The Rolling Stones: Why Some Fans Misinterpret ‘Paint It Black’

The Rolling Stones are among the most popular rock bands ever. While the band sometimes gave the world simple songs, they could also be very lyrical. “Paint It Black” remains one of their more lyrical hits.

What’s great about a song like “Paint it Black” is its lyrics are worth pondering – like a good poem. It’s often interpreted as a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War. Does this interpretation reflect the Rolling Stones’ intent?

The Rolling Stones | Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What the Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ is about — and its context

Many Rolling Stones songs are about relationships. According to the book Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones, “Paint It Black” is a song about a man mourning his dead lover. In addition, the book Back Up says the song was partially inspired by some of the prose of James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses. However, the song’s context influenced how people interpreted it.

Pop music and the War in Vietnam

“Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones

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It’s impossible to understand the rock music of the late 1960s and early 1970s without having a cursory understanding of the Vietnam War. The war left a huge shadow over the popular culture of the era. The Rolling Stones created multiple songs dealing with their anger regarding the war.

“Paint It Black” is an angry song that was released in 1966, a time when many people in the United States and the United Kingdom wanted the war to end. It’s not totally unreasonable to think the song was a response to the war. However, the Rolling Stones did not write it with any political meaning in mind.

Other reasons why people associate ‘Paint It Black’ with the Vietnam War

Soldiers in the Vietnam War | Larry Burrows/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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So why do some see “Paint It Black” as a protest song about the Vietnam War? The book 50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones includes an anonymous testimony from a Vietnam veteran who said the song’s morbid lyrics resonated with many soldiers who fought in the war. The song certainly conveys a mix of anger and despair that many people felt about the war — whether they were fighting in it or not. In addition, the media forged an association between the war and “Paint It Black.”

Full Metal Jacket is among the most famous films about the conflict. “Paint It Black” plays over the film’s final scene. Many younger people are familiar with the war primarily through movies, so the use of the song in a popular Vietnam War movie caused some people to interpret it as a song about the war. In addition, the track was played in the opening credits of Tour of Duty, a show about the Vietnam War which ran from 1987 to 1990. The song resonated with people, even if it wasn’t in the way the Mick Jagger and company intended.

Also see: What Happened When the Beatles & the Rolling Stones 1st Met