It says a lot about The Rolling Stones’ 1960s heyday that even their jokes were catapulted to number one during the period. They were so profusely creative that they could gild even pithy little studio gags into gleaming hits that proved to be amongst their most iconic works.
‘Paint It Black’ is a very dark song, and that stretched beyond the fact that Mick Jagger yells about wanting everything cast into monochrome. Behind the literal surface is a song about shutting out the sun and lulling in the darkness of loss. How such a song could be rooted in a joke seems unfathomable, but Keith Richards explained that the origin of the music was lighter than the result.
“Mick wrote it,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stone Magazine, “I wrote the music, he did the words. Get a single together. What’s amazing about that one for me is the sitar. Also, the fact that we cut it as a comedy track.”
Eric Easton was the band’s manager at the time and the iconic fast-paced organ playing on the tune was Bill Wyman’s attempt to make a mockery of his manager’s stylings. “Bill was playing an organ, doing a take-off of our first manager who started his career in show business as an organist in a cinema pit,” Richards explained. “We’d been doing it with funky rhythms, and it hadn’t worked, and he started playing it like this and everybody got behind it. It’s a two-beat, very strange. Brian playing the sitar makes it a whole other thing.”
The building pace of the song certainly adds a sense of drama to the song and colours the downbeat lyrics with a viscerally emotional edge. In the end, we are left with the spellbinding frenzied incantation that the song swells into. If the organ playing has derived origins in a theatre pit, then the resultant ‘joke’ is certainly cinematic.
This spoof, however, was not the only influence on the eventual sound of the song as Jagger also drew inspiration from the compositions of Jewish Wedding songs, most notably ‘Hava Nagila’. Whilst the melody is certainly similar, the psychedelic edge that ‘Paint It Black’ is all on the Stones.
In his 2002 book Rolling with the Stones, Bill Wyman explained that the album was intended to be the soundtrack for the never-filmed movie Back, Behind And In Front. Mick Jagger met with the proposed director Nicholas Ray – the man behind the iconic James Dean movie Rebel Without A Cause – and didn’t like him so the project was scrapped.
The song remains as one of The Rolling Stones best and it is testimony to the talent of the band that it all stemmed from casually mucking around. From churlish beginnings, the band achieved stellar results – if only all creative feats could be happened upon so simply.