‘It was mud, beer – and bits of blood’: the disastrous saga of Ronnie Lane’s rock‘n’roll circus (2024)

When globe-trotting rock band The Faces disintegrated in the mid-1970s, its members made some notable career moves. Singer Rod Stewart went on to become one of the best-selling solo artists of all time. Guitarist Ronnie Wood joined The Rolling Stones. Bassist Ronnie Lane, meanwhile, spent his money on a leaky big top tent and led a travelling rock ‘n’ roll circus around the UK’s regional towns and cities.

The Passing Show, as it was called, combined music by Lane’s post-Faces band Slim Chancewith can-can dancers, clowns, fire-eaters, comedians and allusions to eastern mysticism. Former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band singer Vivian Stanshall was the eccentric ringmaster. But the tour, which launched 50 years ago this summer, was a financial and organisational disaster. A convoy of shonky lorries and caravans caused mayhem as, under the auspices of a ferocious former lion tamer called Captain Peter Hill, they crawled from Bath to Falkirk over the soggy summer of 1974, belching smoke and breaking down with alarming regularity.

Audience numbers were low. Lane had to steal electricity to power the tent and council officials constantly tried to move the cavalcade on. The clowns were distinctly unfunny and the fire-eaters were a constant health and safety hazard. Fed-up, saxophonist Jimmy Jewell and his family ran off with the box office takings, leaving a note pinned to their caravan: “Goodbye cruel circus, I’m off to join the world.” And, to cap it off, Lane lost his Faces fortune. “It looked perfect on paper,” Lane’s drummer Bruce Rowland once dolefully remarked.

Lane died in 1997. But Slim Chance reformed in 2010 and are still touring with members from the Passing Show era. Half a century on, the travelling circus is etched into attendees’ memories. “I remember the clowns dying on their arses,” DJ Simon Bates tells me about the night of June 15 1974, when he saw The Passing Show in Shrewsbury’s Quarry Park. “I sat in an audience of 50. I remember it being intensely cold. But that didn’t matter because you took booze in,” says Bates, who was a Radio 4 newsreader at the time and now has a show on Boom Radio. “It didn’t feel like a Bertram Mills [circus] at all. There were painted hoardings. I remember it being ropey but, you know, in the 70s everything was ropey.”

And yet despite the chaos there was something noble and defiantly romantic about 28-year-old Lane’s jamboree. Having lived the high life with The Faces – a life of private jets, global fame, five-star hotels and every creature comfort imaginable – this was his attempt to reconnect with something more elementary. Fuelled by barley wine and bonhomie, his troupe would take rock ‘n’ roll to the people, surmised Lane.

The concept was also strangely prescient. While rockers had toyed with the circus theme before – the Stones made their Rock and Roll Circus film in 1968 and The Faces toured the US with circus performers in 1972 – The Passing Show was a haywire trailblazer. The following year – 1975 – Bob Dylan launched his Rolling Thunder Review tour, a sort of Passing Show on steroids (which also lost a fortune). Indeed, 50 years on, The Passing Show’s overall ethos – the organic DIY approach, itinerant troubadours, circus signage, strings of lights, cabaret, – is one of the cultural aesthetics of our time. Just look at the success of Mumford and Sons.

Lane was “absolutely ahead of his time”, says Charlie Hart, who joined Lane’s post-Faces band Slim Chance just after The Passing Show and still plays with the band. “His influence was huge. It was a multimedia experience.”

“Looking back on it, it was an amazing thing to do. I wish I’d had more respect for what he was doing at the time,” The Passing Show’s long-term bass player Steve Bingham recalls, although he concedes that the shebang is more “romantic and incredible” in retrospect than it was back in June 1974.

Lane knew he wanted a simpler life. By 1973 the East Londoner had spent almost a decade in the pop limelight, firstly in the Small Faces and then in The Faces. Keen to sing his own songs and irritated that Stewart’s concurrent (and already successful) solo career was overshadowing The Faces, Lane quit. He’d also become interested in the teachings of Indian spiritual master Meher Baba, who believed that life was transient and merely “a passing show”. Lane shed the flash accoutrements of success. The clothes changed first. Lane jettisoned The Faces’ bright broad-collared suits and glam-era chiffon scarves and started dressing “like an Irish poacher from the thirties – tweed jackets, Romany kerchief and little gold earrings”, according to his biographers Caroline and David Stafford.

After leaving the band, Lane and his partner Kate bought a tumbledown small holding called Fishpool on the Shropshire-Montgomeryshire border. Lane was so wealthy that he reportedly bought it with a carrier bag full of cash. Fishpool’s remoteness appealed: water came from a well, ponies wandered into the kitchen, and the only signifier of Lane’s previous life was a gold disc nailed to the front door. “Everybody walked around with knotted handkerchiefs,” says Bates, who visited the “grubby” farm. “It was mud and beer and occasional bits of blood, and I think he loved it.”

