The Rolling Stones, beyond all else, are a personality-based band. A lot of the best bands and artists are – The Beatles, David Bowie, U2, the Smashing Pumpkins in their heyday – and it’s something marketing executives and image creators know all too well. It’s not just the music that people hear – it’s who’s making the music, too. People connect so much more with a song if they know the name and see the face of person singing it.
Left without a connecting face, the Rolling Stones would still have been successful, but I think that over half of their fame came from Mick Jagger and his mind-blowing stage presence. The Stones were one of the innovators of image and personality in rock music. Not only Mick, but Keith and the others had distinctiveness as well, including Brian Jones.
Brian was unique within the Stones for his blonde hair compared to the sandy to dark brown of the others. His teardrop-shaped guitar stuck in listeners’ minds, too. But the capstone of his fame was in the form of his tragic death. He died at age 27, but at that time, he was only the 2nd super-famous musician to die at that age. The real notability of his demise came from the manner of his death: drowning in a swimming pool.
Let’s back up a bit. The story arguably starts with the arrival in the Stones’ lives of Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager. He recognized early on that Jagger had stage presence coming out his ears, and also that the most successful bands (meaning the Beatles and the Beach Boys) wrote their own songs. Thus, he directed the career of the band in those directions.
Brian Jones started the band (and came up with the name) only a few years earlier, and was the de facto leader. His original idea for the Rolling Stones was to cover the blues and boogie numbers by black American musicians he so loved. The novelty of white British guys playing soulful American classics was enough to get them a name. Brian was the top dog until Andrew started shaking things up by having Mick take the lead in their shows, and by encouraging Mick and Keith to start writing songs together. Brian, unfortunately, was slowly being left out in the cold.
By 1968, Brian Jones was only in the band because he hadn’t been kicked out yet. He contributed almost nothing to the music; the other band members even turned off his guitar sometimes. When he interacted with them, he was distant at best, hostile and sniping at worst. Even so, his friendships were increasing outside the band with people like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon. He was the unofficial emcee at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, along with his then-girlfriend, Velvet Underground collaborator Nico.
Jones’s last significant contribution to the Stones was playing slide guitar on “No Expectations,” though he also played little parts on the Let It Bleed tracks “Midnight Rambler” and “You Got the Silver.” Preceding the production of Let It Bleed, he had numerous troubles with the law over drugs. A judge had mercy on him after a jury found him guilty of possession, and gave him a fine instead of jail time, and there were also rumors of a conspiracy against Jones and the rest of the Rolling Stones. The unsubstantiated theory goes that the police wanted to make an example of all the Stones in order to deter the British public from drugs.
The final straw came when the Stones were going to tour America again in support of Let It Bleed (slated for a July 1969 release) and Brian was denied a work visa. At that point, Jagger and company had had enough; they hired Mick Taylor to replace Jones on guitar, and Jones moved into a mansion in East Sussex where he descended in a wild downward spiral of drugs, sex, and misadventure that was his eventual undoing.
Let that be a lesson to you, kids: don’t do drugs. But don’t take my word for it; ask Brian Jones. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. ‘Cause he’s dead.
Hey, do you like my impression of the dad on Freaks and Geeks?
Monday: The death of the 1960s.