“History is written by the victors.” It’s an old saying, but its truth is shown in a plethora of evidence throughout rock n roll history. Led Zeppelin stole their whole first album from poor blues musicians and then got their record label’s lawyers to intimidate them from speaking up. The Beatles ousted original drummer Pete Best because Paul McCartney was bummed that Best was getting more chicks than he was. And yet, the cruelest story of them all would have to be from the original bastards of rock n roll: The Rolling Stones and the Evisceration of Brian Jones.
If asked about the band’s history, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards treat Brian Jones like a footnote. He was in the band and then he wasn’t. The story and the man have been played down to almost nothing and, for many, so lies his legacy. To the unenlightened, Brian Jones was a stereotype. He was a troubled musician from the 60’s who played guitar, took too many drugs, squandered away his opportunities, and died at the age of 27. He’s just another casualty of a rock n roll lifestyle and sadly, like a casualty of actual war, he’s become just a number. But Brian Jones was the original Rolling Stone. Even if this is the only fact you know about him, you have to admit that being the founder of one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time definitely makes him more than just a number. Yet, if you dig deeper, you’ll find a creative force worthy of respect.
It’s true that Brian was a pioneer for the Stones in many areas. He was the first to have four kids out of wedlock (before the age of 19). He was the first to take drugs recreationally. He was the first to debut the dangerous but cool vibe (which made him easier to cut down during his decline) and the first to catch the eye of Anita Pallenberg. But before creating the Stones, he was the first and only member that had played a show. To be more specific, he had played over 100 shows. Before Jagger ever started strutting and pouting on the stage or Keef had begun…..well, being Keef, Brian Jones had already had more than 100 shows under his belt with a handful of other blues musicians. It was this experience that helped Brian not only start and manage the band, but also hone their original blues sound.
It could be argued that Jones, who technically never wrote a song for the band himself, was only marginally influential. While it’s technically true that Brian Jones never wrote a full song for the Stones, he has contributed various iconic melodies and riffs to numerous Stones songs which not only improved, but defined them.
The Last Time (Out of Our Heads)
Keef plays the solo on this track and it’s a killer solo, but the show stealing aspect of this song has always been the main guitar riff. And who contributed that part? Why, Brian Jones of course.
2000 Light Years From Home (Their Satanic Majesties Request)
Their Satanic Majesties Request is an album that usually divides fans. Some say it’s too muddied while others say it is a cult classic. The feelings extend to some critics who say that, in the realm of psychedelia, Sgt Pepper’s wins out over it (though these critics are wrong too, as the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow smokes both albums, in my unhumble opinion). While this album is far from perfect, it has several standout moments. From “Citadel” to “The Lantern,” there are a couple of really strong tracks in this haze. But the song that takes the cake is “2000 Light Years from Home.”
Jagger’s lyrics and singing style give the song an otherworldly feeling, but it’s Jones’ Mellotron hook that makes the song truly sound like it’s in fucking outer space. Not only did he write that incredible hook (which was surely meant to induce an acid flashback) but consider how hard of an instrument the Mellotron is to play. As George Chkiantz, a key engineer in the sessions says, “[playing the Mellotron] took a special kind of genius.” That genius was Brian Jones. Forget the fact that he did not write a song on his own – Jones’ seasoned dexterity with musical instruments made him, and every song he contributed to, all the more powerful and captivating.
Under My Thumb (Aftermath)
When this song was being cut in the studio, nobody had much hope for it. This was around the time that Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” was released and, because of the similar chord progressions between the two songs, most of the Stones were skeptical about putting this song out. Can you imagine that? One of the Stones’ most famous songs almost didn’t make it past the cutting room because they were sure it didn’t have enough potential.
But Brian Jones not only saw potential, but elevated it. Before Andrew Loog Oldham discarded the song, Jones grabbed some mallets and pounded…er..tapped the song’s most prominent and recognizable riff. As soon as he laid that down, the song became something else entirely. Jones saved this track from being a throwaway through his sheer innovation.
