Today is July 3nd. On this day in 1969, around midnight, Rolling Stones founder, namer and multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. He was 27.
Brian’s story is one of rock’s saddest tragedies. He was the founding Stone; he named them; he was their original “bad boy”. It was his persistence that helped them in the early days. He introduced them to the blues. But soon enough, Brian became ostracised from his band. His mental and physical health began to decline, leading to his untimely death.
Brian Jones was born on the 28th of February, 1942, in Cheltenham, England. He had two sisters, Pamela and Barbara. Pamela died when Brian was 3, of leukaemia.
Brian was a very intelligent kid. He had an IQ of 135. He excelled in school. Brian’s parents were both interested in music, and sent him to music lessons from an early age, translating their interest to their son.
When he was 15, Brian discovered jazz, changing him forever. He picked up saxophone and would soon begin guitar, foreshadowing his multi-instrumental genius with The Stones. He began to hang out in coffee clubs in Cheltenham, and played shows in many of them, too. His parents, however, did not approve of this.
Brian’s attitude also changed around this period. Although he had enjoyed school as a child, he grew tired of its sense of authority and conformity. He rebelled, leading to suspension on a couple of occasions. Brian’s attitude and musical passion made him somewhat of a loner. An ex from that period commented that “a lot of people didn’t understand him”. However, he still managed to get good grades, earning 9 O-levels and 2 A-levels.
Brian moved out of home at 17. He had fathered a string of illegitimate children, and — after quitting school — spent the Summer travelling through Europe. Living on money from busking with his guitar, his cash eventually ran out and he returned to Cheltenham.
In 1962, Brian moved to London. He became entranced with the blues, and befriended musician Alexis Korner, who would stay a friend for the rest of his life. But perhaps the most defining moment of this period was when he placed an ad in the Jazz News, looking for members for an R&B band, which he named after Muddy Waters’ ‘Rollin’ Stone’. This caught the attention of two teenagers named Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They went to see Brian play at Korner’s club, and were blown away by his magnificent slide guitar work on Elmore James’s ‘Dust My Broom’. Brian brought Mick and Keith into his band, and begun sharing a flat with them at 102 Edith Grove. After a succession of bassists and drummers — including future Pretty Thing Dick Taylor and, allegedly, future Kink Mick Avory — Brian settled on Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. The Stones were ready to become one of the biggest bands of the ’60s.
Around this time, Andrew Loog Oldham began managing The Stones with soon-to-be-ousted Eric Easton. Brian had been fulfilling this position until that point, and had been paying himself 5 pounds more for the job. The other Stones were not too pleased about this, to say the least, beginning the alienation between Brian and The Stones.
It didn’t take long for The Stones to become big. They released a few singles; adding his famous slide guitar to the Lennon/McCartney-written ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, adding some awesome harmonica to ‘Not Fade Away’. They released their self-titled debut (still a very Brian-lead affair) in 1964. However, Oldham decided that Mick would make a better “leader” of The Stones (a position also fulfilled by Brian ’till this point), and set out to make this so. And, in an attempt to equal the success of The Beatles, Oldham made Mick and Keith begin writing songs together, reducing Brian’s role in the band. (Though Brian wrote a film soundtrack, the melodies for ‘The Last Time’, ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘Under My Thumb’ and allegedly wrote ‘Ruby Tuesday’ with Keith, The Stones never recorded a song he wrote by himself.) The Oldham-Jagger-Richards troika took over from Brian as The Stones’ leader. They treated him horribly, and Brian soon became an outsider in the band he’d started. One scenario of such treatment is recounted in Paul Trynka’s excellent Brian biography: Brian was told to come into the studio to record ‘Little Red Rooster’, one day. However, he got to the studio only to discover that the other Stones had recorded their parts without him, and he was left to add overdubs. Though it was in part his fault, I feel that their treatment of him was particularly cruel and unnecessary.
Despite this, Brian added some simply stellar touches to The Stones’ catalogue, earning him the place as (arguably) the band’s greatest musician. He has been described by many as a bit of a musical genius. Some of his contributions include the marimba on ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘Out Of Time’; the sitar on ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’; the Appalachian dulcimer on ‘Lady Jane’ and ‘I Am Waiting’; the Mellotron on ‘2000 Light Years From Home’, ‘We Love You’ and ‘Stray Cat Blues’; recorder on ‘Ruby Tuesday’; saxophone on ‘Dandelion’… Not even mentioning his harmonica and slide guitar. Brian certainly had the ability to turn a good song into a classic!
Brian’s multi-instrumental-ism was not limited to The Stones, either. You know the saxophone on The Beatles’ ‘You Know My Name’? That’s Brian. It’s been argued that the oboe in ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ is him, too. He also sang backing vocals on ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’, on which he also clinked glasses. Brian was a good friend of The Beatles: he was particularly close to George, though was friendly with John and Paul, too.
However, as The Stones grew bigger, Brian’s demise began. The alienation he suffered from The Stones sent him into depression. To deal with his mental health issues, Brian started using drugs, and soon became addicted. Andrew continued to shine the spotlight on Mick + Keith and ignored Brian, which can’t have helped his already-underlying insecurity.
