Picture a mid-summer’s evening: a soft, dusty light, some people gathered around an ancient stone circle, having a sing-song. Long hair and baggy clothes. Pagans? Hippies? Look a little closer, though. They look familiar… Why, it’s The Rolling Stones! Conducting a full-blown Satanic ritual!
Paint It, Black, by The Rolling Stones (their 6th of eight #1s)
1 week, from 26th May – 2nd June 1966
I’ve used many words to describe the chart-toppers we’ve covered so far. Catchy, dull, quirky, God-awful… ‘Paint It, Black’, though, is the first I’ve had to consider calling ‘evil’… It’s a hulking, threatening, malignant brute of a #1 single. From the opening riff, it’s as if an evil spirit is taking up residence in your ears. Brain Jones is playing a sitar, and sitars, to me, usually sound blissed-out, and spiritual – the background soundtrack to massages and yoga sessions. Not when The Stones get their hands on one…
Then there’s the lyrics. I see a red door, And I want it painted black, No colours any more, I want them to turn black… Jagger’s voice melts into the insistent, pounding rhythm – sometimes soft and coaxing, sometimes aggressive and half-crazed. What is it about? Depression? Drug-induced psychosis? A funeral (as the line about a line of black cars suggests)? Whatever it is, it’s a bleak, bleak record. I see people turn their heads and quickly look away… or I look inside myself and see my heart is black… And then there’s the serial killer line: I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes, I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…
It’s an amazing song. A song I respect a lot. I love that it was a #1 hit. But I can’t bring myself to love it. It’s not a song to put on in the background. It’s a song that you have to be in the right mood to deal with. In many ways it’s a weird song – not helped by the fact that, for years, I thought one of its lines went: No more will my green seagull turn a deeper blue… (It is, of course, ‘my green sea go’. Which makes even less sense…)
By the end, our hilltop ceremony is reaching its climax. The bass grinds, the sitar dances, the band are humming with intent, and Jagger is crowing: I wanna see it painted, Painted black, Black as night, Black as coal…! He wants to see the sun blotted out… He wants to end it all… The record slowly fades to a frenzied close. This was only top of the charts for a week. That’s probably all the country could deal with from such a relentlessly nasty disc.
Back when I first got into The Stones, with their Greatest Hits etc, ‘Paint It, Black’ (apparently the comma was just a record-company typo, though it does lend a nicely pretentious air) blended in amongst the hits. Its edge was dulled. Not here, though, doing this countdown in real-time. It really makes you stop and think… This was a best-selling single. It’s a superb piece of music; but only one act could have pulled it off and still kept it commercially viable.
I’ll say it again… The Stones’ hits might never quite have matched the Beatles in ‘musical’ terms. But they were pushing the boundaries of what could be considered ‘pop music’. The Fab Four used sitars, yes, to write cute acoustic numbers like ‘Norwegian Wood’; while Jagger, Richards and Jones were using one to summon the Devil.
This is something of an end of an era moment for the Stones, too. They’ve crammed four number one hits into just over a year – all of them towering slices of swagger, anger and petulance. But we won’t hear from them now for over two years. By which point they will have tried their hand at flower-power, gone hard on the drugs, driven Brian Jones out of the band… This is a moment. And not just for The Stones. For the singles charts. For British music. For popular music as a whole. Go on… Paint it,… Black!
Catch up with all the #1s so far – including five other Stones’ hits: