“Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
So begins “Sympathy for the Devil.”
When released in 1968, the song cemented the Rolling Stones as genre-defining songwriters par excellence.
But more than that, it became one of the most culturally significant tracks of the 20th century.
It captured the zeitgeist as summer of love idealism faded into darkness at the end of the ‘60s. And, it kick-started a moral panic about Satanism and rock music that continues to this day.
In celebration of the Stones masterpiece, we’re taking a deep dive into the fascinating story of its creation. Over three articles, we’ll reveal how the song was written, the transformative studio sessions that cemented it, and the indelible impact it left on popular culture.
Let’s begin at the beginning, then, with the writing of the song.
“Sympathy for the Devil” is credited, like many of the Stones’ biggest hits, to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
In reality, though, the track is a Jagger composition through-and-through (in his authoritative biography of the singer, Phillip Norman regards it as his only solo masterpiece). And, it’s Jagger’s love of literature and fascination with history that inspired the track.
Mikhail Bulgakov; writer, playwright, physician.
“Sympathy for the Devil’s” origins are often attributed to the works of French poet Charles Baudelaire. But, while Jagger admits that the initial spark was taken from “an old idea of Baudelaire’s,” the meat of the song likely comes from “The Master and the Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Finished shortly before Bulgakov’s death in 1940 (the writer described it as his “sunset” novel), “The Master and the Margarita” features the Devil creating murder and mayhem in Moscow and was written as a critique of atheistic propaganda and the denial of God in the USSR.
Suppressed due to its controversial themes, the book was finally published in 1967, creating a stir upon its release. That’s when Jagger was introduced to the story, after Marianne Faithful gifted him a copy. It had a profound effect on the singer. As the Independent notes, many of song’s iconic images, including the way “the debonair Devil presents himself, and passages about Jesus’s crucifixion,” are direct mirrors to Bulgakov’s work. That iconic opening line, meanwhile, parallels the book’s opening, where Satan introduces himself to two men in a Moscow park.
Jagger’s interpretation of Bulgakov’s words was unlike anything else in rock at the time. Written at the height of the “summer of love” when free-spirited optimism reigned, the singer’s dark lyrics stood in stark contrast with the attitude of the era.
Yet, there was something incredibly prescient about Jagger’s words. As Douglas Cruickshank noted in his 2002 retrospective on the song, “[it] is embedded with enough historical and philosophical scope to seem like the opening act to a drama of operatic dimensions” and offers “[a] deep, amplified portrait of a world torn by religion, war, assassination and confusion where "Every cop is a criminal/And all the sinners saints.” Following the escalation of the Vietnam war and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the darkness of Jagger’s words felt unsettlingly relevant.
Sympathy for the Devil, 1968.
Lyrically, “Sympathy for the Devil” was a high-concept slice of intellectual rock n’ roll. But musically, at this stage, it was nothing to write home about. With a folky arrangement – “I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song,” Jagger noted in 1995 – it risked coming off as ponderous and pretentious. And for the Stones, who had already split audiences with the cash-grab psychedelia of “Their Satanic Majesties Request” in 1967, the fear of being “skewered on the altar of pop culture,” as Jagger put it, was very real.
All that would change once the band hit the studio, however. During five days of recording in 1968, the song was transformed from a sub-Dylan folk number to one of the most unique sounding rock records of all time…
But that, folks, is a story for the next edition! Be sure to check in next time when we join the Stones at Olympic Sound Studios, London, for the recording of a masterpiece…
“I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same, In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same.”
“I honestly believe that you have to be able to play the guitar hard if you want to be able to get the whole spectrum of tones out of it. Since I normally play so hard, when I start picking a bit softer my tone changes completely, and that's really useful sometimes for creating a more laid-back feel.”
As a young guitarist, I completely rejected any notion that music theory would help me in my journey. At the time, I justified this as a “punk rock/music is freedom” attitude to playing. If I learned my theory, I told myself, I’m just putting myself in a box. “[Insert guitar hero of the week] didn’t need theory, and they were a genius. Why do I?”