The Rolling Stones

Sympathy for the Devil

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"Sympathy for the Devil" is perhaps the most notorious and controversial Rolling Stones song, as well as one of the greatest. As the most famous tune on their 1968 album, Beggars Banquet (rivaled only, perhaps, by that LP's "Street Fighting Man"), it came out at a time when the Stones were increasingly flirting with a satanic public image. Well, "Sympathy for the Devil" took that flirt to a full-on consummation. Here was the narrator -- Mick Jagger, naturally -- taking on the role of the devil himself, a portrait made more distressing by his gentlemanly self-introductions. As seen in the Jean-Luc Godard film One Plus One (retitled Sympathy for the Devil for some releases), the backing track went through some radical transformations, from elementary sluggish blues-rock on acoustic guitars, before arriving at its recorded arrangement. That final arrangement was integral to the success of the song. A compelling African-like rhythm pounded out on conga drums introduces the track, the air of uneasy menace established by echoed yelps and grunts. Along with rumbling piano, those drums continue to underscore the tune, and after the first verse, Jagger is joined by soulful, wordless, high backup vocals that are both catchy and creepy. The chorus -- sung with progressive vehemence as the song proceeds -- is the embodiment of Jagger's persona in his song: an evil figure who charms and refuses to disclose the true nature of his identity and intentions. The guitar solo is one of Keith Richards' most economic and incisive, like flames licking at the devil's feet. The narrator of "Sympathy for the Devil" recounts his insinuation into various historical cataclysms: the Crucifixion, the Inquisition, and the then-still fresh assassinations of the Kennedys. The Kennedys reference was especially explosive. Who killed them, asked Jagger? It was you and me. As some disgruntled critics pointed out, that wasn't exactly fair; most of the people listening to the Stones didn't want to kill anyone, let alone the Kennedys. What Jagger, more than any other rock performer possibly, was adept at was making listeners ponder those questions of how evil manifests itself in the world, and giving listeners who likely wouldn't have hurt a fly the titillation of acknowledging the dark, submerged sides of themselves. It is interesting, by the way, that the word "devil" is never sung, although Jagger makes it fairly clear once and for all whose character he is assuming when he says that some call him Lucifer. The extended fade makes the evil ambience even more pervasive, Jagger starting to shout in distressed falsetto as the backup singers maintain their unfettered chants. After a fatal stabbing at the group's 1969 Altamont concert, the song, probably because it provoked more dangerous associations (and occasional audience unrest) than anything else in their repertoire, was dropped from their live set for a while. It's often assumed that "Sympathy for the Devil" was the song playing when the stabbing took place, but although they did play it at Altamont, the actual song being performed when the stabbing took place was "Under My Thumb." "Sympathy for the Devil" is so ingrained as part of the Stones' image that it's a difficult task for other performers to cover it and make the song their own, but that hasn't stopped ludicrous attempts from both the underground and the mainstream. The Yugoslavian art-damaged post-punk band Laibach, for instance, did an entire EP devoted to six different interpretations of the song (including disco and acid house ones), while British pop star Sandie Shaw did a ridiculous cover in 1969 that sounded as threatening as a water pistol.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Beggars Banquet 1968 ABKCO Records 6:18
Hot Rocks: 1964-1971 1972 ABKCO Records / Universal Music 6:18
Rolled Gold: The Very Best of the Rolling Stones 1975 Universal Distribution
No Image 1976 Decca
No Image 1977 Arcade Music
Hot Rocks 2 [Disc 2] 1985 Decca / london 6:27
No Image 1985 Import
The Complete Singles Collection: The London Years 1989 ABKCO Records 6:16
No Image 1997 Colosseum
12 X 5/Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! 1999 CD Maximum
Beggar's Banquet/Black & Blue 1999 Rolling Stones Records
Forty Licks 2002 ABKCO Records 6:18
Sympathy for the Devil 2003 ABKCO Records 8:22
Remastered Series 2004 ABKCO Records 6:51
Singles 1968-1971 2005 ABKCO Records 8:25
As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 10 2007 Waxed Soul Recordings
Middle Men [Original Soundtrack] 2010
Original Soundtrack
ABKCO Records 6:18
The Rolling Stones 1964-1969 [Vinyl Box Set] 2010 ABKCO Records / Universal Distribution 6:18
The Singles: 1971-2006 2011 Polydor 5:24
GRRR! 2012 ABKCO Records 6:19
The Very Best of the Rolling Stones 1964-1971 2013 ABKCO Records 6:18
No Image 2015 ABKCO Records 8:24
The Rolling Stones in Mono 2016 ABKCO Records 6:30
No Image Cool Blokes
Radioactive: Mainsream Rock Series (October 2003)
Various Artists