If you are of my generation, you would very likely have heard this song by the Rolling Stones. Apart from simply being a terrific song in its own right, it made a sensation when it was released in 1968 because it featured Mick Jagger singing in the first person as the devil. This was at a time when people were pretty uptight about religious themes being used in pop culture and the band was accused of being satanists. If you have never heard the song, below is a live performance from that year with the master showman Mick Jagger doing his thing. It is amazing that he could keep this up for more than fifty years. As a bonus, you get to see John Lennon and Yoko One among the dancers.
This article gives the background to the song.
The main lyrical inspiration for “Sympathy For The Devil” come from a combination of sources Mick Jagger referenced back in 1968. One known source is Charles Baudelaire the French writer and the other is Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel ‘The Master And The Margarita’.
In the song this is referenced as the devil being featured as a man with taste, and every cop is a criminal while every sinner saints. Even Christ is remembered for his pain but also for his moments of doubt. As these lyrics mentally register with the listener one may begin to think has evil trumped over good? That being said it’s nothing more than fantasy despite Mick Jagger’s persistence towards the end of the song by yelling, “Tell me baby, what’s my name? Tell me honey, can ya guess my name?” Apart from the religious themes featured in the song Jagger references other important events that occurred in the twentieth century, which is the October Revolution, the assassination of the Tsar and his ministers, WWII & the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers. If you look closely enough Jagger almost wrote the lyrics in a ‘Dylanesque poetic verse’
One may assume that the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership works in a way where Jagger would write the lyrics and Keith Richards would write the music. However, nothing could be further than the truth as in this instance Mick Jagger wrote both the lyrics & the music for Sympathy for the devil. Keith Richards’s contribution was assisting Mick in helping him find his rhythm. He is quoted saying, “I was just trying to figure out if it was a Samba or a goddam folk song”. This can be witnessed thanks to the movie Sympathy For The Devil, which Jean-Luc Godard filmed as the band was recording the song at Olympic Studios. Here you can see the transformation of the song as it develops from a folk song to an epic Rock N Roll samba, which incorporates Brazilian dance musical elements.
A few days ago, I watched a 42-minute except from director Jean-Luc Godard’s surrealistic film with the same title as the song.But between the time I watched it and the writing this post, the video has been removed on copyright grounds so I am not linking to it. The film is not a documentary on the making of the song, which I would have enjoyed since I like to see the evolution of the creative process. while the excerpt was mostly of the recording session, I did not find the excerpt that interesting because what I saw and read (I have not seen the full film) reveals that Godard used the song and its creation as a backdrop to make various political points. What I did enjoy seeing was how far the song evolved from its beginnings, getting much better as it went along. The shift in the lyrics from the folk style “Pleased to meet y’all” to the final, more pointed “Pleased to meet you” and the increased the tempo and the more driving beat were great improvements.
Here’s the trailer for the film.