New film examines tragic erasure of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones: 'To be in competition with someone like Mick Jagger — well, you're not going to win.'

The Rolling Stones circa 1964: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts. (Stanley Bielecki/ASP/Getty Images)
The Rolling Stones circa 1964: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts. (Stanley Bielecki/ASP/Getty Images) (Stanley Bielecki/ASP via Getty Images)

On July 3, 1969, the Rolling Stones’ founder and original leader, Brian Jones, became an inaugural member of the notorious “27 Club,” when he drowned in his swimming pool at Cotchford Farm in Hartfield, England. His death quickly became fodder for some of rock ‘n’ roll’s wildest urban legends. The most enduring conspiracy theory — that he was murdered by handyman Frank Thorogood — was dramatized in the 2005 biopic Stoned, while a 1994 book titled Paint It Black: The Murder of Brian Jones implicated a second suspect, Stones chauffeur Tom Keylock. Thorogood’s daughter even once claimed that Stones guitarist Keith Richards had killed Jones over the rights to the band’s name. Jones’s own daughter, Barbara Marion, has long believed that foul play was involved, even though the coroner’s original verdict was “death by misadventure” and a reopening of the case in 2009 proved inconclusive.

Unfortunately, over the years, the rampant mystery and speculation surrounding Jones’s shocking death has become his dominant legacy. Many younger music fans are unaware of just how crucial the multi-instrumentalist was to the Stones — that the band quite literally never would have existed without him.

“Everybody thinks it was Mick and Keith’s band. But it was Brian’s band,” original Stones bassist Bill Wyman told Yahoo Entertainment while promoting his documentary The Quiet One in 2019. “I’ve always spent quite a bit of time explaining that Brian was the person that created the Rolling Stones in the beginning. He chose the music. He chose the name. He was the leader. He signed all the recording contracts, the management contracts, all kinds of things.”

'There was no foul play'

Now filmmaker Nick Broomfield has made his own documentary examining Jones’s tragic and largely forgotten story, The Stones and Brian Jones. One might expect that the director of Biggie & Tupac (which suggested that the rappers’ shootings were arranged by Death Row Records’ Suge Knight) and Kurt & Courtney (which investigated Courtney Love’s rumored involvement in the death of her husband, 27 Club member Kurt Cobain) would have delved into the above-mentioned Jones murder theories. But Broomfield, a lifelong Stones fan who randomly met Jones on a train at age 14 and never forgot the surprisingly sweet encounter, has instead focused on other misunderstandings about the complex and deeply flawed musician — because, after doing his own investigation, the filmmaker “absolutely didn't believe” that Jones was killed.

“I read all the books. I talked to various people. Bill Wyman was absolutely clear that there was no foul play. Brian was in such a state that you didn’t need to kill him — it was going to happen,” Broomfield tells Yahoo Entertainment. “There was so much confusion around that whole [Thorogood] conspiracy theory. It was so messy. I wasn’t going to go into it and then waste a lot of time just rejecting it. Making these kinds of films, you have to trust your instincts about people and theories. And this one felt very wooly.”

'The Stones and Brian Jones' poster 2023. (Magnolia Films)
The Stones and Brian Jones poster. (Magnolia Films)

The 'most intelligent' Stone

Jones formed and led the “Rollin' Stones,” initially a blues and R&B covers band, in 1962, but he became estranged from his bandmates after Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham encouraged lead singer Mick Jagger to step out as the flamboyant frontman and pen original songs with Richards. “One of the things that Bill says is when Andrew became the manager, he actively stopped the press from talking to Brian, himself and Charlie, and just pushed Keith and Mick. He wanted them to be like Paul [McCartney] and John [Lennon],” says Broomfield. “He modeled himself much on what [the Beatles’ manager] Brian Epstein had done. So, Brian [Jones] was purposely put out of the main light.” The Stones and Brian Jones investigates how this marginalization contributed to Jones’s mental decline, leading to his increased use drug and alcohol and eventual demise.

