The story behind the Rolling Stones song

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“That song was going nowhere,” said The rolling stones‘ manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham as he recalled the band toiling in the studio on the freshly written song, ‘Paint It Black’. “Another 10 minutes,” he had determined, “and it will be time to move on.”

It was the first week of March 1966, and the Stones were at a favorite American studio – RCA in Los Angeles – working with engineer Dave Hassinger to complete their next album, Consequences.

Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” now.

Among the songs they were preparing to record was “Paint It Black”, which had been composed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards while the band was touring Australia the previous month. “I wrote the melody,” Keith said, “he wrote the lyrics.” But in exploring the sonic possibilities of the new minor key number, the Stones had stalled before fully unlocking its magic. Running out of time, they were about to give it up completely.

The background

There was a sense of urgency in the studio, but the real pressure was to deliver a new hit single. The Stones had topped the charts since the summer of 1964, but it wasn’t until a year ago – when “The Last Time” was released in February 1965 – that they began scoring with original material from Jagger/Richards.

A streak of Number Ones followed, and it was a winning streak they didn’t want to break. However, this current contender lacked the driving insistence and cantankerous attitude that had fueled previous hits like “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” and “19th nervous breakdown“, and now seemed so synonymous with the Rolling Stones.

“Our songs were kind of taking on a lyrical edge…” Jagger once explained. “Cynical, mean, skeptical, rude… The lyrics and mood of the songs matched the children’s disenchantment with the American adult world, and for a while we seemed to be the sole provider, the soundtrack of the rumble of rebellion, touching those social nerves.

A game-changing suggestion

Yet here they were with an arrangement for “Paint It Black” that matched neither the intensity of its forebears nor the oppressive themes suggested by its lyrics. “‘Paint It Black’ was going to be like a rhythm group number,” Jagger said. “It was just a big joke.”

Then, after listening to the last backing track, Bill Wyman had an unusual idea. “I suggested Hammond organ pedals,” the bassist said. “I lay down on the floor under the organ and played a second bass riff on the pedals, with my fists, in double time.”

The effect immediately fattened the bottom of the song, as Wyman had intended, but more importantly, it suddenly evaded its perceived direction. By inadvertently stirring in evocative Turkish flavors, Wyman had sent the song into far more exotic territory than the Stones had hitherto ventured. “That’s it!” thought an elated Oldham. “I had heard the sound and movement we needed, the fantasy that spelled ‘radio’.”

The final touch

Continuing this curious musical detour, guitarist Brian Jones was about to add some extra color – but not with his usual six strings. “Brian had pretty much given up on the guitar by then,” Keith Richards said. “If there were [another] instrument around, he had to be able to get something out of it, just because he was there.

Brian had waded through the power struggle between him and his fellow songwriters. The distance was exacerbated by his unreliability, a byproduct of his disillusionment and increasing drug use. Unable to write his own songs, he began to enjoy embellishing Mick and Keith’s tracks beyond the threshold of conventional guitar melodies. An accomplished saxophonist, Brian will enrich the musical palette of Consequences with dulcimers, marimbas, kotos and – in the case of “Paint It Black” – a sitar.

In December 1965, Brian had heard george harrison playing the sitar on “Norwegian Wood” when the Beatles released their rubber core album. A week later, during the Stones’ first sessions for Consequences at RCA, the band’s pianist/road manager, Ian Stewart, provided Brian with his own sitar. Soon, a chance encounter with a sitar virtuoso named Harihar Rao would lead Brian to study under his tutelage. “I met him at a club in New York,” Brian said. “Hari taught me to play [the sitar]. He studied under Ravi Shankar for 12 years, yet he still considers himself a student; these people devote their lives to the instrument.

Although he had by no means mastered the sitar, Brian had at least understood how his sound could work in the Stones’ music. “I love the instrument,” he explained, “it gives you a new range if you use an instrument like that. It has completely different principles from the guitar and opens up new fields for a band in harmonics and all.

So, as the Stones began to unravel the oriental qualities that “Paint It Black” conveyed, Brian used his sitar eloquently, picking out the vocal melody in the verses and providing the song with its unique and prodigious intro riff. “It was more than a decorative effect,” Oldham proclaimed. “Sometimes Brian would put the whole record together.”

Words

Now supported by this malevolent milieu, Jagger’s lyrics – which would have been far too dark for a simple pop song – are perfectly on point. It’s a song about the grief and discouragement one feels during this process.

In it, Mick has suffered a sudden loss and can’t bear that life must go on without his lover—his grief has clouded his appreciation for the vibrant colors around him (“I want them to turn black”), and can’t even consider anyone else in their current state; “I have to turn my head,” he sings, “until my darkness disappears.”

Much like the hammering toms of Charlie Watts, there is little respite from Mick’s grief, and as the song ends he seems to sink deeper and deeper into his suffering. “It’s not easy to cope,” he laments, “when your whole world is black.”

Liberation and Legacy

Arrive a month late Consequences, “Paint It Black” was released on May 7 in the US and May 13 in the UK, topping the charts in both countries. It would be two years before the Rolling Stones had another number one single.

Meanwhile, the impact of “Paint It Black” was felt – in many ways. The single, which carried a tag attributing the song to Jagger/Richards, upset the band, who felt their improvisational evolution was a group effort.

But it was Brian who would come to symbolize the public perception of “Paint It Black” – in the United States, at least. When the band performed the song live on The Ed Sullivan Show In this month of September, it is Brian – seated cross-legged, isolated from the group, dressed all in white, his radiant golden hair, blissfully pulling off his imposing sitar – who will appear, to all of America, as the scintillating and ethereal of the Stones’ pioneer of psych-pop adventure.

In Vietnam, meanwhile, the eerie energy of “Paint It Black” was picked up by American troops, who identified with the song’s implied fury and desperation while valiantly trying to survive in a war of more more horrible and useless.

With drums pounding to the disturbing hum of the sitar, “Paint It Black” was the sound of danger: a chilling harbinger of impending terror. The song’s graphic expressiveness has been aptly used on screen as a representation of the diabolical – notably at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s poignant Vietnam drama, Full Metal Jacket. “It’s definitely on a different curve than anything else,” Keith agreed.

Distorted and eerie, “Paint It Black” might just be the sonic equivalent of the most dreaded obstacle to mind-expanding experience: a bad trip. “Those were the days of a lot of acid,” Jagger would concede. “It’s like the beginnings of a miserable psychedelia. That’s what the Rolling Stones started – maybe we should relive that.

Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” now.

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