The Pop History Dig

“Paint It Black”
1966-2000s

Record sleeve for ‘Paint It Black’ single issued in South Africa, 1966, with B-side, ‘Long Long While’.
Record sleeve for ‘Paint It Black’ single issued in South Africa, 1966, with B-side, ‘Long Long While’.
     In the spring of 1966, all was not well in the world.  The Vietnam War was raging and  American involvement there was escalating.  U.S. troop strength had reached 200,000 by then, and draft quotas at home had doubled.   Earlier that spring, in April, U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), one of the few Senators challenging U.S. involvement in Vietnam, had given his famous “Arrogance of Power” speech  at Johns Hopkins University – a speech critical of the “might-makes-right”  approach and more, aimed squarely at the U.S.   In Vietnam, meanwhile, the military government of South Vietnam under Premeir Ky was doing battle with Buddhist rebels in Da Nang in mid-May.  Also at this time, China had come forth with its Cultural Revolution pronouncement.

     Despite these woes, the day-to-day rhythms of life went on as normal throughout much of the world.  In America, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall dedicated the new Gateway Arch in St. Louis on May 25th, 1966.   Busch Stadium, home to baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals, had opened there earlier that spring.  In the world of boxing, late May, Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, would knock out the U.K.’s Henry Cooper in a six-round heavyweight match in London.

Young Rolling Stones shown on German single, 1966.
Young Rolling Stones shown on German single, 1966.
     In music, the Beach Boys had released their Pet Sounds album, and Bob Dylan his Blonde on Blonde album.  About that time as well, around mid-May 1966, a new song titled “Paint It Black” by the British rock group the Rolling Stones, began to be heard across the U.S. and in the U.K.  It was one of those hard-driving rock ‘n roll tunes from this raucous new group that was catching on in a big way.

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“Paint It Black”

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     “Paint It Black,” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, is not a happy tune in its lyrics, but in 1966 its musical appeal pushed it to the top of the pop charts.  Released as a single, the record reached No. 1 in the U.S. and the U.K. in late May, holding the top position for two weeks or so.  It remained in the Top 40 for ten weeks through the summer.  The song became popular throughout Europe and around the world.

“Paint It Black”

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a newborn baby it just happens ev’ryday

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and it has been painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not forsee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes
Hmm, hmm, hmm…

I wanna see it painted black, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun, blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black
Yeah

 

Hot Group

     The Rolling Stones by this time already had two big breakthrough hits in 1965 – “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “Get Off of My Cloud” – along with two top albums that year; Out of Our Heads and December’s Children.  Their third album Aftermath, which included “Paint It Black” in the U.S version, was also a hit.

     “Paint It Black” is about a man whose lover has died, and is beside himself with grief, seeing his whole world “painted black.”  He even wants the sun “blotted out.”  He’s depressed, feeling down, worthless, and without direction or connection.  Some say that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were then on an introspective writing streak partly influenced by Bob Dylan’s work.  “Paint it Black” came out a few months after the Stones had released their last single, “19th Nervous Breakdown.”

     “Paint It Black” also has some eastern musical influences, as a sitar is used in the song.  The sitar’s use came about through Brian Jones, then the group’s lead guitarist, who had visited with the Beatles’ George Harrison who was also then using the Indian instrument.  The sitar’s use in the song, says music critic Richie Unterberger, “qualifies as perhaps the most effective use of the Indian instrument in a rock song.  The exotic twang was a perfect match for the dark, mysterious Eastern-Indian melody. . .”

 

'Paint It Black' single sleeve, Italy, 1966.
'Paint It Black' single sleeve, Italy, 1966.
Long Sales Life

     “Paint it Black” would become one of those songs from the Rolling Stone’s catalogue that would enjoy a second and third sales life, in some cases, 30 and 40 years after its initial release.  It would be re-issued as a single on at least two other occasions – once in June 1990 when it hit the U.K charts for three weeks, and again in May 2007 when it hit the U.K. charts for a week or so, reaching No. 70.  The song has also appeared on at least a dozen Stones albums and compilations.  Billboard rated “Paint it Black” No. 21 on its list of the 100 top songs of 1966.  But beyond the conventional record business, pop chart performance, and awards, “Paint It Black” has also found its way into a number of other uses, particularly in film, television, and video games.  These uses have kept the song very much alive and well for many years beyond the 1960s.

Vietnam Association

The ‘Tour of Duty’ TV program, late 1980s, used ‘Paint It Black’ as its opening theme song.
The ‘Tour of Duty’ TV program, late 1980s, used ‘Paint It Black’ as its opening theme song.
Later packaging of ‘Paint It Black’ with red banner corner note that reads: ‘As Featured on the TV Series Tour of Duty’.
Later packaging of ‘Paint It Black’ with red banner corner note that reads: ‘As Featured on the TV Series Tour of Duty’.

     In the late 1980s, “Paint It Black”  became associated with the Vietnam War due to its use in both the ending credits of the 1987  film Full Metal Jacket and its use as the theme song for Tour Of Duty, a CBS-TV show about the Vietnam war which ran from 1987-1990.  The airing of the song on the TV show, which played around the world, contributed to its revised popularity in the late 1980s-early-1990s.  In May of 1990 in the Netherlands,  after “Paint It Black” was re-released there as a single again, it hit the No.1 position  on the Dutch Top 40 chart.  Later marketing and packaging of the song in those years also referred to the Tour of Duty TV show.