The most heartbreaking aspect of this story: Jones never got rightful credit for this work and the song is still billed exclusively under the Jagger/Richards moniker. Though Jones was cool with this because he just wanted to make music with his “friends,” it does make his buried legacy all the more tragic.
Paint it Black (Aftermath)
Brian Jones’ contribution to this particular song is probably more widely known than any of these others. Around the time this song was being cut, Jones was exploring ethnic music; he would make regular trips to the far east and devour their musical abilities voraciously. It was only a matter of time before what he was hearing became what he was playing.
His sitar riff on this track is significant for that very reason. It is, without a doubt, the track during which Brian has the most control. Using an Eastern pentatonic scale, Jones practically blends cultures together with one captivating riff.
The rest of the band hesitated to flirt with influences outside of the blues, but Jones was brave (or stubborn) enough to ignore this and step further into the dark. For that, he was both rewarded and condemned.
No Expectations (Beggars Banquet)
The story behind this one is particularly heart-breaking. The Stones always had a contemptuous attitude towards Jones when it came to recording in the studio. Even before his mental and physical decline due to drugs and pressures of the outside world, they used to unplug his microphones whenever he played a part and act like they caught it on tape. It was yet another example of the cruelty that the Stones possessed in regards to their old friend.
But during the summer of 1968, as the Stones were recording Beggars Banquet, some of their practices became reasonable. Jones would come to the studio, high and practically drooping over in his seat in the studio. He had a little more than a year on this earth and he was enduring some truly soul-crushing moments: his charade of a trial, the estrangement of his band mates and the feeling that he was losing his band. During this difficult time, Jones did something that his band mates could not ignore. While the band was recording the second track off the album, “No Expectations,” Jones sat down in a circle with his soon-to-be former band mates. He picked up an acoustic guitar and his slide and contributed undoubtedly the song’s most defining moment. It’s a beautiful solo with a tragic melody which becomes even more tragic with the story of how it was recorded.
Yes, Mick’s lyrics are great on this track, but without Jones’s slide guitar the song wouldn’t carry the emotional weight we can still feel today. It’s such a powerful melody that even his former band mates now cop to it being the last time “he was involved.” While the song may have once again been credited to Jagger and Richards, the truth of the matter is this: “No Expectations” is Jones’ swan song to the band and his life and to the music that he loved so dearly.
There’s one final aspect that makes Jones significant – his charisma. Before Keef became the dangerous one, Jones was already dabbling in his own sort of black magic. Inspired by the legend of Pan, Jones fashioned himself as the band’s leader. He was arresting both on and offstage. From his fashion, to his stage moves, to the fact that he was always the best in early Stones interviews, Brian Jones knew how to be Brian Jones. And as you can see in this interview, Mick and the others were not content to be in the backseat for long:
Let me be clear on one thing – the point of this piece is not to make people dislike the Rolling Stones, post-Brian Jones. Mick and Keith wrote some of the best Stones music ever made after Jones passed (“Monkey Man” makes that point). If I truly despised those two, I would not have shelled out a stupid amount of money to catch them on their Sticky Fingers tour (in the nosebleeds, getting drunk with the rest of my fellow peasants). But the idea that Brian Jones is nothing more than a footnote in the history of one of the greatest rock n roll bands of all time is something that I can’t abide. Pioneers get shot down with arrows, but we should at least give them a proper memorial. Brian Jones deserves to be acknowledged as an intricate and critical part of his band, the Rolling Stones.
It’s as simple as this: without Jones, there would be no Stones.
Art by Daniel Zender
- Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones by Paul Trykna (2014)
- “Jagger Remembers” by Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone Magazine, 1995)
- Stone Alone: The Story of a Rock ’n’ Roll Band by Bill Wyman (1997)
Edited by The West Ghost