Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones’ troubled but gifted guitarist and blues maven, made a few attempts to find life outside the celebrated rock & roll band. One nearly forgotten project was the composition of soundtrack music for a 1967 German film called A Degree of Murder (Mord und Totschlag), starring his then girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg. Richie Unterberger talked with the film’s director, Volker Schlöndorff, about trials and tribulations of working with Brian and Anita.
Brian Jones might be the most famous rock musician not to have sung lead vocals, played lead guitar, or written any songs. He did apparently try composing material but doesn’t have any songwriting credits on Rolling Stones records. Even the one quasi-Brian Jones solo album, the posthumous Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, is music he produced, rather than performed.
However, some of his composition did find commercial release—just not on a musical disc. You’ll have a hard time hearing it, as it’s the soundtrack to a film that few people saw at the time of its 1967 release, and few have seen since then. There’s not much music in the movie, and while he did play some of it, he needed a lot of help to even get that far.
The opportunity for Jones to play and write material outside of the Rolling Stones arrived when his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, landed the starring role in the German film A Degree of Murder (also known as Mord und Totschlag). Acting on a recommendation from German photographer Werner Bokelberg, director Volker Schlöndorff shot a screen test with Pallenberg. As he told Laura Jackson in Golden Stone: The Untold Life and Tragic Death of Brian Jones, “Before it was even developed, I knew that we’d do this together, even although she’d never done movie work and ducked down when she had to cross in front of the camera on the first shooting day.”
Schlöndorff quickly became friends with Jones when Brian and Anita stayed in Volker’s Munich flat while the film was made in late 1966. Asked what he knew about Jones’s music, the director now admits with a chuckle, “Quite frankly, nothing at all. I only knew that he was with the Rolling Stones.”
When “they were staying at my apartment in Munich,” Schlöndorff continues in our January conversation, “he had a number of instruments with him, and I could see that he was involved in music all the time. Not exactly composing, but fiddling around, trying things out. It was obvious that he was obsessed enough with music, and involved enough in music, that there was no question in my mind that he could do [the soundtrack].”
Asked what he knew about Jones’s music, the director now admits with a chuckle, “Quite frankly, nothing at all. I only knew that he was with the Rolling Stones.”
A Degree of Murder is an odd film, and not nearly as impressive as the most celebrated the still-active Schlöndorff would go on to make in subsequent decades, such as The Tin Drum (1979), The Lost Honor of Katharine Blum (1975), and The Legend of Rita (2000). The plot of the film, such as it was: Without intending to kill, Pallenberg shoots a boyfriend who’s trying to forcibly resume their relationship in her apartment. Most of the movie is then spent arranging to dispose of the body without reporting to the authorities, Anita enlisting help from a couple shady young guys with whom she enjoys semi-flings. It’s all done rather matter-of-factly, without much in the way of suspense or ambiguity. As Schlöndorff put it in Paul Trynka’s Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, “The picture was about the total absence of old values; an unresolved crime story, no redemption, no morals.”
There was still plenty of action for Jones to work with for constructing a score. What’s heard on the soundtrack, however, is more of a tantalizing taste than a full course. It’s certainly eclectic, combining bits of blues harmonica; classical-flavored recorder recalling his work on “Ruby Tuesday”; a country hoedown; distorted sitar; some almost classical orchestration, as well as a quasi-classical piano interlude; and bits of funereal organ, banjo, and cello. There’s even a bit of the blues boogie that recalls the very early Stones, and hard rock guitar with psychedelic overtones. Often the more experimental elements play off appositely jaunty themes. While it’s mostly instrumental, some faint vocals are very occasionally heard—so faint no lyrics can be decoded with certainty.
It’s eclectic, and reasonably effective. But it doesn’t feature many memorable riffs or themes, or strands that seem like they could have developed into full songs without a lot of additional work. And there’s actually not much, adding up to a little more than twenty minutes of music altogether. It would have been hard to assemble a full soundtrack LP without adding some recordings not heard in the film—as, of course, plenty of soundtrack albums do, though this wouldn’t happen with A Degree of Murder.
In the film’s official press release, Schlöndorff expressed great pleasure with the results. “Brian’s music has worked so marvelously,” he declared. “His special music fits the film wonderfully—and I do not think anyone but he could have done it. He visited Munich three times to see the film for timings etc.”Today Schlöndorff takes a more measured and realistic view of both the music and the process. “I’m not afraid to say that while there were very wonderful, as you say, eclectic moody moments, overall it was disappointing,” he tells me. “In the spotting”—when it’s determined where and for how long the music should be used—“we had timed for far more music. With the spotting still everything seemed okay. But by the time we got to the recording, he was in very poor shape, and had not prepared very much music. So whatever we have was kind of improvised in the studio, with just a few scribbled notes on paper he had.”
