It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Rolling Stones’ founder Brian Jones dies. Was he murdered?

“Brian formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played. He got us gigs. … he was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it – highly intelligent – and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.” – Bill Wyman

Bill said it, and no one in the band has ever really denied it. Brian Jones was the original leader of the Rolling Stones. The most musically ambitious and well versed in the band (he loved jazz and classical music as well as blues, and early on, clearly the most style-conscious and worldly), Jones drove the Stones’ musical development as well as shaping their image and their character.

Excluded by Keith and Mick from the band’s songwriting, he eventually lost his power within the group, and ravaged by lifestyle choices and a copious alcohol and drug habit, he became a bit of a beast to work with, and a burden. 

Denied a visa to the USA for the band’s upcoming Beggars Banquet tour, he became something of a louche liability, and he was effectively fired from the band he created in June 1969.

On 3 July, exactly a week after I was born, he died, at the age of twenty-seven. Jones gained immediate ascendency as inadvertent founder of the notorious 27 Club.

He’d soon be joined by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison (The Doors’ frontman passed in Paris two years to the day Jones died), and much later, the likes of Echo & The Bunnymen’s Pete de Freitas, Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and the most recent high profile casualty, Amy Winehouse.

Graffiti in Tel Aviv, Israel

His importance has seemingly lessened over the years as the Stones have remained more or less true to their Seventies selves, but Brian Jones, at the time going under the stage name Elmo Lewis, was there when the band formed in 1962; indeed after placing an advert in a jazz magazine, he formed what would come to be the Rolling Stones with Ian Stewart, initially as a British blues outfit. 

Brian was a devoted and adept blues player. And as Mick and Keith started writing songs, many of which in those early days, were rather twee pop songs like Tell Me and Blue Turns to Grey, Brian drove them further into the blues. He provided the stunning slide guitar on early hardcore covers like Little Red Rooster and I’m A King Bee, the attacking Bo Diddly-styled tremolo guitar on the cover of Mona, and the wailing harp on their cover of Buddy Holly’s Bo-soundalike Not Fade Away. 

As the band inevitably did pull away from the blues, Brian, apparently penning songs but lacking the confidence to present them to the group, made his presence felt as a multi-instrumentalist who could find the right way to colour a recording, whether it was the stinging tone of the lick that carried The Last Time, or the exotic sitar that set the scene for Paint It, Black. 

Brian was the musician and the band’s most prominent purist who inspired thousands of teenagers to explore the music, and hundreds of new blues bands to form. Ironically, Jones was also the one who took the Stones the furthest out as they moved in new directions. The band’s classic run of exploratory singles in the mid-to-late ’60s, including the likes of Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown and Ruby Tuesday, would all sound very different if Brian had not been on board. 

The band’s forays into psychedelia on Their Satanic Majesties Request and their return to an ever rawer and acoustic-based blues style all benefited remarkably from Brian’s creativity and musicianship. And he was hugely influential on the band’s music until his removal and subsequent death less than a month later, drowning in the swimming pool at his Hartfield home in slightly suspicious circumstances.

The official report labeled the tragedy as death by misadventure. But others weren’t so sure, and his daughter Barbara Marion has asked Sussex Police for the case to be reopened.

BJ’s funeral attracted surprisingly mature crowds

The 1994 book Brian Jones: Who Killed Christopher Robin? made the best-known earliest accusation of murder. Writer Terry Rawlings specifically accused Frank Thorogood, a contractor who was at Jones’ house that night.

Tensions between Jones and his employee apparently turned violent during a shared swim, Rawlings alleged. Paint It Black: The Murder of Brian Jones, by Geoffrey Guiliano, also reported a deathbed admission from Thorogood to the Rolling Stones’ former road manager Tom Keylock in 1993. “It was me that did Brian. I just finally snapped,” Rawlings said Thorogood admitted.

“I always used to see Brian in the clubs and hang out with him. In the mid-Sixties he used to come out to my house – particularly when he’d got ‘the fear’, when he’d mixed too many weird things together. I’d hear his voice shouting to me from out in the garden: ‘George, George…’ I’d let him in – he was a good mate. He would always come round to my house in the sitar period. We talked about Paint It, Black and he picked up my sitar and tried to play it – and the next thing was he did that track. We had a lot in common, when I think about it. I think he related to me a lot, and I liked him. Some people didn’t have time for him, but I thought he was one of the most interesting ones.” – George Harrison

Brian’s replacements, Mick Taylor and then former Faces axeman Ronnie Wood (above right, as if you didn’t know), helped shape the more familiar AOR ‘70s Stones sound we know and love today, but the band made some truly remarkable music in the Sixties; music that made them genuine top drawer rivals to The Beatles. As absolutely fabulous as they were, even a certain North London rock outfit led by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend (future Richmond Hill neighbour of mine, Jagger and Jennifer Saunders) were no match.

