Rolling Stones songs: Paint It Black
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No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue/ I could not foresee this thing happening to you…
Also known as: PAINT IT, BLACK
Written by: Jagger/Richard
Recorded: RCA Studios, Hollywood, USA, March 6-9 1966
Guest musicians: Jack Nitzsche (piano)
*Data taken from Martin Elliott’s book THE ROLLING STONES COMPLETE RECORDING SESSIONS 1962-2012
This is written from the viewpoint of a person who is depressed; he wants everything to turn black to match his mood. There was no specific inspiration for the lyrics. When asked at the time why he wrote a song about death, Mick Jagger replied: “I don’t know. It’s been done before. It’s not an original thought by any means. It all depends on how you do it.
The song seems to be about a lover who died:
“I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black” – The hearse and limos.
“With flowers and my love both never to come back” – The flowers from the funeral and her in the hearse. He talks about his heart being black because of his loss.
“I could not foresee this thing happening to you” – It was an unexpected and sudden death.
“If I look hard enough into the setting sun, my love will laugh with me before the morning comes” – This refers to her in Heaven.
The Rolling Stones wrote this as a much slower, conventional soul song. When Bill Wyman began fooling around on the organ during the session doing a takeoff of their original as a spoof of music played at Jewish weddings. Co-manager Eric Easton (who had been an organist), and Charlie Watts joined in and improvised a double-time drum pattern, echoing the rhythm heard in some Middle Eastern dances. This new more upbeat rhythm was then used in the recording as a counterpoint to the morbid lyrics.
On this track, Stones guitarist Brian Jones played the sitar, which was introduced to pop music by The Beatles on their 1965 song Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown). Jones made good television by balancing the instrument on his lap during appearances.
Keith Richards explained how this song came together: “We were in Fiji for about three days. They make sitars and all sorts of Indian stuff. Sitars are made out of watermelons or pumpkins or something smashed so they go hard. They’re very brittle and you have to be careful how you handle them. We had the sitars, we thought we’d try them out in the studio. To get the right sound on ‘Paint It Black’ we found the sitar fitted perfectly. We tried a guitar but you can’t bend it enough.”
This was used as the theme song for Tour Of Duty, a CBS show about the Vietnam War that ran from 1987-1989.
On the single, there is a comma before the word “black” in the title, rendering it, “Paint It, Black.” This of course changes the context, implying that a person named “Black” is being implored to paint. While some fans interpreted this as a statement on race relations, it’s far more likely that the rogue comma was the result of a clerical error, something not uncommon in the ’60s.
Mick Jagger on the song’s psychedelic sound: “That was the time of lots of acid. It has sitars on it. It’s like the beginnings of miserable psychedelia. That’s what the Rolling Stones started – maybe we should have a revival of that.”
U2 did a cover for the 7″ B-side of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” and used some of it in live versions of “Bad.” Other artists who have covered the song include Deep Purple, Vanessa Carlton, GOB, Tea Party, Jonny Lang, Face to Face, Earth Crisis, W.A.S.P., Rage, Glenn Tipton, Elliott Smith, Eternal Afflict, Anvil, and Risa Song.
Jack Nitzsche played keyboards. Besides working with The Stones, Nitzsche arranged records for Phil Spector and scored many movies. Nitzsche had an unfortunate moment when he appeared on the TV show Cops after being arrested for waving a gun at a guy who stole his hat. He died of a heart attack in 2000 at age 63.
The Stones former manager Allen Klein owned the publishing rights to this song. In 1965, The Stones hired him and signed a deal they would later regret. With Klein controlling their money, The Stones signed over the publishing rights to all the songs they wrote up to 1969. Every time this is used in a commercial or TV show, Klein’s estate (he died in 2009) gets paid.
This is featured in the closing credits of the movie The Devil’s Advocate. It is also heard at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket, where it serves as an allegory of the sorrow of the sudden death in the song relating to the emotional death of the men in the film, and of all men in war.
Brian Jones had a lot of input into this song, but was left off the songwriting credits (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the credited writers). Jones did the arrangements for “Paint It Black” and many other songs around this time, but according to Keith Richards, he never presented a finished song to the group, which kept him off the credits.
Jones was a founding member of the Stones and key to their early success. He was still going strong when this song was released in 1966, but fell off a year later when his drug use caught up to him and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, left him for Richards. By June 1969, he was a liability, and the Stones fired him. Less than a month later he drowned in his swimming pool at age 27.
His notable contributions to the group include lead guitar on “Get Off of My Cloud” and recorder on “Ruby Tuesday,” but his work on “Paint It Black” may have been his greatest musical achievement. “Brian’s sitar line not only makes the song happen but also turns it into a timeless classic,” Danny Garcia, director of the film Rolling Stone: Life and Death of Brian Jones, told Songfacts.