Was the director mostly disappointed because he wanted more? “Yes, of course,” he replies. “The little that was there worked fine. I would have liked to have more. And sometimes, what was there was very repetitive. It was sketchy.
The opening soundtrack for the film Mord Und Totschlag/A Degree Of Murder composed and produced by Brian Jones.
“He never really, as other film composers do…he didn’t really follow the action. Mind you, at the time, we didn’t have DVD nor VHS, so he could not have a video recorder on top of the piano. So you had to take notes while you did the spotting of the music at the cutting table, at the editing table. He didn’t do it, so I did it later and sent it to him. But he never really worked on the interaction between the picture and the music. We just had generally a feeling for the sequence, and a remembrance of that.
“So in that mood, he composed something or recorded something. It was not like when you score a sequence that you somehow follow the picture. It was like a random recording, covering more or less the length of the sequence.”
There was another issue accounting for part of Jones’s disorganization. Asked if Brian could have established himself as a composer with other projects, Schlöndorff clarifies, “As far as his talent and his feeling for music and film, absolutely. The problem was his drug problem at the time. He just couldn’t get his act together. That really happened between the shooting period, where he was kind of okay—that was probably September-October of 1966—and by February-March 1967, [when] we got to the recording. He must have had a major crisis in between.”
Jones needed a lot of help to get his ideas in usable shape, and he got it from an A-list of British rockers. Pitching in were Jimmy Page, Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones, and #1 UK rock session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins (who of course played on some classic Rolling Stones records). He also had the services of the country’s top rock engineer, Glyn Johns, who worked on numerous ‘60s Stones discs.
“I think the way he did it, he had a list of musicians he liked and were friends,” remembers Schlöndorff. “He called them up, some of them, into the studio, and then explained what the sequence was about. And they started to improvise. That’s why, in a sense, it’s happy that we had such good musicians who all enjoyed this kind of…there was not much pressure or anything. It was really like playing around.”
Brian himself “played a number of instruments, all the ones he always plays. A lot of sitar, but all kind of other instruments. Was there a flute, did he play a flute as well? I think that was him.” According to the official press release, he also played organ, dulcimer, autoharp, and harmonica. “I ran the gamut of lineups, from the conventional brass combination to a country band with Jew’s harp, violin and banjo,” stated Jones. “In the main the musicians were established session men—though some of the boys from the group also played.”
Jones needed a lot of help to get his ideas in usable shape, and he got it from an A-list of British rockers. Pitching in were Jimmy Page, Small Faces drummer Kenney Jones, and #1 UK rock session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins
Schlöndorff confirms other Stones helped out, including Keith Richards and “even Mick at some point. It was their studio, anyhow; they were working almost every night there. Keith really got into it, and not only played the guitar, but also kind of coordinated some of the other musicians, just so we get it done. He didn’t compose, he kind of helped to run the recording.”
Despite the difficulties in making the score suitable, some of the other musicians had good words for Brian’s work. “He was alert and was wonderful to deal with,” Kenney Jones remarked in Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones. “He was guiding me—I had to improvise a drum part. This was for a chase, around a playground I think, and I had to use a kind of emotional technique to fill in the blanks and get the excitement going.”
In Rolling Stone, Page recalled, “Brian knew what he was doing. It was quite beautiful. Some of it was made up at the time; some of it was stuff I was augmenting with him. I was definitely playing with the violin bow. Brian had this guitar that had a volume pedal—he could get gunshots with it. There was a Mellotron there. He was moving forward with ideas.”
Acknowledges Schlöndorff, “The quality of certain musicians like Nicky Hopkins was such that they could make the most of it. But it was much less not only than what I had expected, but less than what we had agreed upon when we spotted the music in the cutting room. Every note that was there, I tried to use. The problem was that there was not enough.”
Why didn’t she have more roles? “Because she was as lazy as Brian,” Schlöndorff laughs
A Degree of Murder has seldom been seen since its 1967 release, partly because of some complicated distribution issues, though Schlöndorff admits, “I do not consider it a good movie.” As he explains, someone from “Universal, who was in Paris, saw it there at a private screening, and he liked it so much because he liked Anita. There was some English actors at the time who were getting big, and they had these new wave British films. It was a time when there were movies with models in the main part.
