1968

Sympathy For The Devil

Recorded by The Rolling Stones

Written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger

Produced by Jimmy Miller

The first thing to be said about this track is how utterly different it is from most rock songs. In a field where compositions are most often about sexual or romantic relationships, with a significant minority about the music itself, or about philosophy, we have here... a first-person narrative from Beelzebub. Lyrically and thematically, the song is in a class by itself.

Similarly, the instrumentation is rather odd for a rock song. Percussion is provided by what sounds like a combination of snare drum, conga drums and maracas. The steady 4/4 backbeat for which rock is famous, propelled on by bass drum, is replaced by a more complex samba rhythm. So far as I can tell, there is no rhythm guitar on the track. Instead, we have electric bass and piano (the latter courtesy of famed session man Nicky Hopkins) propelling the song along and defining its chord structure. The bass guitar is featured prominently, taking on something of the role normally played by rhythm guitar, perhaps because it is played by normal lead guitarist Keith Richards, rather than the Stones’ usual bass player, Bill Wyman. (Di Perna)

Another unusual element of the song is the way it evolves and progresses over its course. In general, rock songs tend to repeat the same instrumental accompaniment from one verse to the next. In this song, though, there is a definite progression, with additional instruments and vocals being added to successive verses. More about this later.

Let’s consider the lyrics next. What are they all about? If you take them at face value, you might consider that Mick Jagger (as lead vocalist and lyricist) is sincerely suggesting that the devil really isn’t such a bad fellow. After all, he says, “every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints,” and it was “you and me” who “killed the Kennedys.” So what’s the difference? We’re all the same, aren’t we? He’s just one of the lads.

Look more deeply, though, and you will find that this confusion of good and evil, of appearance and reality, is really just a ploy of the evil one. The devil may appear to be a gentleman, “a man of wealth and taste.” He may appear to be polite and a member of good society, approaching you with the words, “Let me please introduce myself,” and “pleased to meet you.” But alongside of this we have a long catalog of some of the worst atrocities of human history, starting with the torture of Christ on the cross, and ending with the modern assassination of the Kennedys (so contemporary, in fact, that the lyrics were changed from “John Kennedy” to “the Kennedys” while the Stones were in the studio recording the song). Along the way we have the Crusades and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia thrown in for good measure. So let there be no mistake: there really is evil in the world.

This, then, is the real significance of the taunting refrain, “Hope you guess my name, But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.” This is not Mick Jagger, saying “hope you can guess that I’m playing the devil in this song.” That’s obvious from the beginning. No, this is the devil saying, “Hope you recognize me when you see me, because I come in many guises. And my game is not to do evil myself, but to trick you into doing it.”

This confusion between appearance and reality, between good and evil, runs throughout the song. Christ is mentioned, not only for the pain that he experienced, but for his “moment of doubt.” And in addition to all the acts of violence described, the devil says that he has “stolen many a man’s soul and faith.” His interest in the son of God was not limited to the torture of Christ himself — he also “made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate.” And his final threat to the listener is to “... lay your soul to waste.”

Just in case we might be in danger of taking Jagger’s appropriation of the devil as a serious case of religious conviction, he throws in the lines, “I watched with glee, while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made.” So Jagger is not seriously arguing Christian doctrine here. Instead Jagger seems to be using the devil as a symbol, a personification of evil, and of how it works in the world. What the words seem to be saying is that there is evil in the world, and we need to be on our guard, because evil will not always appear as such, and may often be disguised by those who would wish to deceive us.

So now that we’ve got a fix on the words, let’s examine the music, and see how it expands and reinforces the meaning of the song. The track opens with an unusual beat pounded out on one drum. What sound like congas then enter the mix, adding accents on the final beats of the repeated line. Maracas follow. Together they make up what sounds like a jungle beat. Jagger howls in the background, his voice altered electronically to sound more bestial, and echoing in the distance, adding to the threatening impression of being in a dark jungle. (Audio clip - 66K.) The howls are followed by grunts, now sounding human, but primitive.

The beat continues, but the piano now enters with a slow, stately series of chords. Jagger appears on top of this with his most refined British accent, half-speaking, half-singing. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.” So we immediately have a jarring clash in perceptions: are we in a jungle, or a stately English manor? What is real, and what is illusion?

Jagger makes it through the first four lines before the propulsive bass starts, building on the percussive mix still continuing in the background. The effect is to pick up the pace, to add a driving menace to the song. The bass is not used to play a repetitive riff. Instead it improvises relentlessly, giving the impression of a prowling danger lurking just beneath the surface of Jagger’s refined appearance. (Audio clip - 82K.)

We make it through the first verse and chorus with Hopkins still framing chords on the piano at a measured, even pace. But now, as the bass kicks off the second verse, Hopkins joins the fray, playing faster, improvising, and picking up the underlying rhythm of the percussion instruments. The music perfectly mirrors the anarchy portrayed in Jagger’s lyrics, as he describes the overthrow of the tzars and the blitzkrieg. At the same time, Jagger’s voice becomes less controlled, singing, shouting now, although still showing perfect enunciation on words like “stank.”

On the third verse we pick up background vocals singing high-pitched “whoo, whoo”s at the end of each line. The vocals are almost childishly simple, yet effective, adding a ghost-like refrain to the continuing rhythmic churning of the instruments. Jagger’s vocals are strained now, cracking with emotion on nearly every word.

Keith Richards takes the fourth verse, playing a brilliant slippery, snake-like guitar solo. Never quite on the beat, sliding from note to note, producing a quick run of stinging notes one second, then a single note held for several beats in the next, Richards’ guitar is the perfect musical representation of Jagger’s character in the song: unpredictable, anarchic, elusive, shape-shifting. (Audio clip - 75K.)

After the solo we hear Jagger return for the usual chorus. This is followed by a closing verse and chorus, finishing off the tale told by the words. But now the lid is completely taken off the instrumental mix: percussion, bass, piano, lead guitar and vocals jam on, improvising continuously. Richards’ guitar and Jaggers vocals play off of one another, echoing, slyly mimicking each other. Jagger begins singing fragments from the song in a scratchy falsetto. Chaos reigns, with Jagger repeatedly taunting, “Can you guess my name?” (Audio clip - 82K.) Finally the song fades, its activity not ended, but seemingly just continuing at a greater distance, moving to another town, another audience.

Jimmy Miller certainly deserves a lot of credit for this track, providing the vessel that holds the volatile mixture together, the unseen hand keeping the necessary order in the background so that apparent anarchy can rule in the foreground. Nicky Hopkins and the percussion players add to the brew, keeping the pot boiling, always seemingly on the verge of spilling out of control.

Jagger has sometimes become known as a poseur, acting jaded and decadent for the sheer amusement of it; here, though, his artifice certainly serves a higher aesthetic purpose.

All in all, this is a brilliant, unique track.

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