10 Musical Testaments of Brian Jones
The Darford railway station is a crossroads. On the eastern edge of London, in the town whose name it bears, it's where three different lines from London intersect, and riders jostle as they rush to switch from one to another. If you're headed to or from London, and you're from Darford, this is where you're most likely to cross paths. It was at this station, in 1960, that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reacquainted themselves on the platform, and Keith spied two records in Mick's arms - one by Chuck Berry, the other from Muddy Waters.
There is now a plaque at the station commemorating the meeting, and the two men who founded the Rolling Stones. Only they didn't.
Brian Jones' short life is one filled with controversy, contradictions, and musical and sartorial genius. And more then its fair share of drugs and women. And it was he who founded, and named the band, as well as being its first leader. But just as drugs and insecurities helped erase his leadership in the band, so too have the Gilmmer Twins (Keith and Mick) worked to erase his importance to the band. Neither ever called the city of London to correct their historical error, and so it stands.
A blues obsessed kid from Cheltenham, Brian's first influences were country - "Sixteen Tons" by Tennessee Ernie Ford, and all of Johnny Cash. But by the time he moved to London it was Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and Robert Johnson.
He formed the band at age 20 in 1962, naming it after a song by his hero Muddy Waters. A very bright kid, Brian had been a lazy student. But music came naturally to him, and he brought an equal sense of laziness to it - he didn't have to work hard at it, so he didn't. A golden god, with perfect blonde hair, a look that simultaneously screamed innocence and sex, he quickly became the visual focus of the Stones. His clothing style was impeccable, and its hard to argue that he wasn't, at least from the perspective of "the look", the most perfect male specimen of the 60s.
He was the first pop star, and nearly 50 years after his death he's still the template. Ron Ashton of the Stooges said: ""Brian Jones was my real rock hero. I tried to emulate his haircut and dress."
His circle of friends included underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Bob Dylan was a close friend, and the two spent hours on the phone. Brian was also friends with Jimi Hendrix. He introduced the then unknown Hendrix at the Monterrey Pop festival in 1967.
His sartorial sense was impeccable. He looked as good as any of the girls during the era, and inspired both his peers and those that came after.. He was flamboyant and colorful, a gypsy. Linda Keith was seeing both Brian and Hendrix. She's noted that Jimi was a great player in the early years, but he had absolutely no sense of style when it came to clothes. Seeing Jimi as his career took off it's hard to imagine that Brian wasn't giving him some advice.
But drugs and women got the best of Brian. The ambitious Jagger and Richards worked harder, plotted keenly, and quickly supplanted Brian as the leaders of the band. The simple argument is that he didn't write, or didn't sing. But he dd sing - mostly backing vocals with the Stones - and he did write, though he was too shy, or lazy to show what he'd written to the band. And once he wasn't the leader, Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham noted, he was a liability.
There are two tales of his demise. In one he was a problem - unreliable, permanently drugged, bored and unfocused. The other story has Jagger and Richards cold bloodily eliminating him from the band's creative process, before excising him from the band altogether. Both are likely true. When he died, buried in an elaborate silver and bronze casket purchased, and shipped from America, by Bob Dylan, the only band members to show up at his funeral were drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman. There was no Mick or Keith. Wyman claims it was a sign of guilt on their part.
Like many people in possession of a genius, Brian was easily bored. And the guitar soon bored him. On top of that he found he could pick up virtually any instrument and create something from it. That gift transformed many Stones songs from good to greatness in their early, and most creative, period. Dead now, but not forgotten, Brian has left many testaments to his musical genius with the Rolling Stones. Here are ten.
10. SOMETHING HAPPENED TO ME - BETWEEN THE BUTTONS - 1967
Brian contributed many exotic instruments that colored nearly all the Stones records he appeared on (dulcimer, recorder, sitar, tanpura, theremin, mellotron, etc), but his contributions to this eclectic track from my favorite Stones record, Between the Buttons, are unique in their own way. Saxophone was the first instrument he learned, and towards his end he played it on the Beatles' track "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)". He also played it here - as well as all the horns, including trumpet, trombone, and tuba. The arrangement is clearly influenced by the Kinks forays into vaudeville. All by himself Brian gives the song a New Orleans Dixieland feel. Jazz was an early love of his. And that whistling? Brian.