“Brian desperately wanted the approval of lots of people, including his parents,” says Broomfield. “It was very important to him to be seen as the leader and the founder of the band, to have that recognized all the time. He couldn’t just sort of move over easily for Mick and Keith, who were the natural leaders once they’d written things like ‘Satisfaction.’ So, instead of saying, ‘Oh, this is great,’ Brian went around saying he hated ‘Satisfaction’! He was very insecure and felt very inadequate that he wasn’t able to write songs as great as they were writing. And to be in competition with someone like Mick Jagger — well, you’re not going to win. It was very tough on him.”

A wide-eyed Wyman, who in his 2019 Yahoo interview called Jones “brilliant musically” and the “most intelligent” Stone, appears a great deal in Broomfield’s film, evangelizing Jones’s virtuosity and excitedly playing rarities and isolated tracks for an amazed Broomfield. (Among the many instruments Jones played, besides guitar, were harmonica, sitar, organ, recorder, cello, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, oboe, autoharp, flute and glockenspiel.) “I’d never seen Bill like that before,” Broomfield says of his time with the Stones bassist. “That interview happened completely by chance. I actually shot it on my phone, because he didn’t really want a big camera and stuff. It just sort of happened in such a casual way. His enthusiasm is childlike and so passionate. You can see exactly why he was a Stone and what he loved about the Stones, and how proud he is that they were doing something completely new and treading a whole new path.”

An early potrait of the Rolling Stones, June 1963. Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns via Getty Images)
An early portrait of the Rolling Stones from June 1963. (Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns via Getty Images) (Mark and Colleen Hayward via Getty Images)

'Too many egos'

However, as the Stones’ path veered from their original blues origins in the mid-’60s, Jones became more troubled and isolated. While it’s easy to ponder what might have been — what sort of career or discography the band would have had if Jones had lived and remained in the lineup — Broomfield says Jagger’s ex-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull “put it very well in the film: She said if [the Stones] hadn’t killed Brian, he would’ve killed them. … Too many egos. I guess that’s what happens in a lot of bands.”

The year 1967 marked the true beginning of the end for Jones, when he not only was arrested twice for drug possession but his own It Girl girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, left him for Richards. (“That was a little confirmation that he was losing on all fronts,” Broomfield says of the Pallenberg breakup.) Jones’s increasingly erratic behavior and substance abuse over the next two years eventually resulted in him being ousted from the Stones during the making of their 10th album, Let It Bleed. (His last official appearance with the band was in December 1968, in the notorious concert film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, which remained unreleased until 1996.)

Less than a month after he was fired by the band he created, Jones was dead. And just two days after his death, the Stones actually proceeded with their already-scheduled free concert in London’s Hyde Park, which introduced Jones’s replacement, Mick Taylor. The event, which was attended by half a million people — including Broomfield — turned into a Jones memorial of sorts. But when stagehands attempted to release 3,500 white butterflies in tribute, Broomfield recalls the witnessing a sad spectacle that was not only emblematic of the delicate Jones’s quick rise and fall, but “symbolized the end of the ’60s.”

“They got all these enormous boxes of butterflies, and of course they’d never looked after butterflies before, so that’s why all the butterflies didn’t really fly. They just flopped down dead on the stage, instead of what was supposed to be this wonderful shower of butterflies like confetti flying. [The butterflies] were so hot and they had no water, and they were being kept under the stage just too long,” says Broomfield. “It was just complete chaos, with the band playing really badly, a kind of a cataclysmic event where nobody really knew what was going on.”

