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Sep 05

THE ROLLING STONES – “Paint It, Black”

Popular43 comments • 8,016 views

#215, 28 May 1966

Mick Jagger sings “Paint It Black” from the point of view of a man whose lover has unexpectedly died. This happens in real life, of course: it has not happened to me, I hope it never does. But it’s happened to friends of mine, one very recently. When it happens to someone you know, you find yourself saying things like, it’s impossible to imagine how they must feel. And I think it is. You may find yourself awed and moved by their public strength, or by their eloquence, but for many of us the most we can offer is friendship, not empathy.

Which of course doesn’t stop me thinking, what if -? what would i -?, and then feeling ashamed somehow for thinking it, indulgent and intrusive. What does this have to do with “Paint It Black”? Only that something I often ask myself, listening to songs, is whether or not a singer “convinces”, sells me on the situation they’re in. A lot of the time the test of that conviction is whether I can inhabit the song, how much I can enjoy its emotion vicariously, swaggering out a rhythm or swooning into mock heartache. This is something pop is fantastic at, letting us try on emotions and poses like clothes, feeling their fit. To apply that test to “Paint It Black” feels grotesque at the moment.

But here’s the thing – until I sat down, tonight, and listened to it properly I had never realised what this song was about. I had always misheard or misremembered the crucial line – “I could not foresee this thing happening to you” – as “I could not see the same thing happening to you”. That would change the song completely, making it a self-loathing lash at someone who doesn’t share Jagger’s black mood. And that I could empathise with – my own periods of depression, for instance, have always been accompanied by a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t make so much bloody fuss. (Even typing “my own periods of depression” is accompanied by a reflexive spasm of embarrassment.)

When that was how I thought the song went I didn’t pay much attention to anything else in the lyrics. I instead homed in on Jagger’s Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, which switches between a disgusted snarl and a kind of flamboyant fastidiousness, between savage and camp, and then finds a backing in some eerie humming which I read as self-mocking. I was already inhabiting that performance, feeling it and adapting it (and major credit to the music’s nervous drive). So when the penny dropped it was more of a shock: I listened hard to the – melodramatic, brutal – lyrics at the same time as I tried to disentangle my older and newer reactions.

The meaning of the record changed for me: Jagger’s performance, or what I heard in it, didn’t. It still swings between pantomime misery and lunging anger, it tries to keep a distance, it re-establishes and loses control in each verse. It’s a hugely powerful song and I don’t feel I can comfortably do it justice.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Lena on 15 Sep 2005 #

    I have to agree, it is an amazing song and I appreciate your talking about your mishearing the lyrics too. There is a tremendous anger in this song that is indeed black, against itself and everything else.

  2. 2
    Alan Connor on 15 Sep 2005 #

    I’ve not got much to say about the content of “Paint It, Black”, either, but I would like to see the Comments kicked off… (ooops – xpost) so here’s the usual Resurrection Watch.

    It was, of course, the theme for the Vietnam TV series Tour Of Duty and comes at the end of Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket, and the video game Twisted Metal. Other movies include Stir Of Echoes and Devil’s Advocate.

    Paint It Black was the inevitable title for the Stones reggae covers album, the title track being taken by Chalice. Other coverers include Rick (& Adam) Wakeman, Deep Purple, Anti-Nowhere League, David Essex, The Vines, Chris Farlowe, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra With Marc Almond, Eric Burdon, The Band Of Susans, Skrewdriver, Vanessa Carlton, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Mo-Dettes and W*A*S*P*.

    It’s another of those immense songs that U2 has bathetically covered, live and as a b-side. Echo & the Bunnymen used to do it live, too, with Ray Manzarek.

    The song also lives on in reference to the teenage girl’s dad in Big Star’s “Thirteen”, and some bands and a couple of films of the same name. Unlikely to have been used in many adverts, though I read that the All Blacks bought the rights to use it as a promo in exchange for giving Mick & Keith some sporting memorabilia and a houseful of readies.

  3. 3
    Frank Kogan on 15 Sep 2005 #

    No one here has yet mentioned the comma in the title. So I will do so. There is a comma in the title.

