Paint it Black was released by the Rolling Stones in 1966. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are credited with writing the song but it is clear that the whole band contributed to its arrangement.
Here’s a reminder of the song and its rather morbid lyrics:
The song is sometimes described as ‘raga rock’ because of its Middle Eastern feel and use of the sitar but, apparently, the song started as a fairly conventional soul song and became more exotic with the adoption of a double-time rhythm, a Hammond organ, castanets and – most significantly – Brian Jones on sitar.
Leaving aside the lyrics and the huge influence of the band itself, what is there musically in the song that might shed some light on its enduring popularity?
The song is in E minor and uses a harmonic minor scale (the leading note, the 6th, is sharpened, giving a scale of E F# G A B C D# E). The only characteristic of this scale that contributes to any sort of Eastern feel is the sharpened 6th, but in 1966 this did make the main riff stand out from your average pop song …
While the riff is based on a simple Em B progression, what follows is quite inventive:
Em D G D Em / Em D G D A B
The A major, in particular, provides a great build to the dominant (the B), with its subsequent release to the tonic (Em).
From a songwriting perspective, the structure is simple enough, with five verses, no refrain, no middle 8 and an ending in which the main riff is repeated over and over. Rather than rendering the song dull, this insistent repetition structure is highly effective in conveying the feel of a trance-like chant.
This may be a simple song but it obviously fascinates musicians. Its page on ultimate-guitar.com has has more than 2 million views!