The Beatles, ever the pop pioneers, introduced the sitar to rock and roll on the song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” released at the end of 1965 on the album Rubber Soul.* The exoticism of George Harrison’s sitar complements John Lennon’s worldly-wise sketch of a casual affair, each in its own way signifying the expanding horizons of the 1960s. Harrison wouldn’t start studying with Ravi Shankar until the following year, but he had already begun to take the instrument seriously. Brian Jones, on the other hand, had no such pretensions to authenticity or mastery of the instrument. The sitar appealed to The Rolling Stones because it sounded foreign, and by extension sinister and unsettling. If the sitar in “Norwegian Wood” represented knocking down established boundaries, in “Paint It Black” it captures the feeling of being stranded in an alien culture, fearful for your life and unable to find your way home.
The hell that the song’s narrator finds himself trapped in is existential despair provoked by his girlfriend’s sudden death. The song marks the point where The Rolling Stones’ juvenile negation of the world in “Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” withers into absolute nihilism, its pitch-blackness prefiguring the flirtation with the occult that would culminate in Their Satanic Majesties Request and “Sympathy for the Devil.” “Paint It Black” may not feint at satanism, but the classical Indian instrumentation and Jewish/Arabic/Persian-inspired vocal lines evoke a mysticism far beyond the borders of genteel Britain and its institutional Anglicanism.
Like several of the preceding number-ones, “Paint It Black” casts off the standard verse-chorus song structure, instead alternating between two rival sections. Part A is the Eastern half of the song, driven by sitar and invoking Southwest Asian percussion and melodic styles. Jagger looks inside himself and finds only blackness; outside himself, the only things he can see are hearses and dead flowers. His all-consuming despondency starts to spew out to the world around him. He wants to drain the color of everything – to paint the red door black – and make the rest of the world match his own darkness. Part B is the song’s Western half, driven by guitar and adhering to a more familiar rock format. This is the part of the song where the living dwell: newborn babies, girls in summer clothes, people who avert their eyes from the funeral procession. Here, Jagger can recognize that there’s light out of the blackness (summer, the sun), and that what feels to him like the earth shattering “just happens every day.” “Paint It Black” is driven by this tension between Jagger’s competing options, whether to rejoin the rest of the world or disappear inside himself. The band rage against the darkness, trying to outmenace the menace – note especially Charlie Watts’s cymbal-heavy thrash, the manic counteracting the depressive – but Jagger chooses to “fade away,” reneging on a promise from more innocent days. The only living thing left is an imaginary version of his love, a vision of whom he can almost make out in the vanishing sun. Soon he even wants to blot that out, and the song gives way to the abyss, fading out as he fades away. 9
*The Yardbirds had experimented with the instrument in the sessions for the 1965 single “Heart Full of Soul,” but the final version replaced the sitar with an electric guitar.
Hit #1 on June 11, 1966; total of 2 weeks at #1
161 of 1018 #1′s reviewed; 15.82% through the Hot 100