Watching a video montage celebrating Ronnie Wood’s 40-year anniversary as a Rolling Stone the other day, I heard the unmistakable twang of my favourite Rolling Stones song in the background.
On so many levels, “Paint It Black” is a song unlike any other Rolling Stones track.
The Stones made their name recording good old-fashioned blues — which they updated around the edges to chime better with the more modern tastes of 1960s record buyers and in the process created a sound all of their own.
By the time “Paint It Black” came along, The Rolling Stones had established their distinctive groove. A groove that could easily trace its roots back to a late-night bar in a small town somewhere deep in rural Louisiana during the 1920s.
It must have been a big surprise to the record buyers of 1966 when The Rolling Stones decided the sitar was the ideal instrument for their next record. There weren’t many of those in rural Louisiana back in the 1920s, that’s for sure.
“Paint It Black” was the first UK Number One record to feature a sitar, although the Stones weren’t the first group to use one on a record. Most notably the Beatles had already been down that avenue, although the sitar hadn’t featured on any of the Beatles’ Number One hits up to that point in time.
“Paint It Black” certainly wasn’t the last hit record of the 1960s to feature a sitar. But it was the first Number One…so that’s quite an achievement.
Despite Keith Richards’ enduring, if not entirely accurate, image as The Rolling Stones’ main guitar player, it was actually Brian Jones who played the sitar on “Paint It Black”.
The story goes that Keith had tried to play the sitar part on a guitar at first but couldn’t bend the strings enough to make the sound required. Brian Jones had been experimenting with the sitar prior to the recording session so he played the piece on that instead, rather than following Keith’s original plan of trying to mimic the sound on his guitar. Hey presto — recording music history was made.
The net result was an unusual blend — part Indian mysticism and part hard-driving rock from one of the world’s best rock bands.
Much of The Rolling Stones catalogue has a more laid-back, languid style. “Paint it Black” thunders right through from beginning to end without pausing for breath.
The sound is so tight on “Paint It Black” that it’s a joy to listen to, especially given that in those days it would have been pretty much a live take. Back in the mid-1960s there just wasn’t the recording studio trickery that’s routinely used to make records sound tight today.
The…for a Rolling Stones record…unusual sound of “Paint it Black” doesn’t end there.
When the track was laid down someone had the idea of putting Charlie Watts’ drums front and centre in the mix, not just vaguely in the background over Mick’s left shoulder as Charlie’s drumming often is.
The drum track on “Paint it Black” is also uncharacteristically energetic. Another oddity for one of the rock world’s most legendarily laid-back drummers.
That said, Charlie Watts is one of rock music’s great drummers. He achieves a result that’s right on the money every time with a drum kit probably half the size of any other rock drummer you can name. Charlie Watts is the living demonstration of the inherent power of simplicity.
That’s usually much harder to pull off than flashiness for flashiness sake. I’ve always respected him for never overplaying his hand, as drummers sometimes like to do.
Although, given his usual drumming style, it does make the highly energetic drum score for “Paint It Black” even more of a surprise.
This oddest…but greatest…of Rolling Stones records isn’t on the most cheerful of topics.
The lyrics tell the story of a sad, final farewell…the implication is that it’s for a lover, but that’s not explicit. It’s certainly for someone very close.
I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colours any more, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until the darkness goes
The trauma from the departure of this special person means the singer finds the merest hint of colour, life and gaiety too much to take. Something as benign as a red-painted door on a house is enough to turn his sadness right up to 11.
And of course, pretty girls in bright summer dresses, laughing and joking with one another as they walk down the road was far too much happiness in the midst of his overwhelming sadness.
Feelings of gloom overwhelm him.
He looks away to try and bring his emotions under control. Whatever tiny part of his soul that had survived the trauma of his lover’s untimely departure from this mortal coil dies just a little bit more.
When the world goes on being happy while you’re so sad, those feelings take their toll…
I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black
When you feel that sad, it seems like the whole world is against you. There’s nowhere to go. No-one cares. There’s nobody to turn to.
Our singer wouldn’t be the first person to feel like just fading away when their grief gets too much to bear.
We lose too many people to this debilitating sadness every year. It’s not necessarily a specific event which sparks this overwhelming sadness. Sometimes it’s just isolation and loneliness, compounded over time.
A bad turn here…a poor choice there…a bad break or two along the way…
But the end result is that it’s easy to think there’s nothing left in the world for us. And if there’s nothing left to live for, why go on?
Thankfully some great work is being done in this area of late. Not least by the slightly unexpected, but very welcome, intervention of Prince William and Prince Harry with their Heads Together charity which is the London Marathon’s main charity this year.
Recently, the two princes opened up about the terrible sadness they both felt after losing their mother so unexpectedly 20 years ago when they were just boys. Prince Harry in particular has spoken about the way he just avoided thinking about his grief, and indeed his mother, for many years.
People in his situation develop coping mechanisms…not always very healthy ones, but you do what you need to do to get through the day.
Many years ago I had a son who died shortly after he was born. There was nothing the doctors could do. But several decades on, I still can’t think of him without feeling sad. Childbirth is normally a time of great joy, but the irreconcilable sadness of his death haunts me still.
William, Kate and Harry highlight (correctly, in my experience) that often men find their feelings especially difficult to talk about. So if you can, please try to support Heads Together in some way…or a local group with the same aims if you’re outside the UK.
In the meantime, please enjoy the most unusual record The Rolling Stones ever recorded, but for me the best song they ever put on tape.
You get the genius of the Jagger/Richards song-writing team plus Brian Jones’ fine sitar playing and an unprecedentedly energetic drum track from the talented Charlie Watts.
Along with a set of lyrics that describe better than just about any other set of lyrics how it feels to lose someone close to you before their time.
If these lyrics describe the way you feel, please talk to someone. Despite what you might think, there are plenty of people who care for you and want to help. Just let them. Please.
Here’s the Rolling Stones with “Paint It Black” …
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here…https://open.spotify.com/track/0wzABO1igQsSy8cQ7dIeHK
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.