1965 had been a phenomenal year for the Rolling Stones, and saw them established as the biggest rivals to the Beatles for the pop crown, despite the nihilism of rock classics (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Get Off of My Cloud. That December they began work on their fourth album Aftermath. Originally conceived as the soundtrack to an abandoned film, the Stones had much more time than usual to work on this album, and it showed. For the first time they released an album feauring songs only written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they experimented with their sound. Featuring Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane, Under My Thumb and Out of Time, it’s easily their best album up to this point and perhaps their best to date.
Recorded during the same sessions in March 1966, and released as the opening track of the US version of Aftermath, Paint It, Black took the Rolling Stones into new territory, and remains a real stand-out track.
Initially it had been written with a standard rock-pop arrangement, and lyrically Jagger was continuing on the dark path of their previous two singles, but this time his disgust with the world had a reason. I only recently realised Paint It, Black specifically relates to a loved one’s sudden death, rather than general malaise and depression. Of course it was there, right in front of me, from the very start, if I’d taken proper notice of Jagger’s lyrics. The ‘line of cars and they are painted black’ refers to the funeral, and ‘I could not forsee this thing happening to you’ suggests how unexpected the death was. Something the band were to experience themselves soon… Although Jagger has never said who the song refers to, many believe it concerns a soldier in Vietnam, which is backed up by Stanley Kubrick playing it over the credits of Full Metal Jacket in 1987.
Fooling around with the song in the studio, Bill Wyman played on the organ and Charlie Watts improvised a double-time drum beat that became the song’s distinctive, unusual gallop. The band decided this rhythm would make a nice counterpoint to the bleak lyrics.
The key ingredient that elevates Paint It, Black to a classic, however, came from Brian Jones. Frustrated with his decline in importance to the band, and with Jagger and Richards now in charge, he began experimenting with new instruments and sounds. To compliment the new Moroccan feel to the song, he laid sitar over the top. Inspired by George Harrison, he was taught by Harihar Rao, a disciple of Ravi Shankar. The Beatles get all the credit for popularising the sitar, but Paint It, Black was one of the first pop songs to do so too, and the best for the time being. The whole band put in excellent performances, from Richards’ flamenco opening to the finale, in which Wyman goes crazy on the bass.
Released on 13 May, Paint It, Black quickly knocked the sunshine of Pretty Flamingo from the top of the pops, and cast a dark cloud over the optimism of the spring and summer of 1966. A world away from their early blues tracks, it proved the Rolling Stones could be just as effective at experimenting as the Beatles. It’s easily one of their greatest tracks, and one of the best number 1s of the 60s. However, the Rolling Stones began to hit a rocky patch after its release, and controversy and further experimentation led to their popularity sliding. Paint It, Black was their last number 1 until 1968.
And why did the title have that strange comma, adding emphasis on ‘Black’? A further sign of the darkness enveloping the group? No. It was just an error by Decca Records.
Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards
Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham
Weeks at number 1: 1 (26 May-1 June)
Actress Helena Bonham Carter – 26 May