The Rolling Stones and the Mystery of Brian Jones’ Death

Half a century later, as much mystery surrounds what Brian Jones brought to the Rolling Stones as the circumstances of his death.

It has been 50 years since the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones drowned in the swimming pool at his country home and his death is still as much a mystery as it was on July 3, 1969. He was 27, the same age as his hero, blues musician Robert Johnson. They were the first recognized members of the “27 Club,” artists who died at that age like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Linda Jones, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse. Johnson and Jones share another honor in the dark mythology of rock and roll. Their circumstances of their deaths are shrouded with unanswered questions. Johnson may have been poisoned. Jones may have been intentionally drowned. Both left legacies which influence artists to this very day. The same can be said of the lingering questions.

Brian Jones founded the Rolling Stones and came up with the band’s name. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote the songs, but Jones brought them together. While Jones’ official cause of death is listed as “misadventure,” many believe it was homicide. Conspiracy theories vary from alleged ties to Princess Margaret to lingering gossip about satanic sacrifice. There was a deathbed confession, and rumors of cover-ups, most of which contradict each other and only add flavor to the beggars’ banquet of theories.

Brian Jones was born February 28, 1942, in Cheltenham, just shy of 100 miles from London, where he moved to jam with the city’s blues musicians after getting his girlfriend pregnant and dropping out of school at 17. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist from a musical family, Brian sometimes played under the name Elmo Lewis. He started a group called the Roosters with Paul Jones, who would go on to put the doo wahs to the diddy-diddies as the singer of the Manfred Mann Earth Band. When Brian left, he was replaced by budding guitar legend Eric Clapton.

Jones began the band which would challenge the Beatles in the yin yang loyalties of rock n’ roll fandom by placing an ad for musicians in Jazz News. After auditions, he hooked up with Ian “Stu” Stewart, Jagger and Richards, bassist Dick Taylor, keyboardist Ian Stewart and drummer Tony Chapman. The Rollin’ Stones’ first show was at London’s Marquee Club on July 12, 1962. By 1963, the jazz-influenced drummer Charlie Watts laid down beats Bill Wyman walked over on a homemade bass. Stu, looking too old to roll with the mod rockers, boogied in the background.

So What Did Brian Do?

Everyone knows Keith Richards came up with the riffs for “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and most people assume he came up with all the band’s signature licks. But Brian plays the recognizable hooks of “The Last Time,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” and “Mother’s Little Helper,” which he played on a 12-string with a slide, not on a sitar. He did play the sitar on “Paint It Black,” along with the droning tambura, and “Street Fighting Man.” 

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Brian was a notorious blues purist who had nothing but disdain for pop music. Keith thought guitar leads reached their pinnacle when Chuck Berry duck-walked his Gibson across a stage. While Keith handled most leads, neither player was the official lead guitarist in the band because they developed a style based on the “guitar weaving” they learned from Jimmy Reed records. Jones played the lead on “Tell Me,” the main guitar lines on “Get Off My Cloud” and the backward guitar solo on “2000 Light Years From Home” off the 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request

Jones was a master slide guitarist, who put the stinging slide lead on the Rolling Stones’ version of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written just for the band, as well as “I’m a King Bee,” and “I’m Movin’ On.” His slide playing may have reached its pinnacle on “No Expectations.”

Some of Brian’s most recognizable contributions to the Stones’ weren’t on guitar. He tapped the distinctive marimba line on “Under My Thumb,” and plays piano and the recorder on “Ruby Tuesday.”  Brian put the sax leads on his own band’s “Child of the Moon,” and “Citadel,” and the oboe solo in “Dandelion.” While Mick is known as the Rolling Stones’ harmonica player, Jones wrapped his lips around the tiny reed instrument on songs like “Come On,” “Stoned,” “Not Fade Away,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Now I’ve Got A Witness,” “Dear Doctor,” and “Prodigal Son.” By the time of the 1966 album Aftermath, Jones added played dulcimer, koto, mellotron, theremin and kazoo to his instrumental repertoire. He played the distinctive mellotron riff on “She’s a Rainbow,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Citadel,” and “We Love You,” which also featured his horn parts. It was the last single the band put out before Mick and Keith were jailed and featured Lennon and McCartney on backing vocals. 

Most sources say Brian became self and over-indulgent, retreating from the other Stones in the studio, but he indulged in some prime time extracurricular pleasures. He played oboe on the Beatles’ “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” and alto saxophone on their single “You Know My Name.” He can also be heard playing percussion on Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” and sitar on his songs “My Little One” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With That.”

