50 Years Ago: Brian Jones is Fired by the Rolling Stones
Brian Jones announced his departure from the Rolling Stones on June 9, 1969 with a statement that read: “I no longer see eye-to-eye with the others over the discs we are cutting. … I want to play my kind of music, which is no longer the Stones music. The music Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] have been writing has progressed at a tangent, as far as my own taste is concerned.”
The development came as a shock to many fans, but not to many in the music industry, and certainly not to his former colleagues Jagger, Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. In fact, they’d fired him the previous day, but left it to him to decide how to tell the world. Tragically, it represented a point in a downward slope which became steeper: Jones would be dead within three weeks, another member of the “27 Club.”
Jones, as Wyman noted in his 1990 memoir Stone Alone, had been the band’s original leader. He’d drawn worthies together from across London’s blues and jazz scenes in 1962. “He formed the band. He chose the members. He named the band. He chose the music we played. He got us gigs,” Wyman wrote. However, from early on there appeared to be some resentment directed at Jones by Jagger and Richards, who weren’t happy that he paid himself £5 more than the others to reflect his management services and senior position.
Musically, though, there could be no questioning his ability. The multi-instrumentalist seemed able to get a tune out of almost anything, and in early Rolling Stones records he was heard playing harmonica, sitar, organ, recorder, cello, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, oboe, autoharp and a wide variety of guitars. He and Richards developed what they called “guitar weaving,” their trademark way of performing both rhythm and lead parts without clashing.
“I first saw Brian Jones play in, I think it was the Railway Arms in Ealing, or Ealing Jazz Club,” Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page once said. "I remember taking a sort of pilgrimage over there to see Alexis Korner’s blues band. … [Brian] played some Elmore James, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ ‘Cause I was listening to all of that stuff – as were, y’know, what were a real serious minority of guitarists that were listening to this sort of stuff. And then I found out that he could play harp afterwards, as well, and he was playing pretty good harmonica. And bit by bit it unfolded into what a wonderful musician he was. I mean, he was a really fine musician.”
Watch Brian Jones Take the Lead in 'I Wanna Be Your Man'
Brought up in a comfortable family with a clipped accent to match – his father was an aeronautical engineer, his mother a church organist – Jones proved his rebellious nature by defying his relatives and estranging himself from them. He also had two children by the time he was 16 years old. The first resulted in his expulsion from school; the second, he never knew about. “My ultimate aim in life was never to be a pop star,” Jones said in a 1965 interview. “I enjoy it – with reservations, but I’m not really sort of satisfied, either artistically or personally.” He added with a curious smile: “Let’s face it, the future as a Rolling Stone is very uncertain.”
The appointment of manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham in 1963 gave Jagger and Richards an ally and appeared to make Jones feel further alienated. In his 2004 book Stoned, Oldham described Jones as uncomfortable with working as a team member from the start. Once Jagger and Richards were being encouraged to write their own material, Oldham added, there was less time in the set for the blues standards that Jones wanted to play. Oldham said Jones “resisted the symbiosis demanded by the group lifestyle, and so life was becoming more desperate for him day by day. None of us were looking forward to Brian totally cracking up.”
Jones, of course, was one of many artists of the era who decided to experiment with drugs – not only for the experience, but to help him deal with his insecurities. He was first arrested for possession in 1967, when police found marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine in his London flat. At the time he admitted only to marijuana use, saying he avoided stronger substances. (Girlfriend Anita Pallenberg left him for Richards earlier that year, making relations worse between the bandmates and send him deeper into difficulty.)
Drugs and alcohol contributed to an increase in the strength and frequency of his mood swings, colleagues said. Often warm and approachable, he displayed periods of anger and nastiness. “There were at least two sides to Brian’s personality,” Wyman wrote. “One Brian was introverted, shy, sensitive, deep-thinking. The other was a preening peacock, gregarious, artistic, desperately needing assurance from his peers. … He pushed every friendship to the limit and way beyond.”
By 1968, Jones’s contribution to Stones music had diminished remarkably. That year's Beggars Banquet featured less psychedelia and more rootsy blues than previous outings, which he would have enjoyed. But his work ethic had become almost impossible to support. “Keith and I took drugs, but Brian took too many drugs of the wrong kind, and he wasn’t functioning as a musician,” Jagger said of the album sessions in 2012 documentary Crossfire Hurricane. “I don’t think he was that interested in contributing to the Rolling Stones anymore.” However, Jagger continued: “One time when we sat around on the floor, we played in a circle, playing ‘No Expectations’ – and he picked up the guitar and played very pretty lines on it, which you can hear on the record.”
Listen to the the Rolling Stones Perform ‘No Expectations’
Jones played guitar, Mellotron, sitar, harmonica, and tambura mainly in small parts, and had no writing credits on Beggars Banquet; Jagger and Richards wrote all but one song. In December 1968, Jones appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus movie, where his contribution was seen to be almost insignificant, amid a difficult performance which many people on the inside felt would be his last. Let it Bleed was to be the final time he’d be heard on a Stones album. He tracked only congas for “Midnight Rambler” and autoharp for “You Got the Silver.”
