Paint It, Black originally released in 1966 is perhaps one of the saddest songs ever written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Heck – Paint It, Black might be the bleakest rock and roll song ever written. Paint It, Black uses a colorless world as a metaphor for sadness, even depression. With imagery such as a funeral procession, a “red door” the singer wants to paint black, a disinterest in the girls walking by, etcetera. The song probably describes Mick Jagger’s depression after the death of his girlfriend. Honestly, I would rank the song as one of – if not the – best Rolling Stones songs ever written. The brutal honest lyrics alone, mixed with the instrumentation – including a Sitar – just melts your heart. More on that later. I recently came across several different cover versions, all approaching the song from different angles. So….why not compare four covers of Paint It, Black with the original version?
Rolling Stones Version – 1966
I already stated my appreciation for this specific version. The eerie sounding sitar, the storming drums, Mick Jagger’s almost creepy vocals on the verses, and screaming of the choruses. One really dives into Jagger’s emotions on this version. Jagger really shows his heart and soul through the lyrics, as cliche’d as this sounds. This is what makes the song so amazing. Never mind the instrumentals as amazing as they are. Jagger’s lyrics are sheer poetry.
Eric Burdon & War – 1970
Eric Burdon & War did a a funk/jam version of the song. This version features a lot of horns, a lot of fast percussion and feels generally upbeat. Flutes replace the Sitar parts. The lyrics themselves are a mixing of original and new. Burdon leaves the first verse intact for the most part – but mostly chops the rest of the song. Perhaps it was out of respect for Jagger. Maybe Burton did not want to compare his pain to the death of a lover, so he left things out like the funeral scene. Regardless, as upbeat as the Burdon / War version sounds, the song still takes a somber tone when looking at the lyrics. This version of the song still paints a picture of deep depression and loss.
W.A.S.P Version – 1984
W.A.S.P. turns Paint It, Black into a hard rock/heavy metal anthem. Screeching guitars, screaming vocals. They keep all the lyrics mind you. They keep the storming drums as well. However W.A.S.P. loses, for the most part, the depression and sadness of the original. Instead, W.A.S.P. focuses on the anger found in the chorus of the original. That is not to say that W.A.S.P. forgets the original is a song about depression. In the last verse, the guitars stop and the tempo slows. We hear a bit more sadness in the lead vocalist, it almost seems like the W.A.S.P. version of the song looks at anger as something that, though a base emotion, will eventually wear off and give way to the hopelessness of the situation. Still – the very next line picks up the pace and the anger once more. As the lead vocalist sings about looking into “the setting sun,” we hear a guitar whiney – almost like a horse. Almost like the angers fuels the speaker of this version of Paint It, Black to run away. Find a new city, find a new life. Maybe that will help the pain.
Echo & the Bunnymen – 1985
Paint It, Black as done by Echo & the Bunnymen is a live cover, and cannot be found on a studio recording. The song feels like a tribute cover – keeping almost every bit of the original intact (perhaps out of respect). However, the lead vocals provides a notable exception. Ian McCulloch adds a little vibrato in the verses as the song progresses. This almost provides a sobbing effect to the vocals. The sobbing effect, of course, really emphasizes the despair and hopelessness of the song. In my opinion, this effect is the strongest part of this cover. However, the vocals during the choruses don’t quite make it. McCulloch just does not depict the anger that Jagger portrays. Instead, we almost hear a reflective tone – almost as though Echo & the Bunnymen’s version of the song tries to rationalize and make sense of the pain.
U2 Version – 1992
A deep look at the U2 version leaves me a little dumbfounded. Honestly, there seems to be no real significance to their cover of Paint It, Black. Bono does not quite capture Jagger’s tones well – specifically the anger. Other than that, U2 performs the song almost flawlessly, and sticks to the original changing almost nothing. Again, this seems a straight forward cover – until you look at the context. looking at the U2 version of the song in context of this cover. Paint It, Black as covered by U2 served as a B-side to “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” Juxtaposing the two songs, one finds both the sorrow, and the relief of loss. U2 gets that Paint It, Black is a song expressing different emotions. U2 decides, however, to focus on other aspects of loss.
So – which version of Paint It, Black wins?
The original seems to go back and forth between anger and sorrow. We have the Eric Burdon & War version, which almost seems empathetic to the original. Burdon’s version tries to feel the pain of the original by relating to pain it (he?) knows. We have the hard rocking, extremely angry W.A.S.P. version. We have the almost emo Echo & the Bunnyman version. Plus, we have the U2 version which tries to focus on the pain, but also the relief, of loss. All five have their place, but really, none can compare to the raw emotion of the original. Perhaps if we meshed the W.A.S.P. and Echo & the Bunnymen versions we might have a real contender (despite the lack of a sitar). Regardless, all five versions convey emotions in very different ways, and juxtaposing the songs together really gives us a bigger picture of loss.