Sympathy For The Devil: the meanings of The Rolling Stones’ song

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I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

Sympathy For The Devil is a rock samba that invites you to “understand” the Devil. And it’s one of the most famous rock songs ever made.

In 1968, The Rolling Stones had to start almost from scratch, and in some ways they did. After the incident of previous year, known as Their Satanic Majesties Request, it was necessary to get back on track and return to rock. The album was in fact a flop and his long gestation had compromised the serenity of the group: for this reason, it was urgent to return to the origins. Keith Richards was the most determined to leave psychedelia behind, freeing the Stones from a genre that they joined just because it was the trend. And a first step in the new direction was already on Jumpin ‘Jack Flash, a single released in March that enthusiastically embraced Richards’ blues and riffs again.

Given the difficulties experienced, the Stones also needed a producer who could guide them without upsetting the delicate balance of the group: Jimmy Miller was the right man at the right time and his experience allowed him not to get in conflict with the Glimmer Twins. Also because Jagger and Richards, besides having to write the songs, had also to deal with the Brian Jones issue, less and less involved in the destiny of the band.

Sympathy For The Devil was born in this context, like a ballad inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Jagger had recently read the novel and that led him to write a song close to Bob Dylan’s new visionary style. The arrangement of the song was not easy and the Stones tried various ways, changing their minds during the way, as they used to do normally while recording in studio.

Jean-Luc Godard immortalized the group’s creative process in his One Plus One film, also distributed under the title of Sympathy For The Devil. The director followed the development of the studio song in a rare and precious document of the Stones’ working methods. To be honest, Godard’s first choice were the Beatles, who declined the invitation, leading the production to choose Jagger and his companions.

In the film the band is used to develop episodes unrelated with each other, designed to reflect the difficult and confused political moment in 1968. And in the images of the film it’s easy to see Brian Jones isolated from the rest of the band, who ignored him trying to define the sound of the song.

While shooting, an accident occurred due to Godard’s disattention: some paper placed by the director near the headlights caught fire, burning the Olympic Studios. The arrival of the firefighters avoided a premature end to the structure and increased the already poor sympathy that the Stones had for Godard.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for long, long years
Stole many a man’s soul and faith

The song, originally called The Devil Is My Name, went from being a sui generis folk to something totally different. After trying everything, Richards and the others seemed to come on a dead end. Unable to give a final shape to the song, the Stones relied on the guidance of Miller, who completely transformed Sympathy For The Devil. Miller took the song to other shores, increasing the rhythm in a devilish and wild rock samba.

The intense, almost primitive atmosphere that emerged from Sympathy For The Devil rekindled the band’s enthusiasm, which ended the job in a short time. The Lucifer of the song narrates all the misfortunes of human history where he was protagonist and asks for “understanding”, otherwise he will damn the soul of those who don’t respect him. He cites The Hundred Years’ War, the October Revolution, the trial of Jesus, the Second World War and the death of the Kennedys.

I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Small anecdote: Jagger originally cited only John, but the murder of Robert in the very days of the recording led them to adapt the lyrics on the fly.

Sympathy For The Devil has become an absolute classic and an indispensable piece in the repertoire of The Rolling Stones. Despite not being a hymn to the Devil as many think, the song trapped the band in a web of accuses about Satan’s worshipping.

Occultism has never been a point of interest for the Stones, who preferred other kind of entertainments (especially Richards) and loved to provoke through their songs. Sympathy For The Devil just wants to be an analysis of the dark human side, that lets itself easily be swallowed up by the banality of evil, accomplishing the wickedness it’s asked for.

If you understand the Devil within yourself, maybe you can deal with him. And if it’s the diabolic Glimmer Twins who say it, maybe there is something true…

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name

But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

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One comment

  1. This article could have been so fascinating but the writing is so appalling that it renders it near unreadable. I one was paid for this.


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