Thursday, December 6, 2018

50 years ago: The Rolling Stones released “Sympathy for the Devil”

Sympathy for the Devil

The Rolling Stones

Writer(s): Mick Jagger, Keith Richards (see lyrics here)

Released: December 6, 1968

Peak: 97 US, 1 CL, 14 UK, 1 DF (Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): -- US, 0.6 UK, 0.6 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 30.7 video, -- streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

This is “perhaps the most notorious and controversial Rolling Stones song, as well as one of the greatest.” AMG There were already fingers pointing that the band dabbled in the occult, a claim heightened by the title of previous album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, despite no direct Satanic references in the lyrics. WK However, in “Sympathy” Mick Jagger takes on the persona of the Devil himself which escalated fears among some religious groups that “the Stones were devil worshippers and a corrupting influence on youth.” WK

The narrator boasts about his role in different historical atrocities such as the Crucifixion, the Inquisition, the Russian Revolution, the Nazi Blitzkrieg, “and the then-still fresh assassinations of the Kennedys.” AMG He also demands courtesy and chastises “the listener for our collective culpability in the listed killings and crimes” WK with lines like “Who killed the Kennedys when, after all, it was you and me.” Jagger, “more than any other rock performer possibly, was adept at making listeners ponder those questions of how evil manifests itself in the world.” AMG

While credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, this is primarily a composition by Jagger, which he originally wrote “as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” WK He was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita in which the devil is a sophisticated socialite. SF It was Richards, however, who suggested a tempo change, which transformed “Sympathy” from a folk song to a samba. WK Jagger explained that it gave the song “a very hypnotic groove…rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down…It was a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece.” WK

The backing “woo-woo” vocal came about by accident. While Jagger was recording an early vocal, producer Jimmy Miller was in the engineering booth with Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards’ girlfriend. Miller was talking to himself, saying “Come on, Mick, give it your all. Who are you singing about? Who? Who?” After he repeated it several times, Anita suggested it as a backing vocal chant. WK

The song’s nefarious reputation was enhanced when it was mistakenly reported by Rolling Stone that the Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil” AMG at their Altamont concert when Hells Angels’ gang members, who’d been hired as security, fatally stabbed fan Meredith Hunter. However, it was actually the song “Under My Thumb.”


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First posted 10/19/2020; last updated 8/4/2022.

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