Stray Cat Muse

Jones was not a natural songwriter. According to the other Stones, he started countless pieces, but never presented the band with a finished song. The songs credited to “Nanker/Phelge” were the ones the whole band, plus their manager Andrew Oldham, wrote. Singer Marianne Faithfull said Jones brought an early version of “Ruby Tuesday” to the group which he finalized with Richards. The two guitarists also co-wrote the 1966 instrumental song “Hear It.” Jones gets co-writing credits for a 30-second jingle for “Rice Krispies” put together with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency which the Rolling Stones recorded. Oldham tried to put Jones together with rock and roll songwriter Gene Pitney, who wrote “He’s a Rebel” for the Crystals, “Hello Mary Lou” for Ricky Nelson, and wrote and recorded the title song for the 1961 movie Town Without Pity and the hit “Only Love Can Break a Heart” for himself. But the pair didn’t finish any songs during the sessions.

In 1966 Jones composed, produced, and played – with guitarist Jimmy Page, pianist Nicky Hopkins, and Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones – the soundtrack to Mord und Totschlag (A Degree Of Murder), an avant-garde German film with Anita Pallenberg. The German-Italian actress and former Andy Warhol fifteen-minute maid appeared in movies like Barbarella and Candy, which featured Ringo Starr in a supporting role. Pallenberg also played the dark half of Mick Jagger’s character’s fantasia in Donald Cammel’s film Performance, and might have had an affair with Mick during filming. Although, to be fair, any sex between them might just have been part of the film.The lines blurred on set, as much as Anita’s role in the Stones blurred as they fell under her influence. 

read more: The Occult Influences of Sympathy for the Devil

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Pallenberg met the Stones after a concert in Munich in the mid-sixties when Jones was still the leader and made more money than his band mates. She went on to inform the persona of the band itself. Her sense of fashion led the band from jeans and suede jackets to ruffled shirts and fur coats, jewelry and makeup. Pallenberg, more than Andrew Loog Odham, turned the blues musicians into rock stars. Keith said he couldn’t even smoke hash before a show until he got a taste of her personal stash. Anita, who can be heard hoo-hooing the background chants on “Sympathy for the Devil,” was a notorious practitioner of black magic who kept garlic on hand to ward off vampires long before the Stones’ decided to Let It Bleed. The band remixed Beggar’s Banquet because the actress who played The Great Tyrant in the film Barbarella thought it could sound better.

“The wicked Anita,” Marianne Faithfull wrote in her 1994 autobiography, Faithfull, “was one of the most incredible women I’d met in my life. Dazzling, beautiful, hypnotic and unsettling. Her smile—those carnivorous teeth!—obliterated everything. Other women evaporated next to her.” Jones got a whiff of Pallenberg’s hashish and amyl nitrate, kicked his then-girlfriend and their baby out of their Chelsea apartment and moved Anita in. “The first time I saw Anita my obvious reaction was ‘What the fuck is a chick like that doing with Brian,’” Richards told Victor Bockris for his book Keith Richards: The Biography. “Anita’s incredibly strong, a much stronger personality than Brian, more confident, with no reservations, whereas Brian was full of doubts.”

Anita and Brian were the most swinging Londoners on King’s Road or Carnaby Street. “We’d stay up all night and go to Stonehenge at dawn. You’d be in your satin miniskirt out in the middle of nowhere,” Anita Pallenberg recalled. The pair were virtually twins. Inseparable, they dressed alike, and began to look alike. She introduced Brian to lipstick, fashion and S&M. But they fought about everything. Brian hit Anita and she hit back. “The one woman in the world you did not want to try and beat up on was Anita Pallenberg,” Richards remembered in his biography Life.

Brian was abusive and jealous. After the 1967 Mars Bar drug bust at Redlands, Richards’ house in Sussex, the three of them went to Marrakesh to chill out. After Brian broke his hand on Anita’s  face in Morocco, she left him for Keith while Brian was convalescing in a hospital in Toulon, France. Keith later said Anita made a man of him. They also explored similar sexual and mystical extravagances. Anita and Richards dropped acid with Gram Parsons and looked for UFOs in Joshua Tree. While filming Candy, Marlon Brando kidnapped Anita for an evening of sex and poetry, and invited Keith to join them. Keith and Anita named their first son Marlon. The couple had three children during their 13 years together. Richards still considered Anita a friend when he married Patty Hansen in 1983. But the effect on Jones was devastating. 


