Sep 05

THE ROLLING STONES – “Paint It, Black”

Popular44 comments • 9,208 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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  1. 31
    Erithian on 21 Apr 2009 #

    Oh I loved that Reunion song! It made the upper 30s in the UK as I recall. Even now I can recite whole chunks of it – “BB Bumble and the Stingers, Mott the Hoople, Ray Charles Singers” – but I’m not going to.

  2. 32
    wichitalineman on 21 Apr 2009 #

    I always associate Reunion’s “Life Is A Rock (But The Radio Rolled Me)” with Kevin Johnson’s “Rock And Roll (I Gave You The Best Years Of My Life)”, the flip side of the coin which came out a few weeks later. One is a jibberish celebration of Rock’n’Roll as novelty, as if a Mickey Dolenz skit in a Monkees episode is an ultimate; the other is dues-paying of the worst kind, but so full of self-loathing, so pathetically damaged it becomes perversely enjoyable. Edwyn Collins sang it at the last ever Orange Juice show.

  3. 33
    Tooncgull on 25 Sep 2009 #

    This has got to be a “10”. To me it doesnt matter what the precise meaning of the lyrics are, its the entire moody package that thrills, from the very first time I heard the Brian Jones sitar, that twanging other-worldly intro, and the thumping bass-drum riff as Wyman and Watts come steaming in like a manic steam-train. Its pure rock, it gets right into the blood and the Stones were rarely ever this good before or since. I learnt the vocals off by heart as a kid, including the spoken/shouted ending… I loved the tribal, jungle bleakness then, and it hasnt really waned for me in the decades that have followed. A Ten.

  4. 34
    Steve Block on 19 Aug 2010 #

    Just found my way here and never realised the song was about the death of a love before either. As soon as I read that it made me think of Queen Victoria, who literally had almost everything painted black after Prince Albert died.

  5. 35
    lonepilgrim on 19 Aug 2010 #

    The Stones performance of the song from a 1966 TV show featuring Jim Dale can be found here:


    There’s some wonderful early video effects towards the end.

    I was struck by how much the song reminded me of VU. I’m sure the VU knew (of) the Stones but did the Stones know the VU? I’ve seen photos of Brian Wilson with Warhol from around this time so maybe there was a connection.

  6. 36
    Elsa on 20 Aug 2010 #

    The Stones met Warhol in ’64, which was of course pre-Velvet Underground. But there’s no question the Stones knew the VU; “Stray Cat Blues” was famously an attempt to duplicate the VU sound. Tangentially, “Citadel” was allegedly about two drag queens from the Warhol crowd.

  7. 37
    lonepilgrim on 20 Aug 2010 #

    Thanks Elsa – and that should be Brian Jones not Brian Wilson

  8. 38
    crag on 14 Apr 2011 #


    Peter Melchett, Executive Director of Greenpeace, Campaigner(2000).

  9. 39
    Lena on 24 Aug 2011 #

    Garage rock ascends: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.com/2011/08/one-takes-enough-troggs-wild-thing.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  10. 40
    Billy Smart on 4 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch. The Rolling Stones performed Paint It Black on Top Of The Pops on 12 May 1966. Also in the studio that week were; Manfred Mann, Neil Christian, Paul & Barry Ryan, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, The Merseys and The Troggs. Pete Murray was the host. No copy survives.

  11. 41
    lonepilgrim on 15 Aug 2012 #

    meanwhile over in the USA the new number one expressed how it feels when a man loves a woman.

  12. 42
    thefatgit on 9 Jan 2014 #

    For your consideration:


  13. 43
    hectorthebat on 25 Apr 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pitchfork (USA) – Top 200 Songs of the 60s (2006) 25
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA)- The Songs That Shaped Rock (Additions 2011)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 174
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 176
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (2002) 4
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 61
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – Top 100 Songs by The Rolling Stones (2005) 7
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  14. 44
    Gareth Parker on 20 May 2021 #

    Top notch raga rock and really good sitar sounds in this Stones single. I’ve gone for an 8/10.

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