  4. 4
    Frank Kogan on 15 Sep 2005 #

    Do Anglican cathedrals traditionally have red doors (hence the red door that he wants painted, black)?

  5. 5
    Ian on 15 Sep 2005 #

    Gob and Firewater have both done pretty good but not terribly interesting covers.

    And you made a good point here, although you don’t call much attention to it:

    “A lot of the time the test of that conviction is whether I can inhabit the song, how much I can enjoy its emotion vicariously, swaggering out a rhythm or swooning into mock heartache.”
    +
    “When it happens to someone you know, you find yourself saying things like, it’s impossible to imagine how they must feel. And I think it is. You may find yourself awed and moved by their public strength, or by their eloquence, but for many of us the most we can offer is friendship, not empathy.”
    =
    The test of “Paint It, Black”‘s conviction, at least for me (as someone who likewise has never had this happen to me) is that I can’t really understand it. I’m awed and moved, but something about the sheer scope of the despair inherant in that situation prevents me from empathizing, no matter how much I’d like to.

  6. 6
    bza on 15 Sep 2005 #

    I have to say, I really see this as a ten. Why do you think Kubrick chose this song for the end of Full Metal Jacket?

  7. 7
    Tom on 15 Sep 2005 #

    bza: I don’t know! Why did he?

    In terms of the marks, as ever they are entirely my personal gradings – I’d guess that anything I give 7 or more to will be a ’10′ for someone reading (and quite a lot of the things I give less!)

  8. 8
    Anonymous on 16 Sep 2005 #

    There were a plethora of death songs in the early 60’s, but nothing like “Paint It, Black.” (God knows the English professor in me hates to type that comma.) The morbid fare that had been served up only recently before was mawkish, overly sentimental, and less than sincere no matter how hard it tried to convince. One need think of J. Frank Wilson’s ghastly “Last Kiss” (latterly resurrected–no pun intended–by Pearl Jam). He just doesn’t sound all that bereaved–after all he got a kiss before she’d “gone to heaven.” To be sure, many of those death songs–from “Moody River” to “Leader of the Pack”–seem to reflect a bit of Schadenfreude, as if taking some perverse pleasure in the death lamented, as if the best girlfriend/boyfriend is a dead one. (Hey–they never argue, cheat, dump, age or otherwise change.)

    But “Paint It, Black,” by contrast, seems truly tormented, and it’s not just the lyrics or Jagger’s vocal. The eerie, exotic, and fragile melody of the sitar opening (one of those incredible touches that only Brian Jones could contribute) abruptly shifts into Charlie Watts’s ferocious pounding–a rapid mood swing of the sort one might experience in a distraught moment–sets the pace for what is to come. Layer upon layer of dread on top of gloom–the droning, sinister, “hmn-hmn-hmn-hmn-hmn” backing vocals, the fuzzy instrumentals–present grief as a wall of sound toppling over on the bereaved as it drives into chaos engulfing Jagger’s final cries. All in all, this is what melodrama (in the truest sense) was meant to be, a great piece of drama on vinyl.

    It was the sonic emotionality that impressed me when I first heard it; it took several hearings for me to sort out the lyrics altogether. (Already preordained for my future profession, though, I not only understood but was also mightly impressed by the arch and archaic “I could not foresee this thing happening to you.” A rather gothic touch that heightens the black tone, that. It still puts me in mind of Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”

    Nonetheless, I remember feeling a shock when I first understood the subject matter–I couldn’t (and still can’t) recall such a treatment of death in rock/pop music.

    Is it sincere? Has Jagger EVER been sincere? Was Poe sincere, for that matter? In the end, I don’t think the sincerity of the piece is what matters. What makes it extraordinary is the overwhelming sonic impression of an emotion whose inevitability we would all wish to be spared.

    Doctor Mod

  9. 9
    Frank Kogan on 18 Sep 2005 #

    “Bereavement” seems both accurate and wrong. Bereavement as a switchblade? Perhaps.

    Lena’s “Paint It, Black” is my “Paint It, Black.”

    In the ’70s I had a fantasy of making a movie about an American high-school drama club in 1968 putting on Hamlet. First shot is offstage, actors and crew milling about, rehearsal not yet started, a record player in the foreground, the single drops, “I see a red door and I want it painted black.”

