The 1960s was not a peaceful time in the United States. The Vietnam War was viewed as unpopular by the masses, and the youth/baby boomers wanted to shout and protest this frustration. But there were musicians at the time that wanted to express their opinions to the world with their music. But one of the most popular songs about the war was written by a band across the pond over in London, England…problem was the song isn’t intended to be about the Vietnam War and was about someone losing a loved one. How did it end up with this new interpretation? Well, this is the tale about a band’s fascination about painting a red door black.
The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it, Black” from their album 4th album, Aftermath, was released in 1966 and was a huge success, hitting the “number one spot in both the Billboard Top 100 and UK Singles Chart” (Shabi). The song also landed number 176 in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”(“500 Greatest Songs Not bad for a song that started off as a comedy song.
The origin and production of this song started off in a weird place. In Peter Fornatale, Bernard M. Corbett, and Peter Thomas Fornatale’s book, 50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards talked about how they initially “cut it as a comedy track” (qtd in Fornatale, et al 51), and “with funky rhythms and it hadn’t worked” (qtd in Fornatale, et al 51) But when their bassist, Bill Wyman, started playing the organ and mimic their first manager, Eric Easton, in that style, “everyone got behind it”(qtd in Fornatale, et al 51). Then came the drumming. In Margotin and Guesdon book, The Rolling Stones All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track, Charlie Watts was either told to play it in a certain way by Mick Jagger, or got inspired by “listening to a certain record at the time-it could had been anything like ‘Going to a Go-Go’”(qtd in Margotin, Guesdon). Finally, the sound of Brian Jones’ sitar creates an eerie sound for the track and the end result making the song into “a somber, deeply dark, nihilistic rant”(Fornatale, et al 52).
The lyrics of the song is where things get interesting. There are many ways to interpret the lyrics of this song. It can also be interpreted as “either Vietnam or Mick Jagger’s breakup with Chrissie Shrimpton, or his budding relationship with Marianne Faithfull”(Margotin, Guesdon). However, those claims are false (Margotin, Guesdon). When I first heard the song, it sounded like a bitter man who hated the world around him, which was so bright and pretty. It made sense at the time with lyrics talking about how the person is persistent on making a door a darker color. But listening to again with the Vietnam context, it does make sense why people would believe it’s about Vietnam.
Like I said before, Vietnam was a bad war in the public eye. It was a very unpopular war and when soldiers came back, they weren’t welcomed back as heroes. This song, in my eyes, represents the point of view of one of those Vietnam veterans that have to handle life after the war and may have a new warped mind about the world. Others seeing the world with bright closes and flowers, while the veteran now sees it as nothing but darkness and sadness due to the war effort and seeing people he/she knew on the field dying. One Vietnam veteran, Bill, from Queens commented on this interpretation: While the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Paint It Black’ was not written about the Vietnam War, it has great meaning for many combat veterans from that war. The depression, the aura of premature death, loss of innocence, abandonment of all hope, are perfectly expressed in the song. When you walk off the killing fields, still alive, physically intact, you want everything painted black, like your heart, your soul, your mind, your life.
This song slowly got the reputation of being about Vietnam due to movies like Full Metal Jacket using that song, which again fits the whole Vietnam interpretation. The movie follows a solider, named Joker, and his journey through boot camp, then to the warfront, and ends with him killing someone for the first time. The song symbolizes the movie perfectly since in the beginning of the movie, Joker was “joking” around when he is first introduced, just being innocent. But as the film goes on, he slowly sees the war as nothing more than bloodshed and misery, to the point when he make his first actual kill in the end of the movie, he doesn’t feel any remorse and the last amount of innocence he had left finally disappears.
Artists today still cover the song, with one of the more recent and popular ones being cover by Ciara in 2015 for the The Last Witch Hunter soundtrack. Her cover still keeping the somber tune of the original, but add more of a R&B blend into the mix with more bass, and more reverb on the vocals. Also, slowing it down to make it a 4 minute song, a minute longer than the original.
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