Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil

Since Halloween is coming upon us I thought I would feature a few songs referencing the normal culprits throughout the week.

When I was a teenager the song spooked me a bit…and still does. It’s powerful and dynamic with its samba beat. Mick Jagger has said this is about the dark side of man, not a celebration of Satanism. It does, in fact, show the dark side…the lines that stand out to me are: I shouted out, Who killed the Kennedys When after all It was you and me.

Mick Jagger: The satanic-imagery stuff was very overplayed [by journalists]. We didn’t want to really go down that road. And I felt that song was enough. You didn’t want to make a career out of it. But bands did that – Jimmy Page, for instance. I knew lots of people that were into Aleister Crowley. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t what I meant by the song “Sympathy for the Devil.” If you read it, it’s not about black magic, per se.

This song is infectious, it’s a great piece of writing by Mick. 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.”

I usually keep my posts short and quick but songfacts for this song have a book of info on this one so read it if you want. A lot of interesting info.

From Songfacts

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.

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 It’s got lots of historical references and lots of poetry.”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 (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 Richard’s girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, did it during a take and the Stones liked how it sounded. Pallenberg sang it on the record along with Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Marianne Faithfull and Jimmy Miller. 

Stones producer Jimmy Miller: “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 travelers 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.

Sympathy For The Devil

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 to waste

And 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

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

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

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah
Ah, what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

Let me please introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
And I laid traps for troubadours
Who get killed before they reached Bombay

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, oh yeah, get down, baby

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, oh yeah
But what’s confusing you
Is just the nature of my game, mm yeah

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guessed my name, mm yeah

But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game, mm mean it, get down

Oh yeah, get on down
Oh yeah

Oh yeah

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

Oh, right

What’s my name
Tell me, baby, what’s my name
Tell me, sweetie, what’s my name

Author: Badfinger (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

12 thoughts on “Rolling Stones – Sympathy For The Devil”

  1. Good classic song — I always thought the lyrics were surprisingly insightful actually. If the people who were protesting listened to it more carefully they’d probably have liked it in fact.


  2. I remember the first time I heard the song it scared the beejezus out of me. I wouldn’t listen to it for a long time because of that. Now I understand where it’s coming from, which is not as an advocate of the devil but more as a warning that he’s “out there”.

    Liked by 2 people

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