    Mid movie we’d play “Street Fighting Man.”

    I got not further with the concept than that: Hamlet, “Paint It, Black,” “Street Fighting Man,” high school, 1968. Teenagers, whip-thin, courageous, and frightened, ready to move but don’t know what they want, but konw something’s rotten.

  10. 10
    Marcello on 19 Sep 2005 #

    No colours any more

    No more pop either. Or a different, more malevolent manifestation of the worst things that unresolved grief can do to a person.

    The carnal brutalism versus the reined-in meditation – maybe even black versus white – 21st century cold rationalism against 19th century warm temperance…

    …and therein lies the difference between “Eleanor Rigby” and “Paint It, Black.” McCartney addresses the passing of an unmourned, unnoticed life as though George Sand were being briefly hijacked by Beckett – but more of that when we come to it – but Jagger rages, the music, like a thousand-strong phalanx of Dave Clark Fives (the pitiless but resolute thumping by Charlie Watts which inevitably mutates into a martial death march at fadeout), rages alongside him (not behind him), sticking the second-hand dagger into the belly of cosy Beat Boom architecture.

    To many people of 1966, this wasn’t quite where the Stones stopped being “pop” and started being “rock,” but the schism certainly dates from their singles output of that year. Compare the motivated but polite innovations of “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” with the suitably epileptic “19th Nervous Breakdown” (“Paint It, Black”‘s predecessor, which significantly stopped at #2) or the etiolated chaos of its successor, “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadows.” For the latter was the Stones’ Strawberry Fields/Boys Keep Swinging/Kid A let’s-test-the-audience litmus test, both with its very masculine transvestite video, the record’s grotesque mauling of music hall memes (the brass is like Jack Hylton’s front line sinking in the Lusitania) and the way it explodes and teeters into anarchistic silence. That got no further than #5 – a significant commercial failure by the Stones’ standards – and it could be argued that this was the point when the cloakroom girls deserted them. Indeed, from about ’68 onwards they have scarcely bothered with singles as anything other than album trailers.

    But then there’s that other key line in “Paint It, Black” (why the mysterious comma? A Decca typing error, says Keef) – “Like a newborn baby, it just happens every day.” The business of death, that is, for the people who “turn their heads” – but the anxiety in Jagger’s delivery suggests that he dies anew every day anyway (“No more will my green sea turn a deeper blue”).

    It’s a thunderous and still disturbing record – its absence from Club Popular on Friday night was noticeable in the way that something like “Johnny Remember Me” wouldn’t have been – and only Jagger’s It Ain’t Half Hot Mum-isms towards the fade deter me from giving this my second 10.

  11. 11
    Anonymous on 20 Sep 2005 #

    It’s also important that the Sitar and general Indian feel to “paint it, black” is a cohesive element to the title and message.

    I’m not sure if it is one but “raga ” music , by one definition is “the most important concept that any student of Indian music should understand. The Hindi/Urdu word “rag” is derived from the Sanskrit “raga” which means “colour, or passion” . It is linked to the Sanskrit word “ranj” which means “to colour” . Therefore rag may be thought of as an acoustic method of colouring the mind of the listener with an emotion.

    In this case, black

    Brian in Canada

  12. 12
    rjm on 21 Sep 2005 #

    It’s also interesting that this may not have been Jagger-Richards’ first stab at this subject. I’ve always assumed that As Tears Go By was about the death of a lover as well. In that song the situation brings on a loss of innocence, but here it goes even farther–now only the annihilation of the whole world will match his grief.

    I once heard a fundamentalist preacher denounce this song as satanic, and I sort of shrugged it off as nonsense, but, in a way, he was right. If you think of satanism as the ultimate nihilism, then this song appears to be as satanic as you can get, especially if you don’t listen to the lyrics carefully enough to realize what the circumstances are, which is what I imagine this preacher did. He felt the song, but he didn’t really listen.

