Rolling Stones songs: Sympathy for the Devil
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Made damn sure that Pilate/ Washed his hands and sealed his fate…
Also known as: THE DEVIL IS MY NAME
Written by: Jagger/Richard
Recorded: Olympic Sound Studios, London, England, June 4-10 1968
Guest musicians: Nicky Hopkins (piano), Rocky Dijon (congas), Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg and Jimmy Miller (backing vocals)
*Data taken from Martin Elliott’s book THE ROLLING STONES COMPLETE RECORDING SESSIONS 1962-2012
This perpetuated the image of the Stones as frightening bad boys, as opposed to the clean-cut Beatles. It was great marketing for the band, who got some press by implying an interest in the occult.
The lyrics were inspired by The Master and Margarita, a book by Mikhail Bulgakov. British singer Marianne Faithfull was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time and she gave him the book. Faithfull came from an upper-class background and exposed Jagger to a lot of new ideas. In the book, the devil is a sophisticated socialite, a “man of wealth and taste.”
Jagger claims this is about the dark side of man, not a celebration of Satanism.
A documentary by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard called One Plus One captured the recording of this song, which took place over five days: June 5, 6, 8 – 10, 1968. At one point, a lamp for the documentary started a fire in the studio. The tapes were saved, but a lot of the Stones’ equipment was destroyed.
The original title was “The Devil Is My Name.” Said Jagger: “Songs can metamorphasize, and ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is one of those songs that started off like one thing, I wrote it one way and then we started the change the rhythm. And then it became completely different. And then it got very exciting. It started off as a folk song and then became a samba. A good song can become anything. It’s got lots of historical references and lots of poetry.”
Keith Richards said in 2002: “‘Sympathy’ is quite an uplifting song. It’s just a matter of looking the Devil in the face. He’s there all the time. I’ve had very close contact with Lucifer – I’ve met him several times. Evil – people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn’t rear its ugly head. ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil…
…It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can’t hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. Sympathy for the Devil is a song that says, Don’t forget him. If you confront him, then he’s out of a job.”
The song took on a darker meaning when The Stones played it at their Altamont Speedway concert on December 6, 1969, before a fan was fatally stabbed by Hells Angels gang members hired for security. As they played it, the crowd got more unruly; a few songs later, during “Under My Thumb,” the stabbing occurred. [This is all documented in the film Gimme Shelter]. The Stones kept “Sympathy” in the their setlists, playing it throughout 1970.
Some of the historical events mentioned in this song are the crucifixion of Christ, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Kennedy assassinations. Robert Kennedy was killed on June 5, 1968, after Mick Jagger started writing the song. His original lyric was “who killed Kennedy?” referring to the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination, but he changed it to “who killed the Kennedys?”
Other historical events alluded to in the song include the Hundred Years’ War (“fought for ten decades”) and the Nazi Blitzkrieg (“the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank”)
The “whoo-whoo” backing vocals were added when Keith Richards’ girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, did it during a take and the Stones liked how it sounded. Pallenberg sang it on the record along with Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Marianne Faithfull and Jimmy Miller.
Stones producer Jimmy Miller said: “Anita (Pallenberg) was the epitome of what was happening at the time. She was very Chelsea. She’d arrive with the elite film crowd. During ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ when I started going whoo, whoo in the control room, so did they I had the engineer set up a mike so they could go out in the studio and whoo, whoo.”
On their 1989 Steel Wheels tour, The Stones performed this with Jagger standing high above the stage next to a fire. Mick wore a safety belt in case he fell.
The Stones performed this on Rock and Roll Circus, a British TV special The Stones taped in 1968 but never aired. It was released on video in 1995. During the performance, Jagger removes his shirt to reveal devil tattoos on his chest and arms.
Guns N’ Roses covered this in 1994 for the move Interview With The Vampire (the song appears at the end of the movie, which stars Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and a young Kirsten Dunst). Their version hit #9 in England, and marked the first appearance of their new guitarist Paul Huge (rhymes with “boogie” – he later went by “Tobias”), who replaced Gilby Clarke. Axl Rose brought in Huge, and it caused considerable conflict in the band, which broke apart over the next few years. At one point, Matt Sorum called Huge “the Yoko Ono of GNR.”
In our 2013 interview with Gilby Clarke, he recalls this recording as a signal that the band was over. “I knew that that was the ending because nobody told me about it,” he said. “Officially I was in the band at that time, and they did that song without me. That was one of the last straws for me, because nobody had said anything to me and they recorded a song by one of my favorite bands. It was pretty clear I’m a big Stones fan, and they recorded the song without me. So I knew that was it.”
The song ended up being the last one Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan recorded together. “If you’ve ever wondered what the sound of a band breaking up sounds like, listen to Guns N’ Roses’ cover of ‘Sympathy for the Devil,'” Slash wrote in his memoir.
The beat is based on a Samba rhythm. Keith Richards said it “started as sort of a folk song with acoustics, and ended up as a kind of mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later. That’s why I don’t like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand.”
The opening lines of this song, “Please allow me to introduce myself I’m a man of wealth and taste,” were quoted by the Devil character (played by actor Rick Collins) in the 1989 film The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie.
Carlos Santana thought The Stones were playing with fire on this song. “I don’t have no sympathy for the devil,” he said in an NME interview. “I like the beat of the song but I never identify with the lyric. Jagger and Richards don’t really know the full extent of what they’re talking about. If they knew what they were getting into when they sing that song they would not be doing it. The devil is not Santa Claus. He’s for real.”