Around this period, Brian met Italian actress and model Anita Pallenberg. Together, they formed one of the most famous rock couples at the time, and were an icon of the blossoming counterculture. However, it was not to last. During Mick, Keith and Brian’s infamous trip to Morocco in 1967, Brian had been admitted to a hospital in France. Whilst he was gone, Keith and Anita had already begun a relationship. And when Brian rejoined the party in Morocco, Anita broke up with him and went to Keith after one too many fights. Brian was left stranded in the foreign country when Mick and Keith left unexpectedly. Already damaged, Brian’s mental health took a severe turn for the worse after the trip. And though Mick, Keith and Brian hadn’t been overly close since the 5 pound incident, they were never really friends, after Morocco.
By that time, Swinging London was a place of psychedelia. The Stones recorded Aftermath, Between The Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request. Brian’s musicality is particularly evident on that trio (my favourite of the band’s work), and his skills added a certain psychedelic element to a number of tunes. Though many fans dislike Satanic Majesties, I’ve always enjoyed it for the magnificent instrumentation. Brian’s dress-sense also became quite psychedelic in this period. Always valuing style, he became a regular at the London boutiques and quickly turned into a style icon. Brian also went to Monterey Pop Festival, and introduced the Jimi Hendrix Experience, cementing his place in psychedelic history. (The title from this post is taken from The Animals’ song ‘Monterey’.)
Brian also wrote and recorded the soundtrack to A Degree of Murder, a film that Anita was in. Brian would also soon return to Morocco and record an album of the Master Musicians of Joujouka. The album would be released in 1971.
But Brian’s personal life was not getting any better. He was busted for drugs on the same night as Mick and Keith’s infamous ‘Redlands’ incident. However, though ‘Redlands’ made Mick and Keith into even stronger figures, Brian crumpled. Not long after, he was treated for a nervous breakdown. He spent a night in jail for possession and allowing weed to be smoked on his property, but was discharged with a fine and an order to seek professional help for his drug problem. Brian would be busted again, in 1968, which would be one of the final straws for his declining health.
Brian was becoming increasingly unreliable. He would turn up to the studio stoned, or in too bad a place to play — if he turned up at all. However, his mark can still be found on The Stones’ next album, Beggar’s Banquet. Arguably the best of these is his beautifully emotive slide guitar on ‘No Expectations’. In a way, the lyrics could be seen to be referring to Brian’s fall. But his guitar performance is simply amazing. It’s been referred to as his swan song.
Still, The Stones had almost completely marginalised Brian. And he’d become too depressed and addicted to add much. However, unlike the similar scenario that went on with Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett, The Stones didn’t really care. Which I find to be a horrible shame. Brian couldn’t tour legally, either, ‘cos of his possession record. On the 8th of June, 1969, Mick, Keith and Charlie went to Brian’s recently purchased Cotchford Farm (the former home of A. A. Milne), and informed him that he’d been replaced by guitarist Mick Taylor.
And just under a month later, just before midnight, Brian drowned in his swimming pool. Some say it was murder or manslaughter. Some say it was suicide. Some say it was “death by misadventure”, as his death certificate reads. Brian’s funeral was on the 10th of July. The only Stones to attend were Bill and Charlie. The band paid tribute to him at their famous Hyde Park Concert, where Mick read out ‘Adonais’ by Percy Shelley and thousands of butterflies were released in his memory.
In the aftermath of Brian’s death, many of his contemporaries paid tribute to him, too. Jimi Hendrix dedicated a song to him at one of his performances. Pete Townshend wrote a short poem to his old friend called ‘A Normal Day For Brian, A Man Who Died Every Day’. Jim Morrison also wrote a poem titled ‘Ode To LA While Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased’, and wrote a song for him called ‘Tightrope Ride’. (Ray Manzarek changed the lyrics after Jim died, so they would refer to both Brian and Jim. Ironically, he died precisely two years after Brian, also at 27.)
Brian was one of the first members of the ’27 Club’, a group of people who died at 27. (Other “club members” include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and more recently, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.) The penultimate track on The Stones’ 1972 double album Exile on Main Street, Shine A Light, was written by Mick about his demise. Brian’s referenced in the name of indie band The Brian Jonestown Massacre. And many underground musicians have referenced him in their songs, including Robyn Hitchcock, The Drovers, Psychic TV and Tigers Jaw. In a way, Brian has become an underground figure, despite his associations with one of the biggest bands on Earth.
Brian was a very complex guy. By many accounts, he could be sweet + shy one minute, and arrogant + manipulative the next. But still, he was a wonderful musician. He also had wonderful fashion taste, and helped create a more feminine look acceptable for men. And though The Stones have rarely talked positively of him recently, many others have talked of his influence. There must be a reason why others have said nice things about him. His death is incredibly heartbreaking, and not just because a life was lost. He could have gone on to do so many great things. He could have begun a new chapter of his life. But sadly, he never got the chance. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Brian was (my dad’s a Stones fan), and he’s fascinated me since I was a child.
So rest in peace, Brian. We’ll never forget you.