Brian Jones was rapidly fading by the end of 1968. He was rarely present at sessions conducted by The Rolling Stones, often caught in a haze of drug addiction and mental instability. When he did show up, most of the time his contributions were left on the cutting room floor. On his final album with the band, 1969’s Let It Bleed, Jones doesn’t even play the guitar. Instead, he played congas and autoharp that barely factor into the album’s final mix. By the time Let It Bleed came out in December of 1969, Jones had already been dead for five months.
A year before Let It Bleed, the Stones released Beggars Banquet, an album specifically inspired by American roots music. It kicked back at the wildly uneven psychedelia of their previous album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and signalled a new path forward for the band. That rarely included Jones, who was beginning his downward spiral around this time. Although his contributions included the Indian instrumentation on ‘Street Fighting Man’ and the bluesy harmonica work on ‘Dear Doctor’, his final major offering was the hauntingly beautiful slide guitar on ‘No Expectations’.
“That’s Brian playing [the slide guitar],” Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. “We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mikes. That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing.”
To promote the new album, the Stones hatched an ambitious idea: a three-ringed circus, featuring performances from themselves and their contemporaries. The proceedings would be filmed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and released as a TV special on the BBC in time for Christmas. Although they performed to the best of their ability at the time, the Stones were noticeably ragged and clearly upstaged by the likes of The Who, with the Rock and Roll Circus footage subsequently being shelved for three decades.
Jones was in the worst state of them all, seemingly disconnected from most of the performance and largely inaudible in the final mix. There were even rumours that Jones’ amplifier had been switched off without him even noticing, but for one song, the old slide guitar genius of Brian Jones was fully audible in all its glory. Appropriately, it was on ‘No Expectations’.
Along with gentle piano work from Nicky Hopkins and high strums from Keith Richards, Jones carries most of the song on his shoulders, weaving in and out of Jagger’s lead vocals lines with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion and melancholy that was reflective of his real-life state. Still, there’s plenty of skill involved, proving that Jones wasn’t vegetative and unresponsive in his days with the band. He just simply wasn’t in tune with the band anymore.
A series of car crashes, legal troubles, and personal issues on Jones’ behalf was the major obstacle standing between the Stones and an American tour in 1969. The band’s founder, road manager, and pianist Ian Stewart was the one who finally convinced the others that it was time to let Jones go. On June 8th, Jagger, Richards, and Charlie Watts visited Jones to tell him he was out of the band. Less than a month later, Jones drowned at the bottom of his pool.
See the performance, below.