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The Various Shades of Black

The Rolling Stones, famous today for being one of the pioneers of Rock n’ Roll, and equally infamous for their offstage antics, have churned out a series of chartbusters since their early years; but one song that stands out in particular is “Paint it, black.” this macabre melody continues to make the rounds today, at the Stones’ own concerts as well as in the form of covers by numerous other bands. With its innocuous intro, signature sitar based riff, iconic Eastern rhythms and quintessentially 60s drumbeats, this song has since become the safety net of many an artist in their efforts to regain some fame. As any amateur musician would tell you, this song isn’t particularly hard to play on any instrument, considering the simple arrangements and repetitive notes. How hard could it be to screw it up? Well, lets take a look at but a few of the numerous renditions various other artists have played since The Stones first released the single in May 1966.

 * The original:[youtube_video id=9Egt1Hq4wpE]

In the late 1960s itself, while this song was beginning to make waves across Europe, numerous regional artists started playing and recording their own versions of ‘Paint it, Black.’ Notable amongst many others are Marie Laforêt’s stereotypically French cover, and Karel Gott’s Slavic/Polka-esque cover in German.

Marie Laforêt

[youtube_video id=wPNdLzFQsO4]

Karel Gott

[youtube_video id=bwJp_Xh8lP0]

Considering her Édith Piaf-esque style of singing and lethargic humming towards the end, Laforêt’s cover sounds a lot more passionate than the original, and perhaps more appropriately so, considering the subject matter of the lyrics.

In contrast, Gott’s cover sounds quite comical, with his theatrical falsettos, the excessive wavering, and the upbeat orchestral background. Though well sung, one can’t help wonder if his sudden forays into operatic screaming would have scattered the crowds for fear of shattered chandeliers crashing down on them during a live performance.

As if this wasn’t enough, Zdob Si Zdub, a Moldovan band tried to up the ante with their own cover.

 [youtube_video id=2_GI1B_IyL0]

Replacing the intro with a muezzin-like call to arms was an unexpected twist, but incorporating modern Rock/Alternative electric guitar and bass rhythms with horns and trumpets seems to be a spurious attempt at trying to showcase their Gypsy roots. Though not the worst cover out there, this band seems to be confused in drawing the line between modern and traditional influences. Frankly, they’d have been better off using accordions and tambourines to maintain a more authentic sound. Instead, they sound like an unfortunate consequence of Mick Jagger’s backstage ebullience at a Balkan folk festival.

In the late 70’s and 80’s, every Metal band worth its salt tried to perform ‘harder and faster’ than its predecessors.  One such cover includes that of Glen Tipton from Judas Priest.

[youtube_video id=lIM7oZY76XM]

There is a reason why such bands continue to endure a love-hate relationship with their audience. Die-hard fans, not knowing much better, continue to believe that adding distortion, double bass drumming and chaotic guitar solos would make anything and everything better. Purists however, would dismiss such blasphemous attempts as nothing more than one-hit-wonder artists trying to bask in the reflected glory of The Stones’ heritage. That being said, there is, in my opinion, a truly badass cover, played by the American Metalcore band The Agony Scene.

[youtube_video id=5UxHy3pzv30]

Starting off on an ominous note, with the feedback from the electric guitar and the thundering drums, one can only anticipate that things will become more intense. While many other Hardcore/Metal bands, like The Black Dahlia Murder and Panzer X, have tried to make their covers sound more extreme, by throwing in scissor-beat drum lines and slap bass techniques, The Agony Scene’s tightly knit rhythm and lead section keeps this cover from falling apart where others have failed, despite the inaudible nature of the screamy vocals. Am I a fan of any of their other music? Absolutely not.

As far as the lyrical context is concerned, ‘Paint it, Black’ has long been a favorite amongst devotees of the Dark Arts. It has been covered time and again by various bands, adding Gothic and symphonic touches to elevate its inherent bleak aura. Some prime examples of the Darkwave era include covers by Gothic Rock band Inkubus Sukkubus and the German Power Metal band Rage (not to be confused by Rage Against the Machine).

Inkubus Sukkubus

 [youtube_video id=LCjq-3g9ewU]


 [youtube_video id=5LT-5F1QLG8]

Though certainly not my cup of tea, I have to admit that these bands have successfully captured the essence of the song. Nonetheless, their attempts to render this song darker seem to be bordering on overkill at times, especially with Rage’s apocalyptic ensemble preceding the guitar solo and Inkubus Sukkubus’s synthetic electric drum beats.

Going through all these covers begs the question: Is there really such a thing as a GOOD cover of ‘Paint it, Black’ or is this nothing but an exercise in futility? I’m glad you asked. I have been saving the best for the last.

#3: Vanessa Carlton:[youtube_video id=eGfw0Qr-A3k]

Sitar: Check. Mournful tone: Check. Avoiding an excess influx of musical effects: Check. Bonus: Complete control of tone and reverberation.

#2 Eric Henderson:[youtube_video id=R3RC9BjZj2I]

Can anything beat the pure, unadulterated sound of a classical guitar? Henderson’s faultless flow and flawless technique, along with his ability to incorporate both, the vocal and the musical aspects of this song all at once would leave even the most cynical connoisseurs at a loss of skepticism.

And last, but not the least: #1: The London Symphony Orchestra:[youtube_video id=UHoZP_t9DL0]

Ignore the fact that this version has been wrongly attributed to ‘The String Quartet’. This musical masterpiece is by far the most dramatic of all covers presented here, almost making it feel like it ought to be a part of a Tim Burton musical. Despite deviating from the simplicity of the original, it keeps all aspects of The Stones’ legacy of pure entertainment at its core.

So what do you all think? Any particular favourites? Any notable covers that you could suggest? For those of you who are curious (read as ‘with ample time on your hands’), do check out this channel on YouTube: PaintItBlackTV.

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