Sympathy For The Devil (1968)
The Rolling Stones
Apocalyptic in its vision and epic in scope, “Sympathy For The Devil” is a raucous, primal masterpiece. Sprung full-bown from Jagger’s haughtiness and Richards’ grit, “Sympathy” simmers and crackles, then explodes – and we’ve fed hungrily on its dark, tribal groove for more than four decades.
As the opening track on Beggars Banquet, “Sympathy” lit the way for The Stones’ triumphant return to its Blues-based, Rock-N-Roll roots after a lukewarm reception to Their Satanic Majesties Requests – a half-assed foray into the psychedelic. The LP was released in December 1967 as a response to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s. It didn’t fare well.
Years later, guitarist Keith Richards eloquently described Satanic as “a load of crap.” (We’ve always appreciated Keith’s candor). Despite the disappointing reviews, the album’s devilish title went a long way toward building a voyeuristic mystique around The Stones, and setup “Sympathy for the Devil” to become one of the most controversial Rock-N-Roll songs of its time (“Street Fighting Man,” was another one, also off Beggars).
Religious zealots and other hacks railed about “Sympathy” as proof of The Stones’ ties to African ritual dances, orgies, voodoo and Satan himself (orgies, yes, but not the rest of it). The Rolling Stones loved being demonized. Pissing off the establishment was never a bad thing, and for Mick and Keith it came naturally.
You’ll need some sympathy and some taste…
The song’s stripped-down musical arrangement opens as a muddied, slow-moving Brazilian samba, pierced by Jagger’s monkey screams and love grunts. It steadily builds to a whirling, face-painted tribal jam driven by Ghanaian percussionist Rocky Dijon’s brilliant work on the congas, bassist (but not on this song) Bill Wyman’s groove on the maracas, the grinding organ-esque piano of Nicky Hopkins and the contrasting levity of what has come aptly to be known as the “woo-woooo” chorus.
The conga groove is set, and it appears we could be in, uhhhh…Hell. Heart quickens, mind races, eyes go red. My God, what kind of black magic is this?
Cue the fog machine, and slowly peel back the curtain:
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
Mick Jagger is Lucifer, and he dons the cloak of the Dark Lord with all the ease, attitude and brazen sexual energy that you’d expect from Rock-N-Roll’s baddest bad boy of all time.
The song’s lyric arc takes a deep dive into the darkness, memorializing the historical high-water marks of Evil itself. Channeling Lucifer, the 25-year-old Jagger snake-dances his way through some of the most sinister, emotionally charged moments in the history of Western Civilization – from Christ’s crucifixion to Hitler’s shocking blitzkrieg invasions to the tragic killing of not one but two Kennedys.
I was around when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate*
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
(*Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge who oversaw the trial of Jesus Christ and authorized his crucifixion.)
The devil showed up at Altamont in 1969 (just months after Woodstock went down without incident):
Jagger swaggers his way down a hall of horrors, methodically ticking off evil deeds like he’s working from a punch list, as Richards lays some serious primal scratches on his guitar.
I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia* screamed in vain
(*Anastasia Nikolaevna – Grand Duchess of Russia – was executed along with her entire family in 1918 by the Bolshevik secret police. She was 17.)
The matter-of-fact, almost whimsical, bravado in Jagger’s taunting delivery is pure Rock-N-Roll. It’s the ultimate rebellion, a monumental, centuries-long thumbing of the nose.
And if gloating about the execution of Jesus Christ and the murder of an entire Russian royal family isn’t enough to rile you, Mick snuggles with Hitler and his Nazi forces as they roll across Eastern Europe.
I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg* raged
And the bodies stank
(*The blitzkrieg, or lighting war, is the westernized name given to the strategy – characterized by high-speed, fully mechanized armored forces – developed by Hitler and first deployed in the Nazis’ 1939 invasion of Poland.)
According to Jagger, the inspiration for “Sympathy” came from 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, who once said: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” Back to Jagger:
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzlin’ you
Is the nature of my game
Timing is everything, and the Glimmer Twins nail it with the release of “Sympathy.” It’s 1968, arguably the most turbulent 12-month period in America since the end of World War II. The simmering unrest of the ’60s has reached a tipping point.
The assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4 in Atlanta sparks violent protests in more than 100 cities and towns across the country. Robert F. Kennedy, the all-American Democratic presidential hopeful, is shot down in cold blood on June 5 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (older brother John was slain just four years earlier). The U.S. military is hopelessly mired in the Vietnam War, with the Tet Offensive claiming tens of thousands of young lives.
The nation, careening and belching, verges on violent revolution, only to see the counterculture eventually beaten back, buttoned up and shorn. “Sympathy” gave a voice to America’s lost innocence – a response to the madness – as the devil continued to spread his darkness from sea to shining sea.
Jagger seems to be saying: I’m the devil and you’re the devil, too. He lives in us all. When Americans looked inward for answers to the mayhem that gripped the country, The Stones responded with “We’re all to blame.” We’ve all got the capacity for both good and evil.
I shouted out: “Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all It was you and me
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
And again here, as the song, spirals into a frenzied taunting tribal jam – with Jagger belting out the lyrics in a full, high falsetto:
Tell me baby, what’s my name?
Tell me honey, can ya guess my name?
Tell me baby, what’s my name?
I tell you one time, you’re to blame!
Baudelaire, Jagger’s inspiration, believed we all have an innate desire to do evil: “Personally, I think that the unique and supreme delight lies in the certainty of doing ‘evil’ – and men and women know from birth that all pleasure lies in evil.”
So does the devil live in us all and spur us to evil deeds? Just ask Lee Harvey Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan or James Earl Ray. Or ask Hitler or Pontius Pilate. Or ask the Chicago police who brutally beat a young boy for lowering an American flag in protest outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Or ask the Hells Angels who killed crazed concert-goer Meredith Hunter during a Stones’ performance at Altamont in December 1969. Things began to unravel during “Sympathy” (though Hunter was killed during “Under My Thumb”). Jagger can be heard addressing the unruly crowd after the band stops performing during “Sympathy” to calm things down: “We always havin’ something very funny happens every time we start that number.” Bit of an understatement.
After the disastrous events at Altamont, The Stones would not play “Sympathy” live again for seven years. The evil energy tied up in Mick’s words is perfectly paired with Keith’s inspired guitar work.
If Jagger is Lucifer, Richards is his faithful, riff-slinging minion, Beelzebub, who lays down one of the edgiest, filthiest guitar solos in the history of Rock music. His piercing, jagged-edge play is the musical equivalent of being poked in the eye with a rusty nail, but it hurts so good. One moment the “woo-woooo” chorus offers a soothing blanket, and the next, Richards comes in swinging – shattering glass with his low-slung, gunslinger guitar play.
The Rolling Stones kicked down doors with “Sympathy,” creating a new creative space where nothing is off limits, nothing sacred. Few songs have done more to cement the bad-ass, rebellious image and razor-sharp edge that made Rock-N-Roll a cultural force to be reckoned with in the late-‘60s – and teed up The Stones to become what many believe to be “the greatest Rock-N-Roll band.” Period.
Forty-five years later, “Sympathy for the Devil” still brings enough raw power and a dark enough vibe to incite sold-out crowds and levitate entire stadiums. Thanks fellas, for opening our eyes to the devil in us all.
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- Richards got a little greedy, playing both the bass and the guitar on “Sympathy.” Regular bassist Bill Wyman grabbed a set of maracas.
- The working title was more straight-forward: “The Devil Is My Name.” It was swapped out for the more oblique “Sympathy For The Devil” just before the band began its recording sessions at London’s legendary Olympic Studios in early June 1968.
- Richards’ girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (formerly with Brian Jones), an Italian-born actress and model, and Jaggers’ lover Marianne Faithful, an English singer, songwriter and actress, both added their feminine wiles to the “woo-wooo” chorus.
Also by The Rolling Stones on SongMango.com:
- It's All Over NowJohn Lennon told Keith his guitar solo sucked. Springsteen says it is brilliant. Chuck Berry loved the update of his sound.
- Can’t You Hear Me KnockingThe drug-soaked year of 1971 whipped up a frenzy in Jagger's voice as he chases a girl as hip and high as he is.
- Paint It BlackA tangle of eastern and western music coupled with African dance and drum rhythms and a tale often told.
- Salt Of The Earth"Let's think of the wavering millions who need leading but get gamblers instead." Some songs grow truer and truer.