In many ways, Brian Jones was the first mod; simultaneously ahead of his time while portraying a personage reminiscent of dandies of the 1800s. Dandies were very much highly concerned with their appearance and partook in many parties and functioning as supreme socialites, containing an air of arrogance, lofty ideals, superb clothes and an active role within the arts. When one thinks of a dandy, mostly the name Oscar Wilde comes to mind, a writer of the late 19th century most famous for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a story of sheer vanity, of which its consequences are never directly felt by the anti-hero of the story, Dorian Gray, but instead, a portrait of Dorian slowly rots in direct correlation of the mortal sins committed by Gray. It is both a comment on the hypocrisies of western high-class society and how individuals are shaped by meaningless and weightless expectations. Brian Jones is indeed Dorian Gray of the early 1960s; he’s seen the faultiness of society’s bias placed upon certain privileges, while the same rules that are broken by the privileged class are thrust upon those without any true power or class.
As a figure, Brian Jones stands in stark opposition to this; he used rock ‘n’ roll as a platform to rebel against the surface-deep facade of authority and placed himself within society as a martyr. No matter how many drugs he took, no matter how reckless he was at the time — allegorically, he enacted the crimes of Dorian — his constitution never wavered, and all the while he remained pristinely fashionable as an icon of youthful rebellion. He was equal parts a working-class bluesman alongside Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and also a high-class dandy who increasingly began to lose his way — his soul began to rot, but his exterior appearance was shrouded in a veil of artistic and societal decadence — he began only to associate himself with hoity-toity members of society. To say this another way, as Bill Wyman commented: “There were two Brian’s… one was introverted, shy, sensitive, deep-thinking… the other was a preening peacock, gregarious, artistic, desperately needing assurance from his peers… he pushed every friendship to the limit and way beyond.”
Brian Jones began his journey as a blues player; he was possibly one of the first slide guitar players in England. As with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, he was swept away by the work of the original American blues players, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and more. As a member and founder of the Rolling Stones, he was an all-utility musician: he played slide guitar, rhythm guitar, piano, marimba, dulcimer, mellotron, saxophone and later sitar. While Jones didn’t necessarily write the songs, he played a pivotal role in the band — shaping the group’s sounds and aesthetics. In the beginning, Jones was essentially the de facto leader of the group. He seemed more experienced than Richards and Jagger; he already sat in various blues groups around London, most notably, The Roosters and Blues Incorporated.
At the time, Richards and Jagger were inseparable. They met Jones at the Ealing Jazz Club; Brian Jones was calling himself Elmo Lewis at the time, and, as a slide player, he was trying to emulate Elmore James, ‘the king of the slide guitar.’ Jones and Keith Richards developed what Richards would later call the “ancient art of weaving guitars,” a component Richards would carry with him throughout the later Stones records. Likewise, Jones was also the one to teach Jagger how to play the harp. The three of them were living in a small flat in London, where blues music was consumed all hours of the day and night. These times would prove to be very formative for the Stones. Under Brian Jones’ tutelage, the three of them, with the piano player, Ian Stewart, developed the Rolling Stones’ foundation.
Taking a more detailed look into Brian Jones’s brilliance and how he truly transformed rock ‘n’ roll through his innovative playing and creative bursts through the Stones, one simply needs to look at specific songs. As previously stated, while he didn’t write the songs’ skeletal structures, Brian Jones was definitely the muse for the band. His image, his philosophy, his knowledge of blues music and his sheer skill of playing any instrument convincingly is evidence enough to suggest the importance of Jones’ involvement.
The Stones’ second single was a Lennon-McCartney song who from time to time, would cross paths with the dirty London boys and throw them a song or two. ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, released in 1963, beat The Beatles’ own version by a few weeks and as one would assume, it’s dirtier, raunchier and bluesier. The Stones’ version of this track is a brilliant example of Jones’ slide work.
In 1966, The Stones released Aftermath, whom some would say is one of their best albums, friction began to develop within the inner ranks of the Stones, as resentment grew towards Brian Jones’ blistering sophisticated and glamorous lifestyle, mostly from Mick Jagger. He felt he was a little slighted by the fact the press and the outside world viewed Jones as the most fashionable leader of the group. Jagger even became jealous of the fact that Jones was with Anita Pallenberg, a German actress and model.
Drugs also began taking a more prominent role in Jones’ life, Keith Richards recalls in his autobiography, Life: “Acid came into his picture around the same time. Brian disappeared late in 1965 when we were in mid-tour with the usual complaints of ill-health and surfaced in New York, jamming with Bob Dylan, hanging with Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and doing acid. Acid to Brian was something different than to your average drug taker. The dope at the time really wasn’t, at least as far as the rest of us were concerned, a big deal. We were only smoking weed and taking a few uppers to keep us going. Acid made Brian feel he was one of an elite. Like the acid test. It was that cliquishness; he wanted to be a part of something, could never find anything to part of. Brian saw it as a sort of Congressional Medal of Honor.”
Aftermath is a prime example of Brian Jones’ contribution to the world of rock and roll, proving that he didn’t just inhabit the archetype perfectly, but he could also walk the walk. The opening track on the UK edition of Aftermath, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ sounds like the main guitar line is a detuned sitar. In actuality, it is two electric twelve-string Rickenbackers double-tracked, performed by Brian Jones and Keith Richards. The American version of Aftermath opens with the classic ‘Paint it Black’, which features sitar playing by Jones. His said use of the sitar has remained a supreme influence on more rock ‘n’ roll yet to come. It also foreshadowed The Stones’ venture into psychedelia — Brian Jones would yet again prove to be an invaluable asset.
Upon the release of the psychedelic album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones found themselves in a very fractious period. According to Brian Jones, a month prior to their set release date of the record, the band “hadn’t got anything put together.” The band were dealing with some heavy legal issues, resulting in the group never fully being together in the studio at a time. Bill Wyman commented on this: “Every day at the studio it was a lottery as to who would turn up and what, if any, positive contribution they would make when they did. Keith would arrive with anywhere up to ten people, Brian with another half-a-dozen and it was the same for Mick. They were assorted girlfriends and friends. I hated it! Then again, so did Andrew (Oldham) and just gave up on it. There were times when I wish I could have done, too.”
This was the record that none of the members really liked and sort of discarded it in their minds, coming across as a cheap Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band knockoff. During the making of this record, the band experimented with new sounds and instruments, including a mellotron, theremin, short wave radio static, and string arrangements, all came courtesy of Brian Jones.
Jones’ last record he did with the Stones was Beggar’s Banquet, for which, however minimal it became, he returned to his regular multi-instrumentation duties. As if coming full circle, one of Brian Jones’ last contributions was his epic slide guitar performance he gave on ‘No Expectations.’
In true rock n’ roll fashion, Brian Jones burned out rather than faded away; he would be subsequently fired from the band; as if an act of extremes of all or nothing (unlike Mick Taylor, who would leave the band later) the only way for Jones’ to have stopped being the rock n’ roll dandy he was, was for him to die in a drug-related tragedy. The early Stones records that Jones played on will always remain some of their greatest work. They contain a certain majesty and quintessential uniqueness that their albums, while very good, seemed to lack. Ironically, Brian Jones, while very much influenced by American blues, made the Stones more British and gave them a magical edge that will never be enacted again.
Listen to ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ by The Rolling Stones below.