Slim Chance recorded their folky rock at Fishpool and had a couple of hits, even appearing on Top of the Pops. It was at the farm that Lane told the band about his and Kate’s idea for The Passing Show, named after Meher Baba’s saying. Bandmate Bingham recalls, “I couldn’t believe what he was intending to do. He said, ‘Oh, we’re going to take a huge big top on the road, and all the band are gonna stay in caravans around the big top.’”

They needed gear. Lane approached an old circus-hand called Wally Lucken, who had a clapped-out convoy of vehicles stored in a barn. They hadn’t been used for two decades and some dated from 1947 but Lane paid £6,000 for the fleet, which was caked in chicken poo. A tent measuring 120 feet by 80 feet was obtained. The idea was to play residencies on greens in places including Marlow, Chester and Newcastle.

“We’d get the tent up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then play Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and it would come down on Sunday,” explains Bingham. Tickets were £1.10 (£10 today). Overseeing it all was grizzled bearded strongman and former lion tamer Hill, an acquaintance of Lucken, who acted as tent-master and was deployed to argue with the police every time the convoy (dubbed the “Chicken Sh–t Express” by Kate) was stopped or – more often – broke down.

Which happened a lot. It wasn’t unusual to see a lorry towing a lorry towing a caravan on Britain’s motorways that summer. It was often Lane’s merry revellers. Lane and Kate’s old Romany vardo was sometimes even carried on the back of a transporter to save its ageing wheels. At one point Bingham and his wife’s broken down caravan was abandoned on the M6 while they were elsewhere. It sat untouched in a layby until they rescued it. Hill was once quizzed by police as he fashioned a new tow-bar out of a Give Way sign on the same motorway. (Still, in 2020, a restored Passing Show bus sold at auction for almost £19,000.)

But the diesel-guzzling vehicles were the least of Lane’s worries. The PA system arrived with the wrong leads, Viv Stanshall left as ringmaster after defecating ­– drunk – in a caravan cupboard, and a fire engine borrowed to allay health and safety concerns kept blowing up due to their age. Further, the cavalcade turned up in towns without permission. “It was madness,” says Bingham, who still tours with Slim Chance. “We were pulling up in places where the local council didn’t even know we were coming. Ronnie was such a such a character, though, that he’d take them into his caravan, give them brandy, and a couple of hours later these guys from the council would stagger out saying, ‘Have a good gig, boys!’” The band would often down four pints of real ale at lunchtime.

The Passing Show was a multifaceted affair. The can-can dancing was done by Kate and other female entourage members, wearing costumes bought from Sotheby’s. The fire-eaters – a duo known as El Zippos – worried the band so much that they’d ensure a flap was open behind the stage through which to escape. And the clowns were, Kate has said, “so unfunny they reached a point of brilliance”. The clowns were also responsible for the poor turnout. With no PR machine, the clowns were sent on to towns in advance to put up posters. It didn’t work. One show was attended by just 15 people, probably outnumbering the entirety of the troupe, while only a few (of the 26-odd shows) were “packed out”, says Bingham. Eric Clapton was rumoured to be appearing at one but didn’t. Bingham blames the tour’s failure squarely on the lack of publicity.

Which is a shame because the band were fantastic, despite Lane’s stock joke that he’d found them in Exchange & Mart magazine. They’d play for three hours. Musicians included Bruce Rowland, who’d drummed for Joe co*cker at Woodstock, and saxophonist Jewell, another Woodstock veteran who would work with Roger Daltrey and went on to play the solo on Joan Armatrading’s hit Love and Affection. One attendee, writing on a blog, remembers a show in Falkirk as “one of the most magical nights I’ve ever had at a gig”.

But Falkirk was where the wheels started to come off – almost literally. When Lane rebuffed Jewell’s request for a pay rise, the frustrated sax player took off with the week’s takings, leaving the “goodbye cruel circus” note. Next, on Newcastle Town Moor, three shows attracted an average audience of 10 people, according to the Staffords’ biography Anymore for Anymore. It was also here that Lane ran out of cash. “I didn’t have any more money, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “We were flogging everything in the end just to buy enough diesel to move the show.” The convoy clanked back to Fishpool.

Bates believes Lane was more annoyed than hurt at events. “How many great artists have tried to get back to their roots by being natural and being spontaneous? It never works. Did Ronnie mind? I talked to him 10 years later” – Bates says slowly, making sure he finds the right words – “He talked about it and laughed, but he laughed ruefully.”

Bingham, meanwhile, is occasionally approached by hardy souls who actually saw the tour. One recently told him that one of the Newcastle shows was the greatest concert he’d ever seen. This man then presented Bingham with his original ticket stub and asked him to write “I was there” and sign his name. “So I did that,” says the bass player, clearly proud. “And the guy was in tears.”

Slim Chance are touring. Tickets: slim-chance.co.uk

‘It was mud, beer – and bits of blood’: the disastrous saga of Ronnie Lane’s rock‘n’roll circus (2024)

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