Brian Jones in the mid-'60s. (Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Brian Jones in the mid-'60s. (Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images) (Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

Watts and Wyman were the only two Stones who attended Jones’s actual funeral, and while Broomfield insists that he doesn’t want to dwell on “some awful competition between Mick and Keith and Brian,” he does note with some chagrin that Jones was “barely talked about in the Stones’ 60th anniversary [celebrations],” reinforcing the widely held falsehood that “Mick and Keith formed the Stones.” When asked if he thinks Jagger has ever felt any contrition over Jones’s treatment in 1969 and erasure in the decades since, he answers bluntly, “Surprisingly, not really.” But he adds, “I think there's a lot of pain from Keith, because they were pretty good buddies at various times. Brian showed Keith a lot of the interweaving stuff with the guitar, at the beginning. Bill talks about how it was so freezing in the flat they all shared and how they would be in their overcoats in bed, playing these interweaving notes. They were very, very, very close. So, I can imagine it was very, very difficult for Keith — particularly with the whole girlfriend [Pallenberg] thing as well.”

'Brian’s imperfections really contributed to his own demise'

Jones’s romances were as tumultuous and doomed as his relationships with his bandmates and his disapproving mother and father. Pallenberg left him for Richards after he was physically abusive, and The Stones and Brian Jones reveals that he fathered multiple children out of wedlock and then cruelly abandoned his children’s mothers, one after the other. Broomfield admits that it was “really quite difficult to get it right” when telling the story of such an often unsympathetic character — “to not try and make him out to be a saint when he’s absolutely not, and to understand where it might’ve come from and go into his imperfections as well.”

UNSPECIFIED - 1st JANUARY: English guitarist and member of The Rolling Stones Brian Jones (1942 - 1969) posed backstage in 1965. (Photo by Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns)
Brian Jones posed backstage in 1965. (Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns) (Mark and Colleen Hayward via Getty Images)

Broomfield explains: “Obviously Brian’s imperfections really contributed to his own demise, and a lot of it, I think, came from growing up in a very repressive environment, with very religious and overachieving parents. I think part of being a narcissist — which he probably was — was he was also full of self-loathing. So, he treated people, especially the people who liked him, incredibly badly. It's like he had no respect for people who loved him. So, I think rather than judging him, as one can so easily do, it's a lot more interesting to understand his really complicated, contradictory makeup. And that was a challenge. … But what I love about making these films is not going in with some prejudgment, and really spending the time to see lots of different things. So, I went through periods of thinking he was absolutely the worst person, and then other people would tell me a completely different side of him, in a very loving way. I realized that it was much more complicated. It wasn't a neat story at all.”

In the end, Broomfield still personally remembers Jones as “this very beautiful golden-haired boy” with “a magic to him.” And he believes that the original public face of the band — the surliest and sauciest in interviews, the most nattily dressed, the most lushly coiffed, the one that Greil Marcus described as “an embodiment of the [Stones’] music itself” in a 1969 obituary for Rolling Stone magazine — still has an influence on the Stones, who just released their 24th studio album, Hackney Diamonds.

The Rolling Stones posed in 1968, clockwise from top left: Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards. (Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns via Getty Images)
The Rolling Stones posed in 1968, clockwise from top left: Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards. (Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns via Getty Images) (Mark and Colleen Hayward via Getty Images)

“As irritating as Brian was — and I’m sure he was really irritating — I think he gave them something special and he gave them that edge. I think he was the most edgy,” says Broomfield. “He was the one who had the completely out-of-control life. He was the one who started wearing women’s clothes and put mascara on his eyes first and was really out-there — maybe as a rebellion against this very establishment upbringing he’d had. And that really stayed with the Stones. You can see how Mick and Keith adopted that. A lot of that came from Brian. He that crazy side of him, but they were much more in control than he was, so they were able to develop it.

“This guy had an amazing vision of the band he wanted to create. He brought an amazing, edgy talent to the Stones, which they still have today. And even though he had a very miserable, dark side to him, he also had a lot of light,” Broomfield concludes. “So, we shouldn't judge people out of hand. He was a complex guy who needs a second thought; most of us do. And that’s what I would like to leave people with.”

The Rolling Stones in 1968. (Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns via Getty Images)
The Rolling Stones in 1968. (Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns via Getty Images) (Mark and Colleen Hayward via Getty Images)

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