Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Complicated: The Skills and Versatility of Brian Jones

“He was a cat who could play any instrument. It was like, ‘There it is, music comes out of it, if I work at it for a bit I can do it’.”
-Keith Richards (Rolling Stone 1971)

Despite the towering reputations of records such as Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, and Some Girls, The Rolling Stones lost a certain adventurousness when Brian Jones died in 1969. Having defined their signature sound the previous year with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, The Stones spent the ensuing years churning out variations of that track, often with wonderful results but without the variety and imagination of the albums leading up to it. Though the band Brian built basically became Mick and Keith’s machine as soon as they started recording, he was often responsible for the vibrant garnishes that made the music buzz. Keith’s guitar and Charlie’s drum kit are the skeleton and muscle of The Stones; Brian’s sitars, Mellotrons, dulcimers, and marimbas are the makeup, hair dye, and dandy attire. All he had to do was spend a little time fiddling with a new instrument, and it was ready to get laid over the latest track. Keith contended that off stage, Brian was finished with straight rhythm guitar as early as 1963 (an exaggeration, of course). Here are some ways he busied himself in the studio during The Rolling Stones’ most creative years.

The Instrument: Slide guitar.

The Skills: Brian may have lost his interest in straight rhythm guitar early on, but his zeal for blues slide remained strong right up until his final work with The Rolling Stones. Brian’s playing was crude compared to the more finessed work of his replacement, Mick Taylor, but he could make his Vox Teardrop sting with a rawness that wasn’t quite in Taylor’s vocabulary. His weeping slide is the star player on The Stones’ unlikeliest number-one hit, a cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s slow country/blues “Little Red Rooster”. It slices through the definitive reading of Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man”. It’s on the attack in the shambling “Grown Up Wrong” and taking the title role in “I’m a King Bee”. Heavily effected, it masquerades as a sitar on “Mother’s Little Helper” and makes a resounding return to Earth on Beggars Banquet, remaining vivacious and upfront on “No Expectations” even as Brian was withering and sinking into the background.

The Defining Track: “Little Red Rooster”. Brian's silky slide adds distinctive color to this slow country blues, providing the personality that helped it achieve huge hit status.

The Instrument: Harp.

The Skills: Again, Brian was overshadowed by a Mick when it came to this instrument, and without anything else to do but prance and yowl, Jagger was able to devote himself to the harp more faithfully than Jones. Yet Brian dug into the instrument with the same offhand passion he brought to his other instruments. His huffing and puffing is especially stirring before Jagger fully took his rightful place as resident harpist, steam-engine chugging on “Not Fade Away” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”.

The Defining Track: “I Just Want to Make Love to You”. Brian grunts along with the hard beat his bandmates burn through, then leaps out with gut-wrenching whines during a fiery solo spot, leading the band through the frenzied fade.

The Instrument: Keyboards.

The Skills: The Stones had access to two of the great keyboardists of their day: original member Ian Stewart and session-whiz Nicky Hopkins. But Stewart was a blues purist who famously refused to play anything as exotic as minor chords (!) and Hopkins wasn’t always available, what with his commitments to The Who, The Kinks, The Creation, The Easybeats, etc. Brian was more than willing to pick up the slack, sitting in on piano and organ on early tracks such as “If You Need Me”, “Pain in My Heart”, and “Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Going)”. But his real asset as a keyboardist was his willingness to mess around with atypical instruments: the harpsichord he brings to “Sittin’ on a Fence”, harmonium on “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?”, and the magnificent Mellotron parts he composed for “We Love You”, “2000 Light Years from Home”, and “Citadel”.

The Defining Track: “2000 Light Years from Home”. Technically speaking, there was nothing Brian could do with a keyboard that Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins couldn’t do at least as well. But Brian’s latent composing skills made his most crucial keyboard lines stand out from nearly everything Stewart or Hopkins devised. The other Stones admit that “2000 Light Years from Home” lacked direction until Brian conjured up the swirling Mellotron Arabesques that make the track a spooky powerhouse.

The Instrument: Marimba and Vibes.

The Skills: Brian Jones reached into his bag of tricks to come up with a most unexpected instrument to define The Stones’ sound circa-1966. Brian’s marimba and vibe work floated a breezy air over tracks grounded with low-mumbling bass and funky fuzz guitars. The wooden-barred mallet instruments serve as an unlikely substitute for Motown strings on “Under My Thumb” and “Out of Time”, and emphasizes the delicacy of “Ride On Baby”.

