, but a nonfading sense of sorrow as well. There’s no need to reiterate that circuses are not as cheerful as they pretend to be. And there’s definitely no need to get into the whole inner melancholy of clowns. Let’s just consider this: visionary music of the ’60s (and beyond) was able to take some often problematic imagery and turn it into the most incisive – and mostly lighthearted – symbol for its chaotic, proudly bizarre nature. Hey, even clowns can grow into captivating figures. July’s masterful 1968 single to the rescue.

Strawberry Alarm Clock – ‘Paxton’s Back Street Carnival’

Incense And Peppermints album cover

Ladies and gents, here come the jugglers. The Strawberry Alarm Clock lads, in all their 1967 incense & peppermints-flavoured splendour. Watch them throw some serious garage sparks in the air and then magically retrieve drops of Summer Of Love. Go on and take a ride in the land that is high…

Tucker Zimmerman – ‘Upsidedown Circus World’

Ten Songs album cover

And now for the escapologist act… Mr. Tucker Zimmerman freeing his gorgeous Ten Songs – so unjustly overlooked at the time of release – from a fate of obscurity with a little help from… David Bowie, no less! “I always found this album of stern, angry compositions enthralling,” the former Davy Jones revealed almost 40 years after Zimmerman’s debut LP had come out. In fact,Ten Songs by Tucker Zimmerman was one of the 25 titles Bowie included in his list of all-time favourite albums, among the likes of Mingus, James Brown and Stravinsky. “Look him up,” he recommended. Well, what are you waiting for? 

Circus – ‘Do You Dream?’

Do You Dream / House Of Wood (Vinyl, 7", 45 RPM, Single) album cover

With the circus being one of the most effective metaphors for whatever was going on in artists’ heads in the mid and late ’60s, it is not surprising that many bands chose the word “circus” as their name – or at least part of it. We’ll hear from Circus Maximus and Stone Circus later on: now it’s time for a London-based group formerly known as The Stormsville Shakers. Yep, Circus sounds definitely better.

Os Mutantes – ‘Panis et Circenses’ 

Os Mutantes album cover

The People crave two things, and two things only: panem et circenses, bread and circuses. That was Juvenal’s idea back in the not-so-good ol’ Roman times. He was trying to denounce both the masses’ intellectual idleness and the sly diversions of politicians – I’m sure we could spend hours and hours discussing how relevant this theoretically antiquated observation still is (although now the circensium clamor is hidden behind endless  screens). Suffice it to say, it did sound more than relevant 50 years ago. So much so that Brazilian adventurers Os Mutantes took cue from Juvenal’s words and wrote their own satire called – you guessed it – ‘Panis et Circenses’.

The Epics – ‘Travelling Circus’

Travelling Circus

Time for the knife throwers to enter the big top. Hailing from Barking (and from 1968), The Epics are here to remind us that joining the circus implies that a lot of travelling will be involved. So, better keep your mind and eyes open – we’re going.

WITCH – ‘Little Clown’

Lazy Bones!! album cover

And we stop in Zambia, where WITCH mixed African sounds and rock ’n’ roll punch, while proudly intending to cause havoc in the process (as any respectable psychedelic circus should). Here’s ‘Little Clown’, the closing track from their 1975 LP Lazy Bones!!.

Circus Maximus – ‘Travelin’ Around’

Circus Maximus album cover

Back to international travels – and back to bands named after circus ideals. This group, founded by Bob Bruno and future country legend Jerry Jeff Walker, offers another taste of latin, too: their rather magniloquent moniker was Circus Maximus, and so they named their 1967 LP. Their take on psychedelic tours is simply incendiary…um, we might have  just found our fire eaters.

Eire Apparent – ‘The Clown’

Sunrise album cover

Send in more clowns, please. This time around, our red-nosed pal has a Northern Irish accent and is produced by – hear hear – Mr. Jimi Hendrix. Let’s welcome Eire Apparent and Sunrise, their should-have-been-a-classic 1969 first and only LP.

The Pretty Things – ‘Cries from the Midnight Circus’

Parachute album cover

Rock ’n’ roll circuses are full of life and colours, sure. But not even rock music can free circuses from their inescapable shroud of sadness altogether. And things couldn’t get darker than Phil May’s cry, and The Pretty Things’ sight of a tortured midnight circus. So much so that “sad” sounds like an euphemism in this case – it’s pure terror at play. Murder! Blood! Satan’s daughters!! Seems like Jack The Ripper has entered the tent.

Ralph McTell – ‘Clown’

My Side Of Your Window album cover

Another gloomy take, courtesy of Ralph McTell. Back in the late ’60s, following the epiphany of a strange tuning, he set to find the right words for a rather eerie tune that was taking shape in his mind. Eerie sounds, right? Then why not talk about a clown and let the inspiration flow? “I have always found clowns slightly sinister and I was beginning to trust that the song would go somewhere without having a planned ending,” he later recalled. The song was included on third LP My Side Of Your Window, released at the end of 1969; “This was probably one of my favourite tracks on the album,” McTell says.

