The role that Brian Jones played in The Rolling Stones becoming the behemoth of music that we all know and love today is immeasurable. As such, it tore his bandmates apart as they witnessed his rapid decline as a result of the pitfalls engulfed his entire being. The sad truth remains that he was no longer the man who had strung the band together. Jones’ reality was heartbreaking for Mick Jagger to watch — the person who he was so close to was gone and was replaced by a shadow of his former self.
The situation left Jagger at a quandary as he could see Jones lose himself shred by shred with each passing day, he tried his best to help his bandmate out with words of advice but they were falling on deaf ears. While he wrestled with the struggle of his friend in such a downward spiral, Jagger decided to write a song reflecting on the simpler times before Jones’ started to fade. The result was the magnificent yet utterly heartbreaking ‘Shine a Light.’ The band frontman began writing the song in early 1968 when the Stones still had Jones as a member before revisiting it again after his tragic death.
The song was originally titled ‘Get a Line on You’ and dealt with Jones’ spiralling addiction to drugs and his subsequent detachment from the rest of the band. Brian Jones’ position within the group had already started to gradually deteriorate by the time that Jagger started work on the track. As well as his issues with substance abuse refusing to go away, the creative conflicts between Jones and Keith Richards were cutting, with the blades sharpened by Richards’ pursuit and courting of Jones’ fiancee Anita Pallenberg the previous year.
Jones’ contribution on the band’s albums had also significantly dwindled and he was no longer the creative tour de force which helped established The Stones as icons. After his addiction had reached boiling point, the band cut ties with the guitarist and his position within the group was soon given away to Mick Taylor just weeks before Jones’ tragic death. Just days later, he was found at the bottom of his swimming pool on the grounds of the home he’d built from his time with the Stones.
Bill Wyman would later note in his book Stone Alone about the decline of his friend, “There were at least two sides to Brian’s personality,” he sadly admitted. “One Brian 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.”
After Jones’s death in 1969, the song resurfaced and as the band tried to channel their grief into their music, they decided to revisit the song in tribute to their fallen friend. They would re-record a revised version of the track in July 1970 under the new name of ‘Shine a Light’. They then huddled back in the studio once more to create the third and final recording of the track at London’s Olympic Sound Studios in December 1971— which would then go on to appear on Exile on Main St.
The heartfelt number sees Jagger painfully swoon, “May the good Lord shine a light on you, Make every song (you sing) your favourite tune, May the good Lord shine a light on you, Warm like the evening sun”. You can feel the emotion in every note that Jagger sings as he waves goodbye to his close friend with who he’d shared a fairytale journey with that quickly turned into a nightmare.
Jagger would later go on to say in 2010 that it is the track that means the most to him on Exile on Main St, “It was quite an early one from Olympic Studios London, with Billy Preston,” he told The Sun. “Once it was finished, we never played it on stage for years and years. Then it became this favourite after we recorded it for the Stripped album. So ‘Shine A Light’ was this funny thing that started off as something you did once at that time and never went back to.”
‘Shine A Light’ is a Stones number that goes under the radar but is one that Jagger wrote straight from the heart and is clearly one that he still holds a wealth of emotion towards. The tragic death of Jones is the darkest moment in the history of The Stones and his spiral into addiction not only broke him but almost broke the band. This track provides the greatest insight into how the death of his friend damaged him and despite the pair drifting, Jones still meant the world to him.