Behind the Song Meaning: How Brian Jones’ Sitar Transformed “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones

Inspired by more experimentation around arrangements and a desire to write all of their songs, Aftermath was a groundbreaking album for The Rolling Stones. It was a new undertaking for the Stones with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards writing the entire album. While “Paint It Black” colored in some of the band’s new musical pictures, it still remains a bit of a lyrical mystery.

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The Meaning.

There was never any clear meaning imparted on the song, and Mick Jagger even said “It means, ‘Paint It, Black.’ ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’ means ‘I can’t get no satisfaction,’” but in the lyrics is a story about a girl who presumably dies—I see a line of cars / And they’re all painted black / With flowers and my love / Both never to come back—along with the ensuing grief, depression, and blackened state following a loss.

I see a red door
And I want it painted black
No colors anymore
I want them to turn black

I see the girls walk by
Dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head
Until my darkness goes

I see a line of cars
And they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love
Both never to come back

The Sitar.

Inspired by more Indian and Mid-Eastern sounds, the song was written while the band was in Fiji for three days. Adding to their musical experiments, guitarist Brian Jones first introduces the sitar into the mix—and marked the first time the Stones featured the instrument in their music—and would often play the wooden instrument, sat cross-legged, during television appearances. The sitar was most likely a discovery during the band’s break in the South Pacific around a tour in Australia.

“They make sitars and all sorts of Indian stuff,” said Richards. “We had the sitars, [and] 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.”

Bill Wyman’s influence.

At first, the Stones had trouble piecing the song together until bassist Bill Wyman introduced a rhythmic pattern, which he pulled from the band’s co-manager Eric Easton, also a former organist, to help guide the song. “I lay on the floor under the organ and played a second bass riff on the pedals, at double-time,” said Wyman in his 1997 memoir The Story of a Rock ’n’ Roll Band. Once Watts joined, offering his own double-time drum pattern, “Paint It Black” had its Middle Eastern musical mosaic.

“What made ‘Paint It Black’ was Bill Wyman on the organ,” said Richards, “because it didn’t sound anything like the finished record until Bill said, ‘You go like this.'”

Still not offering much around the ambiguity of the song, Richards, who has described the track as a “genuine Jagger-Richards collaboration” has talked about the psychedelic, Indian, and Mideastern sounds the band crafted around the song, and Jones’ introduction of the sitar.

“Brian Jones now transformed into a multi-instrumentalist, having given up playing the guitar, played sitar,” said 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 grandad. It’s definitely on a different curve to everything else.”

The Rolling Stones (Photo: ABKCO Records)

An anthem during the war.

Recorded in March 1966 at RCA Studios in Hollywood and released in the midst of the Vietnam War, although the song was later used on the late 1980s TV series Tour of Duty about the ongoing war and Stanley Kubrick even used the song in closing credits of his 1983 war classic Full Metal Jacket, there were never blatant political references in the song. Still, it quickly became an anthem for a very culturally conscious and dissonant youth during the war.

I’ve seen people turn their heads
And quickly look away
Like a newborn baby
It just happens everyday

I look inside myself
And see my heart is black
I see my red door
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

“That was a big landmark record for me,” said Mick Jagger of Aftermath. “It’s the first time we wrote the whole record and finally laid to rest the ghost of having to do these very nice and interesting, no doubt, but still cover versions of old R&B songs, which we didn’t really feel we were doing justice, to be perfectly honest, particularly because we didn’t have the maturity. Plus, everyone was doing it.”

Though the song was written by Richards and Jagger with most of the musical arrangements set by Jones, a slanted publishing deal in 1965 led to the band signing over the rights to the track, and all the songs they wrote through 1969 to the band’s former manager Allen Klein.

“Paint It, Black” reached No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K. charts in 1966 and has remained a staple on the Stones set to this day.

“[Aftermath] has a very wide spectrum of music styles: “Paint It, Black” was this kind of Turkish song; and there were also very bluesy things like “Goin’ Home”; and I remember some sort of ballads on there,” added Jagger. “It had a lot of good songs. It had a lot of different styles, and it was very well recorded. So it was, to my mind, a real marker.”

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