Welcome to the final edition of our series on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Over the course of these articles, we’ve talked about how the band created one of their defining masterpieces, and the tremendous impact the song had on popular culture.
If you’re not up-to-date, we’d recommend jumping in with article one here and following on with article two here. But, assuming you’ve read those, let’s dive straight in with the final edition, and “Sympathy’s…” huge influence on the rock music landscape.
Upon its release in 1968, “Sympathy for the Devil” changed the way the world viewed the Rolling Stones.
Sure, the band, which was once positioned as the bad-boy yin to the Beatles’ wholesome yang, had courted controversy from the outset. But “Sympathy…” was more pointed than any record they’d produced before.
The rock scene was still basking in the glow of the summer of love. The Stones, however, had moved onto altogether darker fare. And, the political assassinations and worsening situation in Vietnam that followed the song’s release made it a timely treatise on the state-of-the-world upon release.
As Douglas Cuickshank stated, “at the very pinnacle of the Flower Power era, remember – [the Devil]… turns on his starry-eyed audience and tells them that they, in league with him, are to blame for the deaths of the '60s most promising political leaders.”
It wasn’t the song’s uncomfortable parallels with recent politics that rattled the public, though. It was the looming presence of a certain Mr. D…
As Simon Hardeman put it in an Independent retrospective:
“Everyone had known the Rolling Stones were misogynistic, drug-taking, all-round bad boys but as [Jagger] sang, “Please allow me to introduce myself / I’m a man of wealth and taste…” the genie – or, rather the demon – bolted from the bottle. The results would be devastating.”
After “Sympathy for the Devil” hit, the Stones weren’t just bad boys. They were bad boys who may-or-may not be in league with the man downstairs. As Keith Richards noted in 1971, it fundamentally altered the public’s perception of the group:
"Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they're saying, 'They're evil, they're evil.' Oh, I'm evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil ... What is evil? Half of it, I don't know how many people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer Everybody's Lucifer."
“It’s a track that… forever define[d] their dark reputation,” Rolling Stone would later observe. And, that dark reputation was only enhanced through the tragedies that hit the group following its release. “All manner of bad juju… [befell] the band and their associates in years to come,” Dan Epstein would note, and “Sympathy…” was often at the centre of these tragedies in public discourse.
Brian Jones at the Monterey Pop Festival, 1968.
On July 3rd, 1969, just a month after being ousted from the band, guitarist Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. The “Beggar’s Banquet” sessions, including “Sympathy for the Devil,” were has last significant contributions to the band.
And, then, of course, there was the disastrous Altamont free concert.
Closing out the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour, the massive free show at the Altamont Speedway, Northern California, was envisaged as a kind of “Woodstock west.” In reality, though, it came to signify the end of the hippie era, and as Robert Christgau put it, “whether fairly or not, a symbol for the death of the Woodstock Nation."
“The day The Rolling Stones played there,” Ralph J Gleeson noted in Esquire magazine, “the name [Altamont] became etched in the minds of millions of people who love pop music and who hate it as well. If the name 'Woodstock' has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, 'Altamont' has come to mean the end of it."
"Rock and roll's all-time worst day," according to Rolling Stone, the considerable violence at the event resulted in the stabbing death of 18-year-old concert goer Meredith Hunter as well as three accidental deaths: two caused by a hit-and-run car accident, and one by LSD-induced drowning.
The Stones weren’t actually playing “Sympathy for the Devil” when Hunter was killed. As the documentary “Gimme Shelter,” which captures the incident in chilling detail reveals, the number in question was actually “Under My Thumb.”
Gimme Shelter documentary movie poster, 1970.
But, testament to the song’s reputation, its performance is popularly remembered as the moment when tragedy struck. The rendition of “Sympathy…” that day wasn’t without incident either. A fight erupted during the song – the third in the band’s set – that resulted in the Stones pausing the show.
"We're always having… something very funny happens when we start that number," Jagger later told the audience; an understatement if ever there was one. And indeed, in the aftermath of Altamont the band would shy away from performing the song live because, according to Jagger,“it became so involved with [Altamont] – sort of journalistically and so on.”
That “Sympathy” made the Stones synonymous with Devil Worshippers came as a shock to the singer. “I thought it was a really odd thing,” he told Creem magazine, “because it was only one song, after all. It wasn’t like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back.”
Yet, as he notes, “people seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today."
According to musician and occultist Kieran Leonard, “Sympathy for the Devil” was the song that “kicked down the door for diabolism in the mainstream.” While an interest in the dark side was “in the air” in the late 1960s, “Sympathy…” was “the pin-prick in the time map” that opened Pandora’s box.
And open it did. The following year, Black Sabbath’s self-titled 1969 debut, with its terrifying title track, took the satanic themes of “Sympathy…” and ran with them. According to Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler, the song was based on a “figure in black” that he’d witnessed after waking up from a nightmare, the presence of which he attributed to his dabbling occult literature. “After that I gave up all that stuff. It scared me shitless,” he recalled in the band’s “Reunion” album liner notes.
Jimmy Page, too, would take occultism to the masses. Inspired by Aleister Crowley – whose Scottish home Boleskine he purchased in 1970 – the guitarist inscribed Crowley’s mantra – and a motto of sorts for black magic – “do what thou wilt, so mote be it,” into the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III.
By the time the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s, heavy metal kicked the association between rock and the occult into overdrive. The likes of Slayer, Venom and Mercyful Fate were writing content so Satanic, they made Jagger look like a choirboy in comparison. Satanic Panics and the rise of the PMRC ensued, snowballing from what the Stones had started some twenty years earlier.
51 years after its release and “Sympathy for the Devil” has lost none of its potency. Sure, more extreme and explicit variations on a theme may have followed, but there’s something uniquely seductive, captivating, and altogether thrilling about the Stones’ trendsetter. And, half a century later, when it still often feels like, “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinner saints,” Jagger’s words have lost none of their resonance.
Speaking of “Sympathy…,” Ron Roesnbaum notes that “[Mick Jagger] is one of the rare rock songwriters who has addressed the question of evil and apocalypse in a sophisticated way." And, half a decade on, it’s why the song – like Mr. D himself – is still deserving of our courtesy, sympathy, and taste.
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