For the rest of the recording sessions of the early part of 1969, he was either too intoxicated to work or not in attendance at all. “We didn’t even expect him to be there,” Richards said in Crossfire Hurricane. “If he turned up we’d find him something to do. … By then he was already in Bye-Bye Land.” In a frequently quoted exchange from the sessions for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Jones asked Jagger: “What can I play?” He received the terse response: “I don’t know, Brian – what can you play?”
In May, Jones was arrested for a second time and charged with cannabis possession. The jury found him guilty, but despite facing a long prison term because he was still on probation for his previous offense, the judge fined Jones a total of £155 – and warned him ominously: “For goodness sake don’t get into trouble again, or it really will be serious.”
The drug convictions were the catalyst for Brian Jones' dismissal from the Rolling Stones. As they planned a U.S. tour, it became clear that Jones was unlikely to be given a work visa because of his criminal record. On top of that, the band needed a member who knew the new songs, and Jones hadn’t been there often enough to learn them. His personal life continued to crumble: In the first half of the year, he got the band’s car impounded after parking illegally during a shopping trip, forcing Jones to hire a chauffeur-driven limousine to go home. Later, he crashed his motorcycle into a shop window and had to be hospitalized, under a false name to avoid publicity.
Jones was warned that a no-show at a photo shoot in London would trigger instant dismissal, and he did appear as required. However, with confirmation that a U.S. work visa would not be forthcoming, the Rolling Stones decided they needed to move on without him. On June 8, 1969, Jagger, Richards and Watts visited Jones in his Cotchford Farm estate in Surrey and told him he was out.
That scene is regarded as one of the slightly better moments in the generally panned 2005 Jones biopic Stoned. It depicts an awkward Jagger trying to present the case as delicately as possible before Richards just delivers the news, leaving Jagger to explain that he’ll be paid £100,000 and £20,000 for every year the band continues. As his former colleagues leave, Richards tells him: “You’ll get your act together, man.”
Watch the Rolling Stones Fire Brian Jones in 'Stoned'
Watts said he couldn’t remember any details of the moment, but said in 2012 that it “wasn’t very nice.” He added: “I remember Mick and Keith saying, ‘We can’t go on like this; we needed another guy,’ and we did need somebody else.”
Once Jones had chosen his means of telling the world, the Rolling Stones announced that 20-year-old Mick Taylor was his replacement. “We’d known for a few months that Brian wasn’t keen,” Jagger said at the time. “He wasn’t enjoying himself and it got to the stage where we had to sit down and talk about it. So we did and decided the best thing was for him to leave.” Asked about Jones’s future plans, Jagger added: “He’s gotta do his own thing, man, and he hasn’t said anything to us about it.”
It seems, at first, that there was a chance Brian Jones would indeed get his act together. On visiting him at home a few weeks later, Alexis Korner said he appeared to be happier than anyone had previously seen him. He started working on new material of his own and had at least spoken to Korner, John Lennon, Mitch Mitchell and others about the idea of starting a new band.
It never happened. Late on the night of July 2, 1969, Jones’s body was discovered motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool. His passing was officially recorded as death by misadventure – although many feel the real story remains to be uncovered. The Rolling Stones released hundreds of white butterflies in his memory at their previously planned concert in London's Hyde Park two days later.
Jones was embalmed in an airtight metal casket and buried in his home town of Cheltenham in an extra-deep grave to deter any “trophy hunters” from digging him up. Of his former colleagues, only Wyman and Watts attended his funeral; Jagger and Richards said they were unable to attend.
“He was different over the years as he disintegrated,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “He ended up the kind of guy that you’d dread to come on the phone because you knew it was trouble. … He was really in a lot of pain. But in the early days he was alright, because he was young and good-looking. He was one of them guys that disintegrated in front of you. … When he died, I didn’t feel anything, really. I just thought, ‘Oh, another victim of the drugs.”
Watch a Brian Jones Interview from 1965
Watts told the BBC that he “always felt sorry for Brian. He was two things: he was not very nice, and he upset people very easily. He wasn’t very pleasant.” Jagger added: “Fame doesn’t sit very comfortably on anyone’s shoulders. But some people’s shoulders [don’t] seem to fit it on at all. And he was one of them.”
Still, his musical impact – on the Stones and on his era – remains undeniable. “Brian Jones was one of the first people in Britain to play slide guitar and his love of the blues was at the heart of what he and the rest of the Rolling Stones were all about when they started out,” UdiscoverMusic's Richard Havers later noted. “His musicianship, especially in the early days of the band, added so much the singles that propelled the Rolling Stones into the pop charts; it was his fashion sense and his hairstyle, that appealed to both men and women, that were copied by bands on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Wyman echoed those sentiments: “Many attitudes and sounds of the '60s were developed from Brian’s style and determination. He was the archetypal middle-class kid screaming to break away from his background, bumming around in dead end jobs before finally finding his niche. And when he found it, he hammered it across to the world, with idealism and commitment. … He was very influential, very important, and then slowly lost it … and just kind of wasted it and blew it all away.”
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