Blue Turns to Grey

Jones’ last official appearance as a Rolling Stone was in the December 1968 musical carnival The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. The film which wasn’t released for 25 years because the Stones didn’t feel their performances were up to their usual standard. Jethro Tull, the Who, and Taj Mahal all performed song. John Lennon threw together a supergroup to perform his Beatles blues satire “Yer Blues.” Lennon’s band, the Dirty Mac, included Cream guitarist Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell, and Keith Richards on bass. Bill Wyman complained about this in his 1997 book A Stone Alone, but Richards had a tendency during this period to be more musically assaultive. Jones’ performance in the film has been criticized, but his playing is on. He isn’t playing guitar on “Sympathy for the Devil” because he’s not on the recording, Wyman’s not on the recording either. Richards is playing bass.

Much has been written about Jones’ descent into drugs and decadence, and how that affected his relationship with the band, but drugs also played a part in group unity. Twenty cops dropped in unannounced, except maybe to the Beatles’ George Harrison, at Richards’ place for the infamous Redlands Drug Bust on February 12, 1967. Richards had dropped acid, along with Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who famously greeted the cops nude but for a fur rug. The cops were tipped off by the tabloids which spun the item as an orgy, with a few sordid details about a Mars candy bar being used to further oral stimulation. Richards and Jagger’s trial and incarceration became a galvanizing flash point in the rock and roll and counterculture legend. The Who stood with the band by quickly producing and releasing a single covering “The Last Time” and “Under My Thumb.” William Rees-Mogg of London’s The Times asked who breaks a butterfly on a wheel? The Beatles sang backup on the single the Stones would release before Mick and Keith were locked up, “We Love You.” Band manager Oldham left the country after the bust, opening the door for the Allen Klein managerial takeover.

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read more: Beatles vs. Stones and Two Unmade Stanley Kubrick Movies

Jones was arrested May 10, 1967, after cops found marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine at his place. He was arrested again on May 21, 1968, for possession of cannabis. Jones said it was left there by the people who used to rent the apartment, but he was on probation. The jury found him guilty, but Jones got a lenient sentence of a fine and court costs, and a warning never to get in trouble again. The bust did affect Jones’ standing with the group because his record would keep him from playing on The Rolling Stones 1969 American tour, the band’s first in three years.

Jones reportedly only occasionally showed up for rehearsals and studio sessions, and when he did plug in, a fellow bandmate might just turn off his amp. After a March 1969 session for the Let It Bleed album, Jones got the band’s Jaguar towed away by the cops after he left it on Pimlico Road. In May he drove his motorcycle into a shop window and was hospitalized under an alias. 

Let it Bleed was scheduled for a July 1969 release, and pianist Ian Stewart suggested the band add a new guitarist. 20-year-old Mick Taylor, formerly of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, began weaving guitars with Keith. Jones was told the band would carry on without him by Jagger, Richards and Charlie Watts on June 8, 1969. Jones released a statement the next day saying “I no longer see eye-to-eye with the others over the discs we are cutting.” After being sacked, Jones got in touch with Alexis Korner, Ian Stewart, John Lennon, Mitch Mitchell, and Jimmy Miller about putting a band together. He made demos of the songs “Has Anybody Seen My Baby?” and “Chow Time.”

Jones’ last photo session with the Rolling Stones was taken on May 21, 1969, and became the cover for album Through The Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2), which came out in September 1969. Brian’s image is completely shattered in the back cover where the mirror cracks. He is also the right bottom of the five-pointed star configuration the band is laying in on the insert photo. Neither of these details raise it to the level of damnable evidence for the conspiracy theory positing Brian Jones was killed in a ritual sacrifice.

Can I Get a Witness?

The accepted rock and roll storyline surrounding Jones’ ultimate demise is he collapsed into himself. Made paranoid by drugs he was too frail to deal with, Jones lost his bandleader mantle to Jagger, his girlfriend to Richards, and his asthma inhaler by the side of a pool. One reported but unsubstantiated accusation alleges Jagger and Richards were on Jones’ farm to get him to hand over the name the Rolling Stones. Discussions got heated, according to the allegation, and Keith pulled a knife on Jones. The claim was made by Jan Bell, the daughter of Frank Thorogood, the man who confessed on his deathbed to drowning Jones in November 1993. The man he confessed to, the band’s former chauffeur Tom Keylock, is also a suspect in Jones’ death.

Brian drowned in a swimming pool at his house in East Sussex, the former residence of A.A. Milne, who wrote the Winnie the Pooh books. Circumstances are vague in spite of testimony, a coroner’s inquest, and sensational coverage by the London press. Former Rolling Stone editor Robert Greenfield, who lived with Richards in the South of France while the band was recording Exile On Main Street, said the guitarist told him he could never even find out who was at Brian’s place on the night he was killed. 

