The making of Sympathy for the Devil

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.


  1. mnb0 says

    “It is amazing that he could keep this up for more than fifty years.”
    Rolling Stones songs are technically not difficult to sing. The years after the release of SftD quite a few songs were recorded that were way more demanding. This song is from 1969 (released in 1970):

    The original vocalist, Ian Gillan hasn’t tried anymore for about 25 years.
    Another example is Thijs van Leer (Focus) and his vocal gymnastics on the song Hocus Pocus (check a live version -- it’s hilarious and impressive at the same time). He can’t do it anymore either.

  2. Ridana says

    Is that John Entwistle in the audience there at the end (in yellow, 8:34)? I feel like I’m seeing a lot of familiar faces I can no longer put names to in that bunch. 🙂

  3. garnetstar says

    I like your points on the vocal gymnastics of the job, mnbo @1.

    But, when the Stones do live performances, or at least the kind that they did for decades, you have to wonder how Jagger kept his body going for 50 years, too (at least Charlie Watts gets to sit.) At one point, Jagger remarked that he’d had to give up or cut back on drugs and alcohol, sleep well, eat healthfully, and train and condition like an athlete, to get his body through tours.

    I haven’t seen them live recently, but it seems to have worked!

  4. Allison says

    ” 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…”

    IMnot-soHO, the person who wrote what I’ve quoted has clearly missed the point of the song.

    To me it’s obvious that the point of the song is that evil isn’t something perpetrated by “bad guys” who are nothing like us. The mechanisms that do it are part of who we are and in fact part of what we see as virtuous. “The Devil” is a “man of wealth and taste” because most of the awful things in the world are done by people who are regarded as “men of wealth and taste” — the people we elect, the people who populate our country clubs and our legislatures and patronize the arts, the people we praise as benefactors of humanity, and the actions are for the most part seen as wise and admirable or at least necessary. Even if you and I did not actually pull the trigger on the Kennedys, we actively condone and contribute to a way of life that made their murder inevitable. It’s not that “evil has trumped over good” but that evil is a large part of what we think of as “good.”

    This wasn’t a new or suprising trope even back then; Walt Kelly came up with the line “We have met the enemy and they is us” long before this song was written. But it’s a lesson that still hasn’t sunk in. E.g., with racism: white people (like most of us posting and reading and commenting) for the most part refuse to face the fact that the racism that keeps African Americans in ghettos and killed George Floyd is in all of us and is an essential part of the most cherished and revered parts of our way of life. That’s what “white fragility” is all about.

    I’m also not sure how “The Master and Margarita” fits in. I’ve read the book, and the story is essentially about how the devil and his pals come to Moscow in the 1920’s and throw a monkey wrench into the hypocrisies and dishonest pretentiousness of the society, while at the same time rescuing the writer (“The Master”) and his girlfriend (“Margarita”) The devil is thus more of a divine trickster, pranking those who deserve pranking or worse. Nothing like the devil in the song.

  5. Holms says

    Nice to see that Jagger has been moving like a drunkenly animated mannequin his entire life, I was getting concerned he was experiencing parkinsons or similar.

  6. bmiller says

    Doesn’t a lot of popular culture “understanding” of the Devil come more from MILTON than the Bible, anyway. A few random comments and conversations aside.

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