The Defining Track: “Under My Thumb”. The key track on Aftermath was essentially a rip of The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song”. Brian’s marimba mimics that track’s bells but with a frontline audacity missing from the Motown cut. Brian provides an airy, cheeky counterpoint to Jagger’s notorious misogyny.

The Instrument: Dulcimer.

The Skills: Few British bands aligned themselves with American music as firmly as The Rolling Stones, but when the boys employed the intrinsically Appalachian dulcimer, they did so to explore their own Englishness rather than to ape American mountain music. Keith noted how Brian’s dulcimer, which he plucked with a plectrum rather than using the more traditional hammer method, contributed to the “Elizabethan” quality of the wan ballads “Lady Jane” and “I Am Waiting” (electrified, Brian's dulcimer stands in for sitar on "Gomper"). The band celebrated for their swampy low-end never sounded more skeletal than they did when dancing with the dulcimer.

The Defining Track: “I Am Waiting”. “Lady Jane” is the better-known track, and the main melody-line Brian plucks on the dulcimer defines it, but his playing is rudimentary. On “I Am Waiting”, his dulcimer bounces and jangles with a liveliness that counterbalances Jagger’s death-obsessed lyric.

The Instrument: Sitar.

The Skills: As soon as George Harrison introduced the instrument to Western ears on “Norwegian Wood”, the Indian sitar became the accoutrement of the psychedelic era. Brian Jones was praised for the sitar skills he seemed to acquire overnight, yet The Stones didn’t use the instrument nearly as much as, say, The Beatles or Donovan, but Brian’s work on “Paint It Black” is so forceful, so perfectly integrated with Western Rock instruments, that it is the ultimate example of the sitar on a pop record. While The Beatles and Donovan tended to use the sitar in settings intended to recreate the open rhythm and atmosphere of Indian raga, The Stones did not skimp on the “Rock” portion of the “Raga Rock” equation.

The Defining Track: “Paint It Black”. Brian’s fingertip-slicing performance has no peer in The Stones’ catalogue, largely because he returned to the instrument so rarely. In fact, another track often celebrated as a sitar tour-de-force, “Mother’s Little Helper”, doesn’t feature the instrument at all; as noted above, the “sitar” is actually a detuned twelve-string slide guitar. Whether the instrument is present on “Cool, Calm, & Collected” or if Brian pulls another feat of sitar-mimicry is a matter of debate. “Paint It Black” wins both by excellence and by default.

The Instrument: Brass and Woodwinds.

The Skills: Brian entered the music world as a Julian “Cannonball” Adderley-obsessed jazz freak. He was so fixated on Adderley that he perversely insisted on naming the plethora of sons he sired Julian. So it’s no surprise that his first main instrument was the saxophone. Brian built upon his sax skills to learn other brass instruments and woodwinds. The extent of Brian’s horn work on The Stones’ records is uncertain. In the days before Bobby Keyes and Jim Price became The Stones’ resident horny sidemen, brass was not really a major staple of their records, though there are a number of notable moments that may attest to the brilliance of Brian’s versatility. By some accounts, he singlehandedly overdubbed entire horn sections on “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”, “Sing This All Together” (both versions), and “The Lantern” à la John Entwistle (he is certainly responsible for the “horns” on “She’s a Rainbow”, though they are of the Mellotron variety). That’s also Brian contributing fluttering recorder to “All Sold Out”, "Gomper", and “Ruby Tuesday”.

The Defining Track: “Ruby Tuesday”. Brian cuts loose on this pastoral ballad, harmonizing with Mick Jagger like a tropical bird.

The Instrument: Miscellaneous.

The Skills: Brian’s dabbling was rampant in 1966-1969, when he could be heard chipping in on everything from autoharp (“You Got the Silver”) to kazoo (“Cool, Calm, & Collected”) to koto (“Ride on Baby”) to percussion (“Midnight Rambler”) to tambura (“Street Fighting Man”). He even sang prominent--and decidedly gruff-- backing vocals on "Walking the Dog". If it sounds strange and Mick Jagger is hollering over it, chances are Brian’s to blame.

Brian Jones was born 70 years ago today.
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