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SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL – The birth of the Rolling Stones and the death of Brian Jones (Paul Trynka)

September 22, 2014

By guest writer John Perry

Bantam

Press 366p £20

So many new books about the Rolling Stones are published each year that duplication becomes the norm. Most simply recycle the familiar story from other, older Stones histories. Myth accumulates, errors proliferate and the quality of information is degraded. Paul Trynka’s biography of Brian Jones is something quite different: a thorough and, above all, well-researched trawl through the old, old story. The author speaks to most of the primary sources still living and turns up enough new information to satisfy hardened Stones-watchers.

Brian Jones has not been especially well-served by biographers. With so much futile energy expended on his unresolved death – and silly conspiracy theories developed to help sell second-rate paperbacks – it is good to read an account that focuses upon Jones’ part in bringing Blues and R&B into the mainstream. Brian’s is a complex personality to unravel. Almost universally liked by his contemporaries (McCartney, Hendrix, Townshend et al) and almost universally disliked by his own band; only Bill Wyman ever seemed to have a good word to say for him. Trynka is sympathetic to Brian; rather less so to Jagger/Richards, the victors in the slow-burning, internecine struggle that saw Jones gradually sidelined, ridiculed and rendered obsolete in the band that he’d founded. The author rightly points out the almost Stalinist revisions that saw Brian’s contribution written out of the band’s 50th anniversary celebrations. One can only speculate why, even after 50 years, the two principal Stones still feel the need to dismiss Jones’ achievements. No money in it, perhaps.

Jones’ number was up the moment Andrew Oldham entered the picture. Oldham took an almost instant dislike to him at the Crawdaddy Club and lost no time promoting Jagger/Richards as head Stones while giving Jones the freeze out. Ironically, had Brian lived into the 1970’s, he would probably have haunted the same diminishing circles as Loog Oldham; forever doomed to try and top his earlier work. Second acts aren’t unknown in rock’n’roll but striking gold twice is unusual.

When reading biography, one generally skips the early years, passing over childhood and school and starting where the action begins. Not the case here. Paul’s account of Brian’s Cheltenham childhood (and quite remarkably fertile) teens is one of the most original parts of the book and every bit as readable as more familiar scenes in Morocco and Monterey. Without making excuses for Brian’s many failings the author examines Jones’ evident self-destructiveness and his crippling lack of confidence. There are two schools of thought here. One, the Stones Authorised Version supported by Glyn Johns and the late Ian Stewart, holds that Brian was two-faced and brought about his own fate through reckless drug use and lack of self-discipline. The other camp maintains that Jagger/Richards and Andrew Oldham quite deliberately ground Jones down, once they’d taken from him everything they could use. As George Harrison puts it, there was nothing much wrong that wouldn’t have been cured by a little kindness.

There are a couple of points where I take issue with Paul. The first is the claim that it was Jones, not Ry Cooder, who taught Keith Richards open G tuning – the guitar sound that defines the Stones from ‘Honky Tonk Women’ on. Yes, Brian played slide guitar in open G as far back as ‘Little Red Rooster’ (1965) and probably much earlier. The Chess Records sessions are dominated by this style – but Brian plays a straight Muddy Waters-style open G (c.f. ‘I Cant Be Satisfied’) not the staggered, syncopated 5-string version of open G that Richards unquestionably adapted from Ry Cooder. This latter style, with it’s strange new chord shapes, first appears in 1969 and is fundamentally different in conception and execution. That Cooder is the true source is easily demonstrated; try and find one Stones recording with that ‘Honky Tonk Women’ style, that predates Ry Cooder’s 1968 sessions for the band. You won’t. Cooder is hired; Richards figures out his chord shapes, does a sponge job on the tapes, and in a flash the Mark 2 Stones sound arrives, fully formed.

None of this diminishes Brian’s earlier role. As the author points out, in 1962 England, Jones and Alexis Korner were probably the only people playing bottleneck blues. Within five or six years the Great British Blues Boom was in full plod as a thousand Beat Groups morphed into ‘Blues Bands’, thumping out clunky versions of Elmore James. The trail leads back, through folk clubs and blues societies, to Brian’s pioneering bottleneck. That Jones was hounded by the cops and the gutter press is undeniable. Those who wished to see the upstart Stones done down, quickly realised that Jones was the weakest link; a much easier target than the well organised Mick Jagger and the mentally tougher Keith Richards. Jones was systematically harassed until his nerve broke. Trynka covers the busts and trials in convincing detail. I wish he’d used the term ‘the Establishment’ a little less freely: some less vague and emotive term such as ‘the authorities’ might have been better. Nobody doubts that some very dirty work went down in the reaction to 1967’s flamboyant displays – Chelsea nick might as well have been Chelsea Flower Show as far as planting was concerned – but sometimes bent coppers are just bent coppers looking for a bribe; not every duplicitous nark is a part of an Establishment plot. Indeed, if you look at the Lewes trial that followed the infamous 1967 Redlands bust, the ‘Establishment’ figures are mostly in the Stones camp. Their barrister, Sir Nigel Havers QC and William Rees-Mogg, the Times editor who penned the influential ‘Who Breaks A Butterfly’ first leader, were infinitely more ‘Establishment’ than the Sussex coppers and the rather silly Judge Block – leading light of the Horsham Ploughing and Agricultural Society, whose summing up in the trial violated so many basic tenets of jurisprudence that a successful appeal was almost guaranteed.

There are some minor errors in the account of Brian’s drug use. Pharmaceutical cocaine was never legal (in Jones’ lifetime) except on prescription. And Mandrax, that archetypal late-60’s drug, was not a sleeper but an hypnotic; an important distinction since Mandies effectively allowed people to walk around whilst asleep. The drug became synonymous with people falling downstairs, crashing into walls, and knocking out teeth, but Trynka correctly dates the acceleration in Jones’ decline to his switch from barbiturates to Mandrax. Those bloated, zombie-like photos of late-period Brian convey the message perfectly. But these are very minor quibbles.

You should read this if you love the Stones first line-up, recognise Brian Jones for the star he was, or enjoy the ease with which he moved between accordion, harpsichord, sitar, dulcimer, marimbas, recorders, vibraphone and mellotron, transforming some pretty prosaic songs into magical recordings. Paul’s book seems likely to become the standard work.

John Perry, Somerset 2014

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