Santana was one of the performers at the ill-fated Altamont concert, and Carlos claimed he could feel a “demonic presence” during their set – a striking contrast to Woodstock, where the group conjured up peace and love. Santana didn’t allow any of their footage into the Gimme Shelter film.
In 2003, The Stones released this as a “maxi-single,” with four versions of the song. The original was on there, as well as remixes by The Neptunes, Fatboy Slim, and Full Phatt.
The line, “And I laid traps for troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay” possibly refers to the notorious Thuggee cult, who worshiped Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. They would waylay travelers on the roads of India, then kill the entire group in order to make off with their valuables. This seems to be the closest well known historical incident to fit the lyrics. Also, the Thuggee would have been well known in England, since the British Army put a stop to the cult during the colonial period.
Another interpretation is that the line refers to the hippies who traveled the “Hippie trail,” a passage through Turkey, Afghanistan, India and a few other countries that was popular in the counterculture community. Many of these travellers were killed and ripped off by drug peddlers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those shady deals could be the “traps.”
Some other worthy covers: Sandra Bernhard, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Bryan Ferry, Jane’s Addiction, The London Symphony Orchestra, Natalie Merchant, U2.
One verse of lyrics was recited by Intel vice president Steve McGeady during his testimony in Microsoft’s antitrust trial in November 1998. McGeady had written a memo about Microsoft with the subject “Sympathy For The Devil,” and when asked whether he was calling Microsoft the Devil, McGeady recited the passage about using your well-learned politesse.
In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus states that this was influenced by Robert Johnson’s song “Me and the Devil Blues.” Keith Richards describes Johnson’s influence as “Like a comet or a meteor” in the liner notes to Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings.
Fitting for a song about Satan, the song is heavy on the low end, with the bass, percussion and piano prominent throughout the track. The guitar doesn’t come in until 2:50, when the solo comes in. It doesn’t return until nearly two minutes later, when it returns for some licks. The Stones typically change the arrangement when they perform it live, bringing the guitar in for the first “pleased to meet you line,” sometimes punctuated with pyro or other visual elements.
Jagger (1995): “It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it’s also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it. But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it’s a very unpretentious groove. If it had been done as a ballad, it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Jagger (1995): “I knew it was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It’s all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different. Especially in England – you’re skewered on the altar of pop culture if you become pretentious.”
In 2006, this was included in The National Review magazine’s list of the 50 most conservative rock lyrics. They claimed that this is an anti-Communist, conservative song and that the devil being referred to is Communist Russia.
The opening line was used in Volume 2 of 10 of the graphic novel V For Vendetta.
This song was used for a title of a episode of the anime series Cowboy Bebop. “Honky Tonk Women” is also the title of an episode.
In the TV series Will and Grace, The character Karen states that she always wanted to walk down the aisle when she got married for the fourth time to “Sympathy For The Devil.” When her husband-to-be refuses, she fights with him.
The industrial band Laibach released an entire album containing different covers of this song. The character and tone of the Laibach covers are largely very different from the Stones original. In the opening track the lead singer sings/shouts in a very deep bass voice with a thick Slavic accent. One of their covers contains references to the violence at the Altamont raceway.
From the The Rolling Stones – All the Songs book:
Did Mick Jagger’s inspiration for “Sympathy for the Devil” really come
from Baudelaire or some other French writer, as he implied in an interview
with Rolling Stone in 1995? It seems more likely that he wrote the lyrics
to the song after having read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail
Bulgakov (apparently at the instigation of Marianne Faithfull). In this
novel, which went through four different versions prior to its publication in
Western Europe in 1966, the great Russian writer skillfully blends fantasy
and social satire. In turn inspired by Goethe’s Faust, Bulgakov compares
the life of Christ to that of an artist in Soviet Russia, against the backdrop of
arbitrary arrest and internment in psychiatric hospitals.
There are two big ideas in Bulgakov’s novel that recur in the words of
the song (which was initially titled “The Devil Is My Name”): the reversal
of values and the confusion of reality and appearance. The devil is
presented as a man of taste, whereas every cop is a criminal and all the
sinners saints. Christ himself is remembered for his pain but also for his
moments of doubt. “My God, my God, wherefore hast thou forsaken me?”
one can almost hear him crying.
Has evil triumphed over good? This is what Mick Jagger seems to be
saying. The almost apocalyptic picture he paints of civilization is no mere
fantasy, however. Having described the torments of Christ, he turns the
spotlight on the twentieth century: the October Revolution, the
assassination of the Tsar and his ministers, the Second World War, and
finally the sixties and the assassination of the Kennedy brothers. The
message is bleak, even terrifying: evil was the victor at Armageddon. Evil
is Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who massacred without restraint, it is National
Socialism, it is those who had John F. Kennedy assassinated in 1963,
followed by his brother Robert five years later. In this respect, the message
of “Sympathy for the Devil” hardly differs from that of “Jumpin’ Jack
Flash”: the ideal of peace and love and the spirit of “All You Need Is Love”
is dead almost before it has lived; the reality of the sixties is the Vietnam
War, it is the Prague Spring crushed by Warsaw Pact troops, it is violence—
everywhere. The same message is found here, then, but expressed with a
Dylanesque poetic verve. “Mick wrote it almost as a Dylan song,” Keith
would later say. In this regard, one phrase in the fourth verse is heavy with
meaning: And I laid traps for troubadours who get killed before they
reached Bombay: this is apparently a reference to the hippies for whom the
road to India was littered with hazards and dramas.
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