  13. 13
    Raymond on 28 Sep 2005 #

    Well I am amazed of what people thinking this song is about. Yes it is about dead, but not a girlfriend that suddenly died. Just listen carefully! I see a line of cars and their all painted black with flowers and my love BOTH never to come back. It is not one person who died, it where two. The red door symbolises the bloody memor�es he wants to forget. The people who turn their heads are American people who didn’t want to face it up or didn’t care that their soldiers where shot apart every day.

    And even Mick Jagger said once in an interview that it was a statement against the Vietnam War!!!

  14. 14
    Marcello on 29 Sep 2005 #

    It is probably prudent not to shape a reliable global outlook on the basis of what Mick Jagger says in his interviews.

  15. 15
    Anonymous on 29 Sep 2005 #

    Doctor Mod says:

    I agree with Marcello re: Jagger’s reliability in such matters.

    If the song is indeed an anti-war protest, one could not determine that based on a reading of the lyrics alone.

  16. 16
    rjm on 30 Sep 2005 #

    Well, war and death go together like beans and cornbread, and Jagger may have been inspired to write this by the idea of grieving soldier’s wives, but I find it hard to see this as an anti-war song, either, except in the most general way. As for there being two people who have died, I don’t want to get into a grammatical argument, but I always assumed it’s the flowers and the lover who are the “both” who aren’t coming back, the loss of the flowers symbolizing the death of beauty that comes with the death of the lover.

  17. 17
    Steve Mannion on 8 Dec 2005 #

    The Residents cover initally seems like a joke, but otoh the organ sound on it is so immense and powerful as to resemble the very hands of God plucking the subject from their abyss of rage and despair, as if a thunderous tribute to this song if not rock n’ roll in general, only without words so dodging triteness more easily.

  18. 18
    Drew on 5 Dec 2006 #

    Who is the song paint it black based on?

  19. 19

    theodor rothko

  20. 20
    tracerhand on 5 Dec 2006 #

    Tom I think your earlier reading has still not been quite dislodged. “I could not foresee this thing happening to you” is addressed to his dead lover, surely, rather than some other person? But I supposed the meaning of lyrics always shift with the moods one is wearing at the time, and the ways in which they become useful.

    In any case, this is a wonderful edition of Popular, one I’d missed the first time around.

  21. 21
    Dan M. on 16 Nov 2007 #

    Tangentially, my favorite lyrical reference to a pop song within another a pop song is the line from “Thirteen” by Alex Chilton(i hope i remember it exactly right): “won’t you tell your dad get off my back, tell him what we said ’bout ‘Paint it Black.'” For me, the line captures perfectly how weighty and personal interpretation of pop songs can be for adolescents.

    Any other candidates for best “lyrical reference to a pop song within another pop song?”

  22. 22
    rolling stones paint it black on 30 May 2008 #

    […] was the inevitable title for the stones reggae covers album, the title track being taken by Chalice.http://freakytrigger.co.uk/popular/2005/09/the-rolling-stones-paint-it-black/The Dugout: the Speculation Station – AOL SPORTSPerhaps &quotPaint, It Black&quot by The rolling […]

  23. 23
    Black Paint, Red Paint on 29 Sep 2008 #

    I laugh at all you who think you know exactly what this song is about, especially those who are trying to count the coffins, or show it to be some sort of Satanic (as if Satan wasn’t the second biggest joke ever invented) world annihilation cheer. It’s a rock song, and rock, just like Nostrodamus and all the prophets, maintain their stock with entertainment value. It’s thoughtful to the point that it can be disturbing, if you let it, but it isn’t quite specific enough to actually predict anything. Words crafted in vagaries are the stock in trade of prophets and astrologers, as were the cryptic lyrics of the later Beatles records and their contemporaries.

  24. 24
    Black Paint, Red Paint on 29 Sep 2008 #

    Browser gave me funny feedback, can’t delete this duplicate!

  25. 25
    Erithian on 29 Sep 2008 #

    “Any other candidates for best “lyrical reference to a pop song within another pop song?” ”
    Well of course since Dan’s post at #21 we’ve just had a reference to “Sweet Home Alabama” in a song that was in the chart all summer long. A favourite of mine though was Dylan’s line in “Sara” – “Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you”. He evidently charmed Sara Lownds in much the same way as he had Joan Baez.

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