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

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This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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 written.

In 1968, The Rolling Stones had to start again, almost from scratch, and in some ways they did. After the album from the previous year, Their Satanic Majesties Request, it was necessary to get back on track and return to rock. The album had been in fact a flop and its long gestation had compromised the serenity of the group. For this reason, they felt some urgency to return to the origins. Keith Richards was the most determined to leave psychedelia behind, freeing the Stones from a genre that they had only joined because it was on trend. And the first step in their new, old direction was clear with 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 helped him avoid conflict with the Glimmer Twins. Also, because Jagger and Richards, besides having to write the songs, had to deal with the aftermath of Brian Jones’ death, they had become less and less involved in the destiny of the band.

Sympathy For The Devil was born within this context, 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 that was close to Bob Dylan’s new visionary style. The arrangement of the song was not easy, and the Stones tried various techniques, changing their minds during the way, as they used to do while recording in the studio.

Jean-Luc Godard immortalised 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 documentary of the Stones’ working methods. To be honest, Godard’s first choice had been the Beatles, who declined the invitation, leading the production company to choose Jagger and his companions.

In the film, the band is shown in something of a disconnect, designed to reflect the difficult and confused political backdrop of 1968. In the film itself, it’s easy to see Brian Jones isolated from the rest of the band, who ignored him as they were busy trying to define the sound of the song.

While shooting, an accident occurred due to Godard’s lack of attention: some paper that he placed near some of the studio lighting caught fire, causing a blaze at the Olympic Studios. The arrival of the firefighters avoided a premature end to the structure and increased the already poor relationship 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 have hit 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, changing the rhythm into a devilish, wild rock samba.

The intense, almost primitive atmosphere that emerged from Sympathy For The Devil rekindled the band’s enthusiasm, and also got the job done. The Lucifer of the song narrates all the misfortunes of human history in which he was the protagonist, and asks for “understanding”, otherwise he will damn the souls 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

As an aside, Jagger originally only cited JFK, but the murder of Robert Kennedy during the recording period, 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 accusations about Satan worshipping.

Occultism has never been a point of interest for the Stones, who preferred other kinds of entertainment (especially Richards) and loved to provoke through their songs. Sympathy For The Devil was intended to be an analysis of the dark side of humanity; one which allows itself to be too easily swallowed up by the banality of evil, thereby helping it to accomplish the wickedness it craves. If you understand the Devil within yourself, maybe you can deal with him. And if it’s the diabolical Glimmer Twins who are pointing this out, maybe there is something truth in the notion.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name

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

This story is part of the book:

Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

Rating: 5.0/5. From 2 votes.
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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 hope.no one was paid for this.

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