Why The Stones Were Better With Jones

Today would have been the 80th birthday of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones (1942-1969); this year will also mark the 60th of the Stones as a group. The fact that the Stones outlasted him by over half a century has obscured that truth among many whose fandom postdated the early years. But the fact remains that Jones founded the band, named it, hired the other members (even Mick and Keith) through ads and auditions, organized band rehearsals, taught Jagger how to play harmonica, and even got them gigs in the early years. Then, things happened, and he drifted away. But the way it played it out, I believe, is to be regretted.

Jones came out of the London blues revival scene that had gathered momentum by the early ’60s and included such figures as John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and others. By the time he founded the Stones, though only 20 years old, he had already drifted around Europe and fathered several children by numerous different women (girls, to be more accurate). When the Stones began, it was mostly about blues covers, as most fans know (their name was taken from a Muddy Waters song). The band’s later monster success meant that they retroactively became the primary agency through which most of the world learned about major blues originators like Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, et al. Jones and Keith Richard both played a combination of rhythm and lead guitar, working closely together to determine who would do what at which time (the technique became one of the key hallmarks of the Stones’ sound, and was carried on by Jones’ successors). Jones also played blues harp and slide guitar, and sang background vocal harmonies. He was therefore highly present in all of the group’s performances and recordings of their first three years or so, in spite of Jagger’s centrality as lead singer and front man.

The existing chemistry devolved through a number of factors, the principal one being the hiring of Andrew Loog Oldham as their manager. Group decisions started to come from Oldham rather than Jones. At quite an early juncture, it became about business. Originally a sextet, they became a quintet when piano player Ian Stewart was busted down to roadie. (Though an excellent musician, Stewart was thought not to fit the band’s image, and anyway a roadie makes a lot less money than a Rolling Stone. He continued to play piano and keys for the band, but with a much reduced status. He, one hastens to mention, had been Jones’ first hire, prior to Jagger and Richard). Oldham also encouraged Jagger and Richard to become a songwriting team like Lennon and McCartney. Fortunately for most concerned (including their fans) Jagger-Richard proved one of the greatest rock songwriting teams in the world. Their hits made millions. But it also served to further reduce Jones’ status in the group. Songwriting was quite simply not his forte.

And yet Jones was still a key member of the group. The title of this post announces where I stand. Jones was not an non-entity in the group by any means. Contrasted with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts who were also crucial in the band’s sound (at least Watts was) but who seemed to get busted down to side men in the group dynamic, Jones remained a star. Among other things he was a flamboyant fashion plate to rival Jagger, rocking those Swinging London Carnaby Street threads in magazine and newspaper photos. On album covers he seems the full peer of his songwriting bandmates. There is more balance with a third star in the band. When I was a teenager discovering the music of the Stones a decade after Jones passing, my “Virgils” were a couple of older female friends who thought Jones was the cutest member. It had always been like that. He had his own fans who had preferred him. And though he didn’t write their hit songs he found ways to be highly present on them, usually by playing an idiosyncratic instrument that was often the making of the record. That’s him playing that relentless guitar riff on “The Last Time”. That’s him playing marimba on “Under My Thumb”, recorder on “Ruby Tuesday”, sitar on “Paint it Black” and “Street Fighting Man”, dulcimer on “Lady Jane”, Mellotron on “She’s a Rainbow”, and oboe and sax on “Dandelion” (the solo). (He also plays the sax on the quirky Beatles track “You Know My name (Look Up the Number)”.

So Jones too had evolved artistically. He didn’t write but he was most definitely growing and expanding artistically, and was in fact one of the more influential figures during rock’s experimental period in the 1960s. But psychedelia went hand in hand with drugs, naturally, and that came with at least as many negative results as positive ones. The flame-out seems to have come during the Her Satanic Majesty’s Request (1967) period. That would seem to be the later album on which Jones’ voice was greatest in many ways. But drugs proved a problem in many other ways. Jagger, Richard and Jones were all repeatedly arrested for drug possession. But with Jones, drug use became a major problem. He became irresponsible, missing rehearsals and other important appointments. He zoned out and lost focus when it was time to play. His alienation from the others increased when his girlfriend supermodel Anita Pallenberg dumped him and began an affair with Richard. That WILL drive a wedge in a friendship. Still he played on most of Beggar’s Banquet (1968), in spite of the growing estrangement and his mental descent.

By 1969, the writing was seemingly on the wall. The last straw may have been the fact that Jones was unable to join the band on a U.S. tour (the one that would include Altamont) due to his drug arrests. In May of that year he was let go from the band that he had founded, seven years after its formation. If he had NOT been on drugs and otherwise despondent and indifferent, he might have fought for his rights. The situation strikes me as very similar to that of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. How can one be fired from one’s own band? IT was LITERALLY his brand. He named it, he started it. If the others wanted to leave his band and start their own group with a different name, that was one thing. That’s the way it ought to go. This is definitely one case where business interests and ethics are at loggerheads. Don’t tell me it’s not wrong. It is.

Six weeks after Jones’ canning from the Stones, he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool, thus becoming the founding member of the “27 Club”. Some who publicly mourned him, were soon to join him: Jimi Hendrix (on whose “Along the Watchtower” Jones had played vibraslap), Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison were soon to follow him to Rock and Roll Heaven. There is added tragedy, I feel, in the indignity of his having died as an ex-Rolling Stone, although arguably it couldn’t have gone any other way since it was likely a matter of cause and effect. There continues to be speculation as to whether the death was an accident, a suicide, or even a murder (I recently watched a documentary which actually makes that suggestion, with speculation ranging from the idea that someone wanted his property, the former estate of A.A. Milne, to a theory that Jagger and Richard put out a hit in him in their greed to make more money. Could it have been aliens, perhaps? He was, after all “2000 Light Years From Home”. For the life of me I don’t know why there needs to have been a “conspiracy” to explain the drowning death of an asthmatic drug addict who just lost his girlfriend and got fired from his own band, but that’s just how some people’s minds work).

John Lennon, who founded the Beatles and hired both McCartney and Harrison was particularly incensed at how Jones was treated. In point of fact, Lennon came dangerously close to suffering Jones’ fate, if you think about it. McCartney had been dominant in the Beatles since 1966. The major songs on Revolver are McCartney’s and McCartney conceived and dominated both Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour. And Lennon was very addled on heroin during the McCartney-dominated Get Back/Let it Be project, to the extent that he was very tuned out of the process. That was one of my takeaways from the recent release of Peter Jackson’s film. Fortunately, Lennon cleaned up shortly afterward and quit, forming the Plastic Ono Band. An early example of Lennon stretching his own legs is his performance in the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, which is how the latter got hired to direct Let it Be. The Rock and Roll Circus was one of Jones’ last appearances with the Stones. His subsequent death was one of the reasons the show went unaired for so long, along with the fact that all of the other bands, including Lennon’s temporary supergroup, came off more spectacularly than the Stones themselves.

At any rate, Jones had (and has) his own partisans and defenders. To me there is something healthier about the balance of power in the band when Jones was present. His replacements, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood are great musicians, but really are sort of playing “Second Keith” in the band line-up. Jones had brought a lot else to the dynamic besides that. The Stones naturally continued to be amazing, and remain so to the present day. But I do find a lot of repetitive sameness in their work starting in the early 1970s. A lot of people think of that later Stones sound as the defining one. But for my taste, it lacks the variety and color and adventurousness of their records from the sixties. And this is despite the fact that I am of the later era. I was not yet four years old when Brian Jones died. But right is right, and I know what I like.

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