'Paint it Black', A Rolling Stones ode to Brian Jones?
(Credit: Alamy)

The Story Behind The Song: ‘Paint it Black’, The Rolling Stones ode to Brian Jones?

“Cynical, nasty, sceptical, rude. We seemed to be ahead in this respect at the time. There was trouble in America; all these young American kids, they were being drafted to Vietnam.” Keith Richards describes perfectly, among many of their songs at the time, the attitude of Paint it Black. 

The Rolling Stones during the mid-60s knew how to get into the heads of the younger generations and especially the heads of the authorities, which is what made them so appealing to the younger crowds to begin with. What many may not know as well, however, is that these similar kinds of rifts The Stones instigated within society, as well as the political and cultural ones they commented on and fought against, existed within the band and may have spawned one of their classics of all time, ‘Paint it Black’.

‘Paint is Black’ is a mysterious song. It is alluring in its texture and sublime in creating the perfect intersection of imagery through its lyrics and instrumentation; the song is simultaneously ambiguous and poignant. It is an exceptional rock and roll song as it transcends international cultural borders; the song doesn’t need to be extrapolated and explained, it speaks for itself: it is an anthem engrained within the cultural consciousness of the ’60s. Consider this cognitive dissonance: American soldiers headed for the Vietnam War had included in their playlist, the number one most successful western song to use an Asian instrument, namely the sitar.

Even the masterful American filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, used the song for the closing credits to his 1983 masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket, which certainly played a significant part in fully associating the song with the Vietnam War.

Some accused The Stones of stealing the idea of the use of the sitar off The Beatles as they had used one recently on ‘Norwegian Wood’, however, this misconception of a stark rivalry between the two bands has been dispelled many times throughout the years. It was merely because the two bands were great friends, and were hanging around each other often. Brian Jones began to become increasingly overshadowed by the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership; Jones was progressively sinking into a bad drug hole. Despite this, it was very much because of Brian Jones, that the Stones not only survived the psychedelic period but even became leading pioneers, thanks to his multi-instrumentalist capabilities. ‘Paint it Black’ may have been a subconscious ode to Brian Jones’ increasing bitterness. Jones’ frustration eventually led him to feel neglected and irrelevant and therefore gave up on the guitar. If it wasn’t for this vital move of him picking up the sitar, would ‘Paint it Black’ still be as powerful as it is?

Watch rare and heartbreaking interview with Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones, 1965
Brian Jones’ drug addiction spiralled out of control while in the band. (Credit: Alamy)

Keith Richards once explained: “What probably really struck in Brian’s Craw was when Mick and I started writing the songs. He lost his status and then lost interest. Having to come to the studio and learn to play a song Mick and I had written would bring him down. It was like Brian’s Open wound. Brian’s only solution became clinging to either Mick or me, which created a triangle of sorts. But no sparks flew when I was sitting around with Brian. I don’t like guitar anymore.”

Richards elaborates on the birth of the song, “‘There was ‘Paint it Black’, for example, recorded in March 1966, our sixth British number one. Brain Jones, now transformed into a multi-instrumentalist, having ‘given up playing the guitar’, played sitar. It was a different style to everything I’d done before. Maybe it was the Jew in me. It’s more to me like ‘Hava Nagila’ or some Gypsy lick. Maybe I picked it up from my grandad. It’s definitely on a different curve to everything else. I’d moved around the world a bit. I was no longer strictly a Chicago bluesman, had to spread the wings a bit, to come up with melodies and ideas, although I can’t say that we ever played Tel Aviv or Romania.”

‘Paint it Black’ went to the top of the singles charts in the UK and number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the States, when it was included as the first track for the American release of AftermathKeith Richards described it as a “genuine Jagger-Richards collaboration” which was very representative of the band’s songwriting process back in the mid-60s, especially when writing the album Aftermath. It seems as if, at the time, Jagger and Richards or otherwise known as ‘The Glimmer Twins’, had successfully locked into a great rhythm and formula, in both the mechanical aspect of songwriting, but also by plugging into the cultural attitude of the hippie revolution that was going on. 

Their “We-are-not-like-you-and-we-disavow-your-outdated-tradition” attitude was exactly what the generation at the time needed, as all younger generations will still need. Let’s all hope the younger rock n roll bands will continue to think outside the box and paint it black, for better or for worse.

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