“Where was the concert this time, dear? Eel Pie Island again, was it? And who was it? Anyone we should have heard of? The Beatles, The Stones, The Rolling Who?” 

June Whitfield, Fashion (BBC, 1992)

On the anniversary of his demise, I’ve highlighted a towering triumvirate of classic Stones’ songs from the mid Sixties that Brian Jones helped shape, because there would have been no Stones without Jones.

1. The Last Time (1965)

The first Stones single authored by the Glimmer Twins, Mick and Keith, it features one of the defining guitar licks of the ’60s, and that beings to Brian. In the true tradition of the blues and gospel music, Jagger/Richards had based their song on an earlier record, in this case it was a 1954 recording called This May Be The Last Time. by the Staple Singers featuring a very young Mavis Staples.

In January 1965, the Stones began a tour of Australia and New Zealand. On their way down under they flew via Los Angeles to do some recording with engineer Dave Hassinger at RCA’s Hollywood studio.

According to Andrew Oldham, who was interviewed by the New Musical Express a few days later, “We did two Mick and Keith compositions The Last Time and A Mess Of Fire (later re-named Play With Fire), and three old blues numbers, but I have to go back to Hollywood to do some more work on the tapes before deciding which one to use as the next A-Side.”

When the Stones finished their tour of Oceania they did a couple of shows in Singapore, then Mick and Keith flew back to LA to overdub Jagger’s vocals onto the backing track of The Last Time that they had recorded a month earlier.

Nine days later on 26 February, Decca released the record in Britain and a week later it entered the best seller list and on 20 March 1965, it topped the charts and became the band’s third No.1 in a row. A week earlier the single was released in America and it became the Stones’ second Top 10 single on the Billboard Hot 100 where it reached No.9.

Interestingly, what makes Play With Fire, the song relegated to the flipside, unusual is that it’s credited to ‘Nanker Phelge’, which is the writing credit when everyone in the band was involved in a composition, but also the track features only Mick, Keith, Phil Spector on acoustic guitar and Jack Nitzsche on guitar and harpsichord. No Brian: a taste of things to come then.

Paint It, Black (1966)

Jones was getting bored with rock ‘n’ roll by the time the Stones made Paint It, Black. He was looking elsewhere for inspiration, studying sitar under the Indian master Harihar Rao, a Ravi Shankar protegé. George Harrison was studying sitar at the same time, and he included the instrument, and the idea of Eastern minor-key music, on the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood before the Stones made Paint It, Black.

So Brian wasn’t the first to use the sitar in rock music, but he was the first to make it sound so damned malevolent. Ever contrary, he is of course dressed head to toe in white for the above performance. Keef:

“Brian had pretty much given up on the guitar by then. If there was another instrument around, he had to be able to get something out of it. It gave the Stones on record a lot of different textures.” 

Jones scoffed at the idea that he was imitating the Fab Four, but it’s hard not to see this as one of the best outcomes of the mythic Beatles/Stones rivalry — one band helping push the other toward coming up with one of their best songs. 

But the sitar isn’t the only thing that the song has going for it. There’s Keith Richards’ eerie, spidery guitar — that’s him on the intro, not Jones. There’s the way that guitar turns into slashing urgency when Jagger ramps up the intensity. 

Then there’s Charlie Watts, his drums turning into a grim militaristic death-march on that fiery bridge, or the klezmer-flavored organ and wacky wobbly bass noises that Bill Wyman brings in (studio legend Jack Nitzsche played the gypsy-style piano). Every last member of the band gets weird on Paint It, Black, and yet they all remain in lockstep with one another, universally committed to crankin’ out swirling doom-blues.

Mick is singing about a dead lover. He never quite makes it explicit that that’s what he’s doing it, but it’s all there in the lyrics, indicated in images and memory-shards. “I see a line of cars, and they’re all painted black,” he sings with a detached sort of wonder, like he’s not quite processing what’s happening in front of his face. “With flowers and my love, both never to turn back.” And then he gets dark.