     Some Vietnam veterans have identified with the song as well.  One writer to SongFacts.com – “Bill,” from Queens, New York – made the following observation about the song’s Vietnam association:

“…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, you mind, your life.”

     “Paint it Black” was also used on the NBC-TV show American Dreams  in a 2004 episode when a central character in the show — young J.J. Pryor from Philadelphia, PA — goes missing in Vietnam.  The song’s other film appearances, either in its original or cover versions, include: 1997′s The Devil’s Advocate, a thriller/horror film starring Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, and Charlize Theron;1999′s For Love of the Game, a film about baseball with Kevin Costner; and, Stir of Echoes, a supernatural thriller, also in 1999, starring Kevin Bacon.

     On television, “Paint It Black” has also had more recent uses, as in a July 2003 pilot episode of the cable TV show Nip/Tuck – a show described by New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley as “a ‘Miami Vice”-style drama about two dashing and unscrupulous plastic surgeons in South Florida.”  In the pilot episode, as a facial reconstruction takes place, “Paint It Black” plays on.  Cover versions of the song have also been used in a number of other TV shows and films.  Writer Stephen King has used “Paint It Black”  in his Dark Tower series of novels; the song is heard by several characters as they pass the same music shop in New York at different time periods.  Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel Paint It Black is named after the song, and uses the first four lines from the lyrics as a quote preceding the first chapter.

 

‘Paint It Black’ is one of the songs used in this popular ‘Guitar Hero’ video game.
‘Paint It Black’ is one of the songs used in this popular ‘Guitar Hero’ video game.
Video Games

     The video game industry has also discovered “Paint It Black.”   The song is used in a number of games – either during game play or heard in the background.  Among games using the song are: Conflict: Vietnam, Twisted Metal: Black, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, and the Eve of Destruction modules for Battlefield 1942, Battlefield: Vietnam, and Battlefield 2.  “Paint It Black” is also used in one version of the karaoke game SingStar.  The song has also been used in some video game advertising.  A number of video game players have stated that their first experience with the song was hearing it on one of the games.  A parent named “Viki” from Liberty, Texas wrote SongFacts.com to share her view of the song as used on the Guitar Hero game:

“…I love hearing this song come out of my 12-yr-old kid’s room when he’s playing Guitar Hero 3.  He asked me if I’d ever heard of it.  I laughed so hard and told him I was raised on it!!  You can diss Guitar Hero all you want, but it’s introducing a whole new generation of kids to classic rock songs – which are WAY better than the crap they’re coming out with now!!”

“…Every kid these days knows ‘Paint It Black’ because it’s in Guitar Hero…”

      Another writer, responding in late October 2008 to a short story in the New York Times about some Beatles music being planned for a new interactive video game, raised concerns about which songs should be included in video games, noting the prominence of “Paint It Black”:

“…I’m a music teacher, and lately I’ve been finding that Guitar Hero and similar games actually help and inspire kids to learn to play real instruments – they don’t necessarily replace real instruments in kids’ minds.  My only concern is the extent to which Guitar Hero creates a rigid repertoire of songs that kids know – every kid these days knows “Paint It Black” because it’s in Guitar Hero, but it’s strictly a matter of opinion whether that’s a better Rolling Stones song than “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Street Fighting Man,” which no kid knows or cares about.  Similarly, the producers of the new Beatles game need to take very seriously their responsibility of passing on the right songs to the next generation….” – I. Barry D’Paul

 

Oct 1989 edition of Forbes business magazine featuring Mick Jagger & Keith Richards.
Oct 1989 edition of Forbes business magazine featuring Mick Jagger & Keith Richards.
“Paint it Lost”

     In any case, “Paint It Black” has had a long and varied career since it was first launched in May of 1966.  In 2004, the song was ranked No. 174 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  But sadly for the Rolling Stones, “Paint It Black” is one of the tunes they no longer control; losing rights to the song during their younger years.  In a legal settlement with an earlier manager named Allen Klein, the Stones relinquished their publishing rights, along with lucrative royalties, to this song and others.  In 1965, Klein, a New York manager also involved with other rock groups, had helped the Stones negotiate a new contract with Decca Records, then winning the group their first million-dollar payday.  But in the process, Allen Klein also helped himself.  His company, ABKCO, still retains the rights to the Stones’ early songs from the 1960s to 1971.  The Stones parted ways with Klein in 1970, and have long since become a much more sophisticated and business-  savvy rock ‘n roll group.  See, for example, “Stones Gather Dollars, 1989-2008.”

     Other stories about the Rolling Stones at this website include: “…No Satisfaction, 1965-1966,” “Start Me Up, 1995,” and the trailer for the Martin Scorsese film, “Shine A Light, 2008.”  For additional stories on music see the Annals of Music category page.  Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website.  Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 19 March 2009
Last Update: 22 August 2014
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Paint It Black, 1966-2000s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 19, 2009.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

“Paint It Black,” Wikipedia.org.

“Paint It Black,” Song Facts.com.

Alessandra Stanley, Television Review, “Snipped, Implanted, But Short Of Perfect,” New York Times, July 22, 2003.

Richie Unterberger, “Paint It Black, Rolling Stones,” Song Review, All Music.com, as of February 2009.

I. Barry D’Paul, comment to the New York Times, October 30, 2008.

“Allen Klein,” Wikipedia.org.

Jack Doyle, “Stones Gather Dollars, 1989-2008,” The Pop History Dig.com.

“J. William Fullbright,” Wikipedia.org.

 

 

 

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