9. 19TH NERVOUS BREAKDOWN - SINGLE - 1967
This single screams a great groove riff, ala Bo Diddley, that is brought by Brian. Keith generally gets the nod for the Stones riffs, but in these early years Brian got his fair share. Another classic riff he delivered was on "Mother's Little Helper", which he played on a 12-string with a slide. Simple and perfect, like many of the parts he played, it gives the song its identity, and motion. He also gave the song its drone by playing the Indian tambura. My all time favorite Stones cover is of this song, but the legendary Jason and the Scorchers. It captures the wild abandon of the original, while adding the throttling drive that's all their own. It even got the Andrew Loog Oldham seal of approval.
8. I WANNA BE YOUR MAN - SINGLE - 1963
The Stones owned this Lennon-McCartney song on their version. Dirty and relentless, with a driving bass from Bill Wyman, "I Wanna Be Your Man" was the perfect vehicle for the band, and the commercial single they were looking for. And it marked the beginning of the end for Brian. Seeing John and Paul knock off this partially written song in a corner of the Stones recording space, the very impressed Glimmer Twin realized their future as songwriters. That power shift in the band did not work out well for Brian. But there was still plenty to come, not least the blistering, Elmore James style slide guitar Brian plays to the song. Many call "Little Red Rooster" his best slide solo, but I'd offer this as my choice.
7. WE LOVE YOU - THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES - 1967
Their Satanic Majesties suffered a lot of bad press, and much of it was deserved. It did seem the Stones were trying to follow on the heels of the Beatles' Sgt. Peppers, into terrain that was, to put it mildly, not their strong suit. But there is some powerfully great stuff on the record, and Brian is at the center of most of it. His mellotron on the wonderful "She's A Rainbow", brings the sweet sound of horns, coloring the piano figure it surrounds. His imprint is even more powerful on "2000 Light Years From Home", Jaggers dark trip through inner space. Brian's prominent string arrangement, played on mellotron, gives the song its ethereal space quality, furthered by sharp rising tones of the theremin he plays. He also added numerous sound effects, including those that open the song. But its appropriate that the biggest impact of the Stones chief sonic explorer would be on their most ambitious track - "We Love". Brian contributes two key elements - the sharp stabs of horns, and the mellotron which gives the song much of its atmosphere. More importantly it was his arrangement on this song, which is well crafted and thought out, pushing the song with an edgy vibe that matches the prison implications rampant through out. Hard to imagine his critical role when watching his stoned out of his mind face in the promo video. This track deserves more love then it gets.
6. YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT - LET IT BLEED - 1967
Let It Bleed is the last Stones album to feature Brian Jones, though his contributions are limited at best. He appears on two songs, and its hard to hear him there. Still, Brian had one contribution that was huge. Fresh off producing/recording four records, the great Al Kooper decided to decompress by visiting London with his wife. The Stones asked him to play on the album but he was just too burned out to think of going into a studio again. Fortunately he ran into Brian Jones the day after arriving, on Kings Road. Brian quickly gushed enthusiastically about how excited he was that Kooper would be playing on the record, insisting that the band would have him picked up at his hotel for the session that evening. "Oh, he's embarrassing me into it", thought Kooper. And sure enough, that night he was playing organ on this classic track. There is no denying his organ is quintessential to the recording, establishing both the mood and atmosphere. And its all because of Brian Jones.
5. LAST TIME - OUT F THEIR HEADS - 1965
For me one of the most iconic, and effective, lead riffs in the Stones catalogue, and all of rock for that matter, is the one on this fantastic song, the first single by the band to be written by Jagger and Richards. It keeps coming at you throughout the verses, stabbing into your head, so simple, and cunningly effective. As a learning guitarist, its a little tricky getting the last bit exactly right, as it slides around the 7th fret, hitting open strings along the way. Its full of attitude, much like the song. "Get Off Of My Cloud" also got the Jones effect, with Brian providing the lead riff that tracks the verses.
