Open G tunings and open secrets

Pretty ThingsHistory, they say, is written by the victors. And often victors write their history in outrageous contradiction of facts that are there, on the record, glaring and obvious.

This is the case with the history of the Rolling Stones – and it’s a history that’s been largely unchanged for the last 30 years. Nearly all the books out there on the band recycle old “truths”, old stories, without attempting to investigate whether they’re correct. With Sympathy For The Devil, I set out to re examine the old stories, to research the history of the band from scratch. I found countless new facts, and obvious errors, so much so that at one point I consciously cut out references to previous accounts that got the story wrong – it simply became too repetitiive.

Some of the truth is hiding in plain sight – it’s undeniable, when laid out in front of you. This became obvious during one of my first interviews for Sympathy For The Devil, with the Stones’ first bassist Dick Taylor, later a founder of the Pretty Things. Together with accounts from Geoff Bradford, who rehearsed with the embryonic band, and Rick Brown, aka Ricky Fenson, who played bass after Dick returned to college, this was enough to clarify and rewrite much of the band’s early history. Other witnesses, including James Phelge and Dick Hattrell, plus many other friends from 1962, helped me establish a whole new mood and chronology for the band’s formative year. Dick helped with that, but he also provided a new, startling insight, of a truth that has been staring us in the face for years. Here’s a snippet of Dick’s interview, to give some of the feel of the early Stones, which closes with this new fact.

So, in those early days, Brian could be almost manic depressive?

“Yes. He’d get down. There was alittle bit of that. In those days we’d say moody, but there was a sort of bipolar-ness to him.”

When he was miserable, how was he? Difficult? Withdrawn?

“He was just a bit quieter, and more miserable. As for all of us, we didn’t know who does know what the hell’s gonna happen, there we are just about being able to afford to get to London, to rehearse at the Bricklayers [Arms], with no real proper equipment…”

But that situation was more extreme with Brian, wasn’t it? He was the one who had burnt his boats.

“In a way, yes. Although he was working at the Civil Service Stores.”

So that bad side of Brian,wasn’t him being nasty, it was simply him being down?

“Yes. He’d get down a bit. You could see there wasn’t.. that you wouldn’t wanna have a row with Brian properly – but there weren’t any rows to speak of.” [Dick went on to explain more of the dynamics of the band, and how that all changed with the advent of Andrew Oldham, by 1964. Dick also verified that he had defintely played rehearsals with Charlie Watts on drums, and gigs with Ginger Baker on drums].

Keith said in Life that Ian was the key musician in the early band, and hardly mentions Brian in those Bricklayers Arms rehearsals. Was that how it was for you?

“It’s really difficult to say… how do you equate that? Unless one person’s so terrible you can’t go on. Ian certainly could do his thing. But Brian maybe was further down the road than us, more cutting edge. One of the things he did really well was, he was much further on in terms of his knowledge of Robert Johnson, and Elmore, and slide playing.” [Incidentally, from other accounts, Brian was also much further down the road in terms of harmonica playing, and other aspects].

And obviously there was very little knowledge of slide and open tunings around, in 1962, was there?

“No, there wasn’t.  And I know one thing came from him, the thing with Keith playing Open G tuning, whatever anyone says, I know where he got it from. The Open G tuning definitely came from [Brian’s] direction. It was definitely not from Ry Cooder. Keith certainly knew of that tuning and had watched Brian play it. He certainly knew all about it. ”

Really? Because Keith told me how Brian was an Open D and E guy, and how it was Ry played Open G.

“Keith said that? really? Because I remember open G tuning from Brian. That really is interesting. I certainly can swear, I learned that tuning while talking to Brian. Because Muddy [Waters] definitely did use Open G for some songs, like Feel Like Going Home and I Can’t Be Satisfied and I’m sure Brian worked those out and used to play them.”

So, there we have it. In Life, and elsewhere, Keith spends much time talking about Open G tuning (which he used without a slide), talking about its tonality, its country feel, how it transformed his life. Today, everyone understands how Open G tuning works, but as Dick Taylor and many others comment, in 1962 this was rare, precious knowledge.

 

If Taylor was correct, I thought, this was an amazing revelation – not just that Brian was a pioneer in working out this tuning, but in the fact that Keith Richards has spent decades describing how he learned it from anoother guitarist . Yet it turns out that Dick’s is not an unverifiable recollection – his story is confirmed by the Stones own live dates, and recordings! There are rehearsal lists that show Brian playing Feel Like Going Home – and, incredibly, the Stones’ own recordings show Brian Jones playing Open G tuning, a tuning he showed Keith Richards in 1962. Listen to I Can’t Be Satisfied, and there it is.

I Can’t Be Satisfied is a symbolic song in Brian Jones’s life. It demonstrated his mastery of the early Stones, how he taught his fellows lessons that they still use today. Yet the title of the song also embodies the troubles of Brian Jones, for he was indeed a man who was never satisfied.

So, there we have it. It was another Stones insider, Andrew Oldham, who said “I only remember what I want to remember.” Why does Keith, who so rarely mentions Brian in a positive light, go out of the way to credit an outsider, rather than Brian, for his own trademark tuning, when Brian’s use of that tuning is on the record, literally, both on vinyl and CD?

Is Keith’s mis-remembering, or mis-representation, of an incontrovertible fact, evidence that Brian was a particularly horrible person? Or that he was a particularly important, influential person? I believe the answer, in Sympathy For The Devil, is also incontrovertible.

 

“Keith’s Open G tuning, whatever anyone says, I know where he got it from. Open G tuning definitely came from Brian.” Dick Taylor.

Dick Taylor

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