The rub is that Jagger isn’t really singing about that dead lover. He’s singing about himself — about the new chasms of emptiness that are opening up inside of him. He looks around at the world, and he toggles back and forth between incomprehension and total disgust. He can’t even lose himself in the comfort of sex, which is always the snake-hipped singer’s default option: “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes / I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.” 

Vocally, he goes from blank, numb flatness to frothing rage, fading and exploding and then fading and exploding again. The dead lover is a pure abstraction. The immediate concern is the black dog of depression that’s crushing and overwhelming Jagger, translating that inner turmoil into something resembling pop music.

Paint It, Black remains one of the heaviest, darkest songs ever to top the charts. Like the Animals’ The House Of The Rising Sun before it, it’s a proto-goth cinematic odyssey into bad feelings. But this time, the bad feelings are a lot plainer and more apparent, even if Mick Jagger is only singing of them allusively, drawing on Ulysses and fractured imagery. It’s a song that conjures a bleak, dark, obsessive feeling. 

It takes a crazy level of ambition to attempt to channel a feeling like this while making a single, but the Rolling Stones did it, and they made it work. They had to overhaul their whole musical approach to do it. Paint It Black has all the fuzzed-out savagery of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Get Off Of My Cloud, the Stones’ previous two chart-toppers. But it has none of that primal, elemental blues-rock swagger. Instead, the Stones left their beloved American bluesmen alone and drew from other sources.

As a result, there aren’t really any other songs like Paint It, Black, from the Rolling Stones or from anyone else. It’s a perfect historical storm, a glorious little nightmare.

2000 Light Years From Home (1967)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=7_J5NcUWFK4

As the Stones moved from the baroque to the futuristic, with the eerie 2000 Light Years From Home, they took a trip on a spacecraft through the far reaches of what you could call inner outer space—the classic science-fiction metaphor of the infinite, exotic unknown as a mirror for feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

The alienated and alienating space rock that David Bowie would park his little tin can outside much later on didn’t have a name then, and bands were only beginning to explore the cosmic end of the rock soundscape, mostly by dicking around. Pink Floyd’s first albums notwithstanding, the best early examples come from outtakes, like the alternate version of the Beatles instrumental Flying. 

That, and this, one of the highlights of the band’s brief psychedelic phase, and the penultimate track on the Stones’ atypical and perennially overlooked Their Satanic Majesties Request, a much-maligned album that seems radical in part because it sounds like, well, a collection of outtakes and experiments that could have started life in Delia Derbyshire’s BBC Radiophonic Workshop for a series of Doctor Who. 

The only LP self-produced by the band, SM is usually described as the Stones’ answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, coincidentally, after much conjecture Paul McCartney himself confirmed during the Freshen Up show I caught last month in the bluegrass stronghold of Lexington, Kentucky, hit record stores (in America at least) on Friday 2 June 1967, while Satanic Majesties was being recorded.

A record that was as much sci-fi as it was summer of love – Satanic was as close as the Stones would ever get to working as a pure studio project; its unusual textures and sonic spaces were pointless to try to reproduce live, and the band wouldn’t perform a single song from it in concert until the Steel Wheels and Urban Jungle tours of late ’80s, when they briefly added 2000 Light Years From Home to their sets. 

Brian again took the lead in the soundscaping. You don’t see much more than his hands in this video from 1967, but on the recording, he contributes Mellotron, theremin and various spooky and spacey sound effects.

As Brian’s Mellotron wheezes out taped samples of strings—which sound like stars stretched out into ribbons by hyperdrive—past the chugging and rumbling of guitar, bass, and drums, Jagger sings of “freezing red deserts turn to dark” and other distant sights. It’s said that Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics in his cell at Brixton Prison, where he ended up for a short stay following one of the many drug raids that hounded the band at the peak of their early fame. 

At the time, the band was beset by legal and personal problems; their longtime producer and manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, had just quit, and Jones’ relationship with the rest of the band had severely deteriorated.

Nevertheless, it’s a damned spooky tune, one of the doomiest and eeriest the Stones ever recorded. From there, they would push further into the psychedelic ether with flowery favourites such as the single We Love You c/w Dandelion, before snapping back to the blues-rock blueprint in the years/decades that followed.

Bye bye, Brian. We love you.

Steve Pafford

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