4. RUBY TUESDAY - BETWEEN THE BUTTONS - 1967
Keith Richards' lyrics to this Stones classic were reportedly about Linda Keith, who as mentioned had a dalliance with Brian, and was Keith's sometime girlfriend. But the melody, according to Bill Wyman and Marianne Faithful, was written by Keith with Brian. That engenders some controversy, because Keith claims it all, and because Brian supposedly didn't write songs. That however overlooks him writing "Eight Miles High" in a Pittsburgh hotel room with Byrd Gene Clark. Regardless this is arguably the most beautiful melody in the Stones catalogue, and it also comes from the Stones most pop, or Beatlesque album - Between the Buttons. Brian's piano line, and the recorder he plays, are the central, and most recognizable, melodic elements in the song. They give the song its color, and depth, bringing a timeless fragility to the song. He was also the only Stone on backing vocals.
3. UNDER MY THUMB - AFTERMATH -1966
The band's fourth album, Aftermath, marked a major shift in maturity, and a great stretching of styles. Arguably the Stones' most musically adventurous record, that expanding of sonic frontiers was almost single-handedly the handiwork of Brian. One of the biggest slurs against Brian is that he was easily bored, which led to lack of focus. But it was this musical restlessness that led his genius to transform the blues based Stones. Leaving the guitar to Keith, he took up a myriad of instrument not normally associated with rock at that time, pioneering the way for nearly all artists that followed. He played the dulcimer, known primarily for Appalachian folk music, to tracks "Lady Jane" (see him looking full on mod, rocking the dulcimer, this clip from Ed Sullivan Show),and "Doncha Bother Me", bells and koto (a stringed Japanese instrument) to "Take It Or Leave It". He played marimba on this song, the color most memorable from "Under My Thumb". One of the stickiest Stones riffs also happens to be maybe the only riff in rock played on marimba. Brian uses arpeggios of the chords to outline them, but by adding the perfect 4th interval, he makes it much more memorable.
2. NO EXPECTATIONS - BEGGARS BANQUET - 1968
Beggars Banquet was the last Stones record released while Brian was alive. His contributions are hard to decipher in their entirety. Stoned, and unpredictable most of the time, he was generally less of an asset then a hindrance. But he provided the essential atmospheric sitar that gives "Street Fighting Man" its slow motion fuzz. His last great contribution to the Stones, "No Expectations", is a perfect close to his career with the band he started. A slow blues, the genre that inspired him to start the band, with lyrics that refer to loss and departure which could easily be seen as referring to Brian, who was already half gone - "Once I was a rich man and, now I am so poor:", "I've got no expectations, to pass through here again". Returning to his blues slide guitar, he provides a mournful sound that could have sounded good on a record by his hero Robert Johnson, but carries a hint of melodic pop within it. The song was first performed live on the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, a clip of which is available online here. Its second performance was at the Stones Hyde Park show, two days after Brian died, with no expectation of passing this way again.
1. PAINT IT BLACK - AFTERMATH - 1966
Is there a better use of sitar in all of rock and roll then this iconic beauty? Yes, George Harrison did it first, but this riff is the essential hook of the song, which is unimaginable without it. Playing it on a sitar, with its otherworldly sound, underpins the song's dark menace, implying an extra dimension to the nature of blackness. The video provides some classic Brian style, owning his own circular pad, dressed in eye catching white, seated cross legged with his sitar, and rocking rhythmically to the songs driving beat, while Bill Wyman smiles and looks on.
Was he pushed or did he jump? That's the question that haunts Brian's end. When he was found in the pool of his house, formerly owned by Winnie the Pooh writer A.A. Milne, it seemed to some like an end that was anti-climactic. His drug problems had certainly made him a liability to the band he founded, and who would in turn throw him out. That didn't excuse Jagger and Richards for regularly diminishing his importance to the band. His friend Alexis Korner who had seen him before his death said he was in high spirits, and he'd been in touch with other rock legends about forming a supergroup, or recording a solo record. Instead he was found in his pool, face down, dead. His family had him embalmed, his hair bleached white, and buried him ten feet down into the ground, beyond the grasp of souvenir seekers. But he was already untouchable as the Stones sonic pioneer, and a musical avatar for the many bands who would follow him.