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read more: Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request Not Just Sgt. Pepper Copy

On the night of his death, Jones and his then-girlfriend, 21-year-old Anna Wohlin, threw a small party with Thorogood, who was doing repairs on the house, and 22-year-old nurse Jenny Lawson. Shortly after midnight Brian was found at the bottom of the pool by Lawson. Artificial respiration attempts were made by Wohlin, and again by the ambulance attendants. Brian Jones was dead by the time a doctor arrived. Wohlin reportedly told a coroner an asthma inhaler was found at the edge of the pool.

Coroner Angus Sommerville ruled Jones died was the result of “drowning by immersion in fresh water associated with severe liver dysfunction caused by fatty degeneration and ingestion of alcohol and drugs.” The pathology report found pep pills, sleeping tablets, and alcohol in his bloodstream. The autopsy revealed Jones’ liver was twice the normal weight. The inquest concluded the death was caused by “misadventure.” The Rolling Stones’ manager Allen Klein didn’t trust the British police investigation and launched his own. Home Office records were sealed for 40 years.

Two 1994 books, Paint it Black: The Murder of Brian Jones by Geoffrey Giuliano, and Who Killed Christopher Robin? by Terry Rawlings claim Jones was murdered by Thorogood. “It was me that did Brian. I just finally snapped,” Thorogood told Tom Keylock, the band’s former chauffeur, according to Rawlings’s book. Giuliano’s book, which was commissioned by Richard Branson, says Thorogood accidentally held Jones underwater too long while horsing around in the pool during horseplay, according to Giuliano. It also claims  Keylock “stood at the edge of the pool calling the shots while his thugs held Brian under.”

Sam Cutler, the guy in the Stones documentary Gimme Shelter who tries to control the Hells Angels at the Altamont concert in 1969, said Keylock acted suspiciously after the death. He took things out of the house, or destroyed things. Brian Jones Fan Club chairman Trevor Hobley published a claim that a neighbor saw a large bonfire on Jones’ property the morning after the drowning. Cutler was also questioned by Klein’s investigators. His alibi held up because he was setting up the band’s upcoming free concert in Hyde Park. Cutler’s theory was supported by Mandy Aftel’s 1982 book Death of a Rolling Stone: The Brian Jones Story. The Thorogood theory was dramatized in the 2005 movie Stoned

Keylock was never formally interviewed by the police. He died on July 2, 2009, two days before Klein died in New York at age 77. Police reportedly reviewed their investigation into Jones’ death in 2009.

Hyde Park

After rehearsing at the Beatles’ Apple recording studio on Savile Row, the Rolling Stones played the free concert in Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, two days after Jones’ death. Scheduled as an introduction for new guitarist Taylor, the event became a dedication to Jones. King Crimson and Alexis Korner’s New Church opened. Jagger read excerpts from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Adonais,” written about the death of John Keats. “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he does not sleep—He has awakened from the dream of life — ‘Tis we who, lost in stormy visions, Keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife,” it reads. “We decay like corpses in a charnel; Fear and grief convulse us and consume us day by day And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.” The band released 3,500 butterflies to flutter over the audience. Rolling Stone reported many of them died in the cages. Charlie Watts likened it to WWI’s Battle of the Somme.

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Watts and Wyman were the only Rolling Stones who attended Brian Jones’ funeral. Jagger was filming Ned Kelly in Australia. “I wasn’t understanding enough about his drug addiction,” Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “No one seemed to know much about drug addiction. Things like LSD were all new. No one knew the harm. People thought cocaine was good for you.” Taylor and Richards mingled guitars together through the albums Exile on Main StreetSticky FingersGoat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It). He was replaced by Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood in 1975. Wyman quit the Stones in the 90s. 

Jones was buried in Cheltenham Cemetery. According to reports, he was buried in an air-tight metal casket ten feet underground so he wouldn’t be exhumed by fans. Some of Jones’ greatest admirers were his fellow musicians, who owed him musical debts only trained ears could hear. The Who’s Pete Townshend, who hoped to die before he got old, wrote a poem titled “A Normal Day for Brian, A Man Who Died Every Day” after Jones’ death. The Doors’ Jim Morrison published the poem “Ode to L.A. While Thinking of Brian Jones, Deceased. “Jimi Hendrix dedicated a song to Brian during a television appearance. Hendrix and Morrison both died in the next two years. 

It’s a drag getting old, anyway.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.