Paint It Black, 55 years of history

Paint it black by Zoa Studio

Paint It Black by The Rolling Stones is one of the few songs that I have a precise memory of. I remember very well the first time I listened to it. And it was immediately devotion.

I was watching the pilot episode of the Nip /Tuck tv series. A handsome plastic surgeon (played by Julian McMahon, famous for Marvel Fantastic 4 films)

together with another equally fascinating surgeon are preparing to redo a man’s face. One of them asks the assistant to put on some music. The assistant passes her latex-covered hand in front of a stereo system, this opens (a visionary thing considering it was twenty years ago) and a CD starts to play.

Here are some percussion and the words “I see a red door and I want it painted black”. I remain hypnotized. Love at first listening, it was 2003. I discovered Paint It Black at about 20 but the song actually came out on May 7, 1966.

That’s why we tell you the history and curiosities of this song today.

The inspiration

“Paint It Black” came at a pivotal time in the history of the Rolling Stones. At that time the British band already had two groundbreaking hits – “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” – along with two successful albums.

This period saw the affirmation of the collaboration of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as the main composers of the Rolling Stones. But Paint It Black, even though it cites the duo as the sole creators of the song, actually also contained ideas from Brian Jones, who would disappear a few years later (joining the J27 club, like Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix). 

The story goes that Brian Jones, overshadowed by Jagger and Richards, grew weary of this and that, to alleviate his boredom, in this piece explored oriental instruments, particularly the sitar, with the aim of strengthening the musical structure and the complexity of the band.

Few people know, however, that Paint It Black draws inspiration from a visit by the band to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where a painting by Mark Rothko was exhibited. The latter, famous for his use of colors, was actually suffering from unwanted success and because he had been labeled as a pop artist. In response to this, when the New York Guggenheim commissioned him to exhibit new works, Rothko proposed black and gray as the dominant colors.

What and who is Paint It Black about?

“Paint It Black” is about a man who has lost his beloved, and is therefore beside himself with grief, seeing his whole world “painted black”. He even wants the sun to “go dark”. He is depressed, feeling down, useless and without direction or connection.

Some say Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were then in the mood for introspective writing in part influenced by the work of  Bob Dylan. Others that there were references to James Joyce‘s work Ulysses.

Many, given that the historical epoch in which Paint It Black is placed coincides with that of the war in Vietnam, think that the song is closely connected to this moment of war. But is not so.

The association between this song and war came in the late 1980s, due to its use in both Hollywood movies and television shows. Today’s song was used in the credits of the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket and also became the theme song for the CBS-TV show, Tour Of Duty, a series about the Vietnam War that ran from 1987 to 1990. The mass airing of the song specifically on the TV show – which was broadcast around the world – contributed to the song’s renewed popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Even though the “Paint It Black” song was not written about the Vietnam War, it also has profound meaning for many combat veterans. Because it perfectly explains depression, the aura of premature death, the loss of innocence and the abandonment of all hope.

Paint It Black, the legacy

Films, tv and literature

In addition to late 80s movies like Full Metal Jacket, Paint It Black helped inspiring much, much more. For example, other film appearances of the song, both in the original and in the cover version, include:

  • The Devil’s Advocate  – 1997, with Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino and Charlize Theron;
  • 1999 – For Love of the Game, with Kevin Costner
  • Stir of Echoes also in 1999, with Kevin Bacon.

On television, “Paint It Black” also had more recent uses. In addition to the 2003 above- mentioned Nip / Tuck, the song appeared on the NBC TV show American Dreams in a 2004 episode, when a central character in the show – the young J.J. Pryor from Philadelphia, PA – disappears in Vietnam.

Do not forget that writer Stephen King used “Paint It Black” in his series of novels The Black Tower; the song is heard by different characters as they pass the same music store in New York at different time periods. And, remaining in the literary theme, Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel Paint It Black takes its name from the song and uses the first four lines of the text as a quote that precedes the first chapter.

Other media

Recently, in February 2020, a cover of the song was used by Missy Elliott and H.E.R. in a Super Bowl 54 commercial for Pepsi Zero Sugar. In the commercial, singer H.E.R. stands among a multitude of people dressed in red who are holding a red can (of Coca-Cola of course) and singing the first lines of “Paint It Black”. The red can suddenly turns into a black can of Pepsi Zero Sugar.

And let’s not forget that the video game industry has also used the song in numerous games, while playing or played in the background. Among the games that use the song are: Conflict: Vietnam; Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock; and Eve of Destruction modules for Battlefield 1942; Battlefield: Vietnam; and Battlefield 2. The song was also used in a version of the SingStar karaoke game.

Fun facts

We close today’s article with some curiosities about the song.

The first concerns its title itself. Originally the title was Paint It Black, exactly like now. For a while the Dacca record company inserted a comma between the words, which then became Paint It, Black. Since written in this way the title could be misrepresented due to its racist side, the comma was removed. Whoever today owns the disc with the title with the comma, is in possession of a rarity!

Another curiosity. Speaking on his Absolute Radio show, Stones co-guitarist Ronnie Wood said Keith Richards has always had trouble remembering how to play this song. He revealed: “We always have this moment of hesitation when we start the song where we don’t know if Keith will get the intro right.”

We conclude these anecdotes with one that the Rolling Stones are not very happy with. Unfortunately for the band, Paint It Black is one of the songs they no longer have rights to. In a legal settlement with a former manager named Allen Klein, the Stones ceded their publishing rights, along with other royalties, of this song and others.

In 1965, Klein, who was also involved with other rock bands, helped the Stones negotiate a new contract with Decca Records. But in the process, Allen Klein also helped himself. Subsequent lawsuits over the years between the Stones and Klein gave the Stones a partial right, but Klein’s company, ABKCO, still retains the rights to the first songs from the 1960s to 1971 including, of course, our beloved Paint It Black.

In any case, Paint It Black has had a long and varied career since its first launch on May 7, 1966, finally entering number 174 in the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” chart in 2004.

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