“Very much to our own surprise, Universal bought the movie. Then they opened it in London or somewhere, and it didn’t work. So they dropped it, and that was it. In those cases, when a major studio buys a movie, that’s almost in perpetuity. That’s why we could never go back to it. The only thing we had [was] the German rights—not me, but the producer. But he didn’t do much with it either.
“The film generally was a flop. I remember it was playing in a movie theater in Frankfurt, and with Anita and Keith Richards, we went to the movie theater. We were almost the only audience. And, of course, it was in German. Keith didn’t mind. He said he enjoyed it,” Volker laughs.
Around the time of the film’s spring 1967 release, Pallenberg left Jones for Richards, with whom she’d stay for the next dozen or so years, the pair starting a family together.
“The tension between [Jones] and the Stones was building up already then,” Schlöndorff observes. “The split came when we were in Cannes, or in May ’67. That was eight weeks later [after the score was finished]. So it may have been in the air already. I think Anita really couldn’t tolerate his behavior anymore, and felt much safer with Keith. That was also part of the whole thing.”
Anita Pallenberg – Cannes 1967
Only in her mid-twenties at the time of A Degree of Murder, Pallenberg wouldn’t appear in many other films, though she co-starred with Mick Jagger in Performance and played the Black Queen in Roger Vadim’s 1968 science kitsch flick Barbarella. Why didn’t she have more roles? “Because she was as lazy as Brian,” Schlöndorff laughs. “She had absolutely no ambition whatsoever. I tried to make her work – no way. She was just lazy, laidback, period cool, and that was it.”
He agrees she was “very good” in Performance. “If you had her on the set and you could do something with her, it was okay. But by her own – like in Barbarella, you can see it. They had the same problem. Certain days, she would work, and try to deliver a performance. Other days, there was just nothing. Of course, [Performance co-director] Nic Roeg was good at handling her. Then he kept what he could use. We don’t know what else they shot.”
The soundtrack for A Degree of Murder has never been issued on disc, and not only because there might not be enough music to fill an LP. Was there more taped for consideration? “Certainly not,” says the director. “It has never come out. Which is strange, because it was such a long fight about the soundtrack and the publishing rights with Allen Klein. It was incredibly complicated to come to terms for that. But then it was never even released.
“But nobody seemed to be interested. I mean, there was a general understanding that it was too disappointing to publish. Maybe once you publish a score by Brian Jones—probably the only one—there would be high expectations. And obviously they were not fulfilled.”
There’s another obstacle to putting out the album, even as a Record Store Day EP or something similarly specialized. “This moron producer got rid of all the original music tapes, which we had preserved for years,” according to Schlöndorff. “He somehow emptied his basement and threw it all away. Unfortunately, that happens with movies more often than not.”
Unavailable for many years in home video format, A Degree of Murder has finally come out as a German Blu-ray, though it won’t play on most North American players. “The problem with this remastered DVD is that the picture is fine,” notes Schlöndorff. “But of course, they did not have the original magnetic sound tapes. So they had to take it from the optical sound. Which was a mono sound, and optical anyhow is not that good. So the sound quality is not very good.” Also, if an album was simply taken directly from the optical soundtrack, the music would often be faint and/or obscured by dialogue.
Schlöndorff’s relationship with the Rolling Stones and their music, incidentally, didn’t end with A Degree of Murder. His excellent The Legend of Rita, centered around a fictional fugitive from a ‘70s German radical guerilla group, prominently featured the original recording of “Street Fighting Man” on its soundtrack. “That was the music of the time, and the period, and the feeling,” in Volker’s view.
Trailer for The Legend of Rita:
Licensing ‘60s Stones classics isn’t easy, but Schlöndorff had a connection. “I always remain, somehow, in relation with Keith Richards to this day. We got along well. So I asked him. I couldn’t pay the market value of the song. It goes into the hundred thousands. And he kind of gave it to me, but for a limited time. I think it was for five years. He put in a word for us, and that was it. It sets the tone for the whole thing.” For subsequent releases, “I always regretted very much that I had to take it off. But there was no way. We put in the music box of The Internationale instead. The cheapest way. Like pure irony or satire.”
Volker Schlöndorff is currently working on a documentary concerning “environment, climate change, on trees and agriculture.” Information on his films is on his website, volkerschloendorff.com.
Musician J.M. Baule has created a New Adaptation of the Soundtrack to A Degree of Murder. “It has been many months since I locked inside the studio, listening a thousand times every part of the film, where the notes of Brian Jones walk, through the voices, sounds, and other events from the movie.”