Roger Bunn – ‘Life Is A Circus’

Piece Of Mind album cover

Few people know it, but Roger Bunn graced rock ’n’ roll with one of the most rock ’n’ roll decisions ever. After releasing the gorgeous Piece Of Mind in 1969, he became Roxy Music’s first guitarist. But that changed when one day frontman Brian Ferry requested he shaved his beard and started dressing more accordingly to his vision (if you’re inclined to call that plethora of pompous suits a “vision”… spoiler alert: I’m not). And so Roger politely declined (maybe not so politely… who knows) and readily left the soon-to-be illustrious Roxy Music. Here’s to long beards, and to not giving a fuck about dress codes. And here’s to life… a circus indeed.

Tim Buckley – ‘Carnival Song’

Goodbye And Hello album cover

Buckley Sr.’s interpretation of circuses – captured on the 1967 classic Goodbye And Hello – is, as you would expect, melancholic to say the least. Carnival sounds make the vision of a burning circus hypnotic. Between the flames, devastating intuitions on life’s ways slowly emerge and loom: “But dance and sing, for others bring the shame. And for a while you won’t know my name.”

Trader Horne – ‘Children of Oare’

Morning Way album cover

Now. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m stripping circuses of all the innocence, taking them away from children and their wide-eyed imagery (yawn). So here’s a collection of charming dreamy scenes that not even cynics like me can oppose. Horsemen, magical creatures of the sea, and… yes, a carnival flooded by singing little ones. Just because it’s Trader Horne and their blissful Morning Way LP, mind you.

Federal Duck  – ‘Circus In The Sea’

Federal Duck album cover

Why not visit – after Trader Horne’s charming mermaids – an underwater circus? Actually, before landing at the bottom of the ocean Federal Duck’s symphonic spectacle lingers on a mountain top for a little while. Leave it to a psychedelic band from Pennsylvania – and to the endless surprises of 1968 –to finally consign circuses to their less familiar elements: air and, finally, water.

Cat’s Eyes – ‘Circus’ 

Circus (Vinyl, 7", 45 RPM, Single) album cover

And now, ladies and gents, the illusionists (in the guise of a British band playing a 1970 overlooked single). Besides their great name – Cat’s Eyes, what’s more alluring than cat’s eyes? –  they’ll charm you and bewitch you with lulling flutes and timeless scenes of carnival life.

Stone Circus – ‘Carnival Of Love’

Stone Circus album cover

Our kaleidoscopic caravan now reaches late ’60s New York by way of Montreal. Here we find a young band working on its (unfortunately rather ill-fated) debut LP. The group, Funky Farm, doesn’t know it yet, but it’s about to find itself in a “two birds with one stone” (quite literally!) kind of situation in regards to our psychedelic circus survey. First of all, thanks to a perfect song title: ‘Carnival Of Love’. And then because of an unimaginable turn of events – the Mainstream label renaming the band Stone Circus…without the members’ knowledge.

The Beatles – ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover

Here’s a little-known band you might like. One of their chief songwriters – John was his name, if I’m not mistaken – was once visiting an antique shop when a 19th century circus poster caught his attention. He then set to turn the words and images printed on it into a musical collage. The result – ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’ – can be heard on an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Hey, I bet those Beatles lads will go far.

Strawberry Alarm Clock – Shallow Impressions

The World In A Sea Shell album cover

While John was caught in his dreams of Mr. Kite spectacles and strawberry fields, some other strawberries were also at work. Strawberry Alarm Clock’s third album, The World In A Sea Shell, came out in the year 1PP (Post Pepper) and featured ‘Shallow Impressions’, a hallucinatory instrumental with a strong circus-derived flavour.

The Bonniwell Music Machine – ‘Bottom Of The Soul’

The Bonniwell Music Machine album cover

1968 keeps giving us a great deal of skilful acrobats: now it’s The Bonniwell Music Machine’s turn. Previously known simply as The Music Machine – and as visceral garage-rockers – they were now revealing a more eclectic spirit. ‘Bottom Of The Soul’ found frontman Sean Bonniwell in a groovy crossfire with a Farfisa organ that was madly in love with carousel music.

Cathy Young – ‘Circus’

A Spoonful Of Cathy Young

Cathy Young says she worked in a circus – and she has a story to tell over a shifting, amusing composition. On this track from her A Spoonful Of Cathy Young 1969 album she manages to convert the startling movements of a trapeze artist into music. It all ends in laughs…a bit sinisterly, no doubt. Just like all true circuses.

Roxy – ‘Rock & Roll Circus’

Roxy album cover

Borrowing an incisive title from the Stones – a few months after their famous show had been filmed – Roxy, the band led by Bob Segarini, decided to enrich their self-titled 1969 LP  with a convincing reiteration: the most suitable metaphor for rock ’n’ roll life is the circus. Surprisingly enough, the customary pulsing spirit of a ’60s circus song here gets intertwined with a certain Southern feel.

Scott Fagan – ‘The Carnival Is Ended’ 

South Atlantic Blues album cover

One last bow from the human cannonball and it’s time to start packing: the kookoo show  is almost over. Outside the big top, bittersweet rays of sunshine and the final dance over Scott Fagan’s ‘The Carnival Is Ended’, the South Atlantic Blues tune later covered by Don MacLean.

The Tingling Mother’s Circus – ‘Epilogue’  

A Circus Of The Mind album cover

Ever wondered what Brahms would have sounded like if he had dropped acid and started playing in a circus tent left deserted by an audience now deep asleep? Me neither. But, in case you’re curious now…

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