Covered: “Paint It Black”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original. If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

“I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes; I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.”

The heat is still relentlessly bearing down on anything that dares to venture outside, so now is as good a time as any to analyze one of my favorite “summer” songs.  Even in a career packed with hits, “Paint It Black” manages to stand out in my mind as among the Rolling Stones’ best work.  “Paint It Black” is nearly fifty years old, but it still sounds as fresh as it did when it was released in 1966, even after endless replays on radio and its inclusion from films that range from the brilliant to the ridiculous.

Many would point to the contributions of Brian Jones as being the key to the song’s success, and at first glance this would seem appropriate.   His composition of that simple but memorable melody, as well as his use of the distinctive tone of the sitar, stands out in most people’s mind when they recall the song.  The incorporation of Indian influences certainly distinguishes the song from the rest of the Stones’ catalog to that point and marked a watershed moment in Western pop culture, but the real power comes from a more subtle element.

It is the second instrument you hear, right after the the melody is introduced, that is the engine that truly drives the song; once Charlie Watts starts pounding those toms, the song belongs to him.  It has long been fashionable to diminish the importance of Watts to the group,* mainly due to the fact that he is not as flashy as the next generation of rock drummers that followed in his wake.  Though there are a significant number of musicians that will vouch for his technical expertise, his particular strengths will always make him an underrated member to the public at large.  If one takes a few minutes to analyze his part to “Paint It Black” however, it becomes clear how his beats help shape the sound of the Stones, as it is the tension between the mysterious, languid melody and Watt’s insistent, galloping drumbeat that gives “Paint It Black” its energy and verve.  The two parts are locked in battle, only to be released once the song hits the chorus, and the piece reverts to a more conventional rock form.  It is completely counterintuitive to normal compositional techniques to create a rhythmic complement to this melody that would incessantly push the beat in this manner, but it speaks to the genius of Watts that he would match an Eastern melody with a Western rhythm so seamlessly.

In the five decades since its release, “Paint It Black” has inspired countless bands to cover the song.  The incessant drumbeat highlighted above has made it a popular choice among punk bands, and that dark, menacing melody has made it a favorite of several metal acts.  It has also inspired some fascinating versions, two of which derive from the same artist–Eric Burdon first performed a cover with The Animals, emphasizing the song’s more ominous elements, and then developed an epic version with War that aside from a few brief moments hardly resembles the original.  Not only that, “Paint It Black” also inspired a revered group to fail miserably with their own original take.

Covers have long been a part of the repertoire of The Feelies, with most of their albums incorporating at least one.   The band does an excellent job in making their selections, choosing songs from revered artists that fit perfectly with the group’s style and strengths.  If the listener is paying attention, it is easy to hear traces of the original version with each take, but each cover integrates the band’s trademark jangly guitars and post-punk tendencies in such a way that they smoothly blend in with the rest of the album.  Without prior knowledge, the casual listener would have no reason to suspect that a particular song was a cover.

It is unlikely that there is anyone out there whose first encounter with “Paint It Black” would be The Feelies’ version, but it is remarkable how well the cover fits with the rest of their debut album, Crazy Rhythms, even as a tacked-on bonus track to the CD version that was recorded years later.  The cover is in many ways fairly reverent to the original, and in the live version it is clear how the band feeds off the pounding energy of the drums.  What is rather remarkable is how closely the guitars match with the Eastern-tinged elements used by the Stones, when The Feelies are merely using their traditional clean tone with a slight chorus effect.

In a vacuum, it could be argued that this is not a particularly remarkable cover; though it packs a lively punch (and would make a great addition to any live show), it merely accentuates what was great about the original rather than improves upon it.  However, it does illustrate the significance of selecting a song that matches a band’s strength.  At the very least, it is another chance for you to hear “Paint It Black” with fresh ears.

*See also Starr, Ringo.

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