This song was used in the movie Stir Of Echoes with Kevin Bacon. In the movie, Bacon’s character hears the first few chords of it in a memory, but could not think of the song. It drives him crazy through most of the movie.
Talking on his Absolute Radio show, Stones’ co-guitarist Ronnie Wood disclosed that Keith Richards has trouble remembering how to play this song. He revealed, “We always have this moment of hesitation where we don’t know if Keith’s going to get the intro right.”
Keith Richards: “What made ‘Paint It Black’ was Bill Wyman on the organ, because it didn’t sound anything like the finished record until Bill said, ‘You go like this.'”
Ciara recorded a breathy, stirring cover for the 2015 movie, The Last Witch Hunter.
The R&B star told Rolling Stone that it was a surprise for her when she got the call from Universal Publishing and Lionsgate to record the tune. “When they asked me to do this, I was like, ‘Absolutely. This would be an honor,'” she said. “I had never thought to cover this song. It was never on my radar to cover it, but when the opportunity came along, I was very thrilled, because I love what the producer Adrianne Gonzales did.”
“The direction that she went in was actually a sound I’ve always wanted to play with, and it just didn’t get any better than being able to cover a Rolling Stones song,” Ciara continued. “I feel like it pushes the edge and the limit for me, in reference to what people probably expect from me. So this was so many cool things in one. It was a huge honor, and then creatively I just got to really have some fun that I don’t usually do in my music.”
This wasn’t the only “black” hit of 1966; the Spanish group Los Bravos went to #4 US and #2 UK with “Black Is Black” that year.
In the two weeks this song was at #1 in June 1966, the #2 song was “Did You Ever Have to Make up Your Mind?” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, an American group that made inroads against the British Invasion bands with relentlessly upbeat pop songs. Their jaunty song about trying to decide between two girls was quite a contrast to “Paint It Black.”
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. The deal fell through when Mick Jagger met director Nicholas Ray (who directed James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause) and didn’t like him.
In a nod to Henry Ford’s quote “you can have any color as long as it’s black,” an orchestral version was used in a 2018 Ford commercial starring Bryan Cranston. In 2020, another major brand deployed the song when Missy Elliot and H.E.R. created a new version for a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial touting Pepsi Zero Sugar’s black can. Part of the song was previewed in commercials that aired a week earlier during the Grammy Awards, where H.E.R. was a performer.
“Paint It Black” is referenced in the second verse of the 1972 song “Thirteen” by Big Star:
Won’t you tell your Dad get off my back?
Tell him what we said ’bout “Paint It Black”
Rock ‘n’ Roll is here to stay
Come inside where it’s OK
And I’ll shake you
From the The Rolling Stones – All the Songs book:
“Paint It Black” has given rise to many a commentary and (often farfetched) interpretation. Contrary to what has been claimed, this Stones song is not about either Vietnam or Mick Jagger’s breakup with Chrissie Shrimpton, or his budding relationship with Marianne Faithfull. On the other hand, it is possible to see in it a reference to a bad trip under the
influence of hallucinogenic substances, particularly in the red/black, light/dark contrasts.
More probably, it is a metaphor of death. The very first line of the first verse brings to mind a devastated lover attending the funeral of his girlfriend. The red door is his bleeding heart, a door he wants painted black. A lover who feels he is to blame (I could not foresee this thing happening to you) and destined to lead a solitary existence (I see people turn their heads and quickly look away). The funeral cortege is also described: I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black. “Paint It Black” could also be an expression of disenchantment—the end of illusions, of utopias that came into being with the countercultural movements (even if we are still only in 1966 at this point!)
The melody in turn comes from Keith Richards: “It was a different style to everything I’d done before. Maybe it was the Jew in me. It’s more to me like ‘Hava Nagila’ or some Gypsy lick. Maybe I picked it up from my granddad.”
“Paint It Black” was released as a single in the United States on May 7, 1966 (with “Stupid Girl” as the B-side) and on May 13 in the United Kingdom (with “Long Long While” as the B-side). It soared to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, where some 200,000 people had preordered, the press could not help comparing it to the Beatles, in particular regarding the use of the sitar. This attracted a scathing response from Brian Jones in the magazine Beat Instrumental: “What utter rubbish.
You might as well say that we copy all the other groups by playing guitar. Also, everyone asks if it’s going to be the new trend. Well, personally, I wouldn’t like it to be. You don’t have to get that weird Indian sound from a sitar.” But he immediately added: “Take ‘Norwegian Wood.’ Atmospherically, it’s my favorite track by the Beatles. George made simple use of the sitar and it was very effective.”
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