The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #60: Sympathy For The Devil by The Rolling Stones (RS)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #60: Sympathy For The Devil by The Rolling Stones.

In many ways, the argument can be made that the essence of Humanity is the constant battle we face between Good and Evil. All throughout the course of Human History, this battle plays out. You can see it in the foundational construction of Christianity; with everything from Eve giving into temptation in The Garden of Eden, to the whole premise of Heaven and Hell. The History of Nations has been one of constantly alternating periods of Peace and of War. Even in the Arts, the crux of virtually all Drama centres on conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. Whether or not the tension created by opposing views on Goodness and Evil lends itself to a form of balance is almost as fundamental as having clean air to breath and clean water to drink. Good and Evil. War and Peace. Creation and Destruction. Heaven and Hell. Love and Hate. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Let’s have a go, shall we?

A great many people, when they speak of modern music, always end up pairing The Beatles and The Rolling Stones up. The two groups started around the same time in the early 1960s. They thrived all throughout that decade. They each made some of the most classic and innovative songs of all-time. They both dealt with financial sharks such as Allen Klein; losing millions of dollars but, also, becoming richer than they ever could have imagined. In fact, the band members were actually friends with each other; hanging out on vacations, playing on each others’ songs and so on. But, there was one thing that served as a dividing line between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and that was their image. Whether a band’s image is something concocted by their record label or whether it is something that comes from within the band, themselves, the contrast between the squeaky clean mop-top image of the Fab Four and the bawdy, dark, boozy, sexual image of The Rolling Stones existed like darkness and light.

Truth be told, while The Rolling Stones openly courted their image as rebellious and dangerous so as to carve out a separate identity from their rivals, The Beatles, a more fundamental aspect of it all was in how they were more organically Blues-based and, as such, the Blues comes from a deeper, darker place so, therefore, they went deeper and darker in pursuit. One of the earliest of the famous Bluesmen was a man named Robert Johnson. It was often said by him and, by others, about him, that Johnson had made a deal with the Devil that, in exchange for his soul, the Devil would grant Johnson the ability to conjure up a form of the Blues like no other had done before nor since. There is no way to verify that such an exchange actually took place but, the legend grew and became part and parcel of who Robert Johnson was. One of the men who would come along decades later, sniffing out the very legend of Robert Johnson, was Keith Richards. Keef, along with his teenage bestie, Mick Jagger, were interested in the Blues right from their earliest days together. So were John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The difference was that The Beatles chose to use the rhythm of The Blues as a way to make perfect Pop songs. Keith and Mick used the Blues to help them find the soul of a baser Rock sound that manifested itself in the form of songs like, “Sympathy For The Devil”.

Coming in hot on the heels of an album called, “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request”, “Sympathy For The Devil” cemented the reputation in the minds of many, that The Rolling Stones had gone to the dark side and that, maybe even, they were satanic, themselves. The Rolling Stones did little to dispel those rumours. In fact, they revelled in them. It made them the bad boys of Rock n’ Roll; an image that the band wore like fashion. However, in interviews, both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger both dismissed such satanic talk as nonsensical. Richards claimed that it was all just good, clean fun. Jagger stated that to be an authentic Bluesman is to go places within your own heart that ordinary musicians dare not go and that, sometimes, when you mine your own soul, darkness grows. So, as “Sympathy For The Devil” was just a twinkle in Jagger’s songwriter’s eye, the band, themselves, were at the height of their bad boy image making shenanigans. This helped create a mindset that lent itself to the creation of one of the richest, deepest explorations on the concept of Good vs. Evil in the whole history of modern music.

“Sympathy For The Devil” was inspired by a book called, “The Master and Margarita” by Russian novelist, Mikhail Bulgakov. At the time, “The Master and Margarita” was a banned book in Russia that was smuggled out into the western world. As such, it had a cache about it and it became a sought-after read by those with connections in the literary world. Someone who had connections was Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, Marianne Faithful. It was she who placed “The Master and Margarita” into Jagger’s hands. From there, the roots of the song grew and the lyrics followed quickly. The short strokes of this magnificent song are that it is a treatise on the whole history of Evil in various conflicts and atrocities throughout the whole of modern history. It is a song that declares that we can’t adopt a sanctimonious pose and tsk-tsk those we feel do wrong because, it is actually in all of our natures to be evil. What separates those who massacre others and those who strive for Peace and Brotherhood is simply the difference in how we keep our darker impulses at bay and in check.

“Sympathy For The Devil” is a history lesson masquerading as a song. It touches on numerous real events from the annals of History, such as: the murders of The Romanov Family that preceded the Russian Revolution, the assassination of the Kennedy Brothers, the German Blitzkrieg offensive against Poland that launched WWII and many other notorious moments when our better natures were seen to be lacking. The song is sung by Mick Jagger from the point of view of Lucifer who gleefully promotes his notion of “good work” and then, demands acknowledgement from the listener in the form of the listener having to state his name. There is power in forcing someone to acknowledge your identity; especially, when your identity is synonymous with the intimidating forces of Evil.

But, “Sympathy For The Devil” is not just a song that rests on the stellar nature of its’ lyrics. The musical structure of the song is another aspect of the attention to detail that the great musicians all seem to have. The musical structure of “Sympathy For The Devil” was inspired by the Samba. Further to that, it was meant to go from the start of the song, all the way to the end, maintaining the same rhythm….never really slowing down, nor speeding up, not getting quieter nor louder…..instead, the tempo is meant to be constant all the way through. Richards described it as being almost “tribal” and “African” *(his words) and that sense of blackness and darkness was what gave “Sympathy For The Devil” its soul and spirit. The song is, also, noted for the background chorus that chants “Woo-Woo” all throughout the song. The “Woo-woos” came about because of how the people gathered in the control booth were reacting to Mick Jagger as he passionately rolled through his lyrics while recording his track. Producer, Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Miller, first started it off as a way to measure Jagger’s timing between lines. Keith Richards girlfriend, Anita Pallenburg, thought the Woo-woos added a needed element to the song and started joining in. By the time Jagger had finished, Miller, Pallenburg, Marianne Faithful and Brian Jones were all singing along. Needless to say, the band thought the Woo-woos added something to the song, as well, and they were officially added to the track and have now become one of the most popular features of the song.

It really says something for a song to offer a discourse in the history of humanity, an exploration of the nature of our soul, all the while mining its structure for as close to an authentic Blues feel as a band of white boys can manage, while being fuelled by a chorus of woo-woos. But, “Sympathy For The Devil” checks all of those boxes in a way that makes it one of the most unique and driven and intellectual songs of all-time. So, without further delay, here is one of The Rolling Stones greatest songs….a true masterpiece of lyrical and musical construction…..”Sympathy For The Devil” from the album, “Beggar’s Banquet”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

***For those interested….the link to the video for the song, “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones, as sung at the notorious Altamont Speedway Concert, can be found here. It is generally agreed that the concert sprang out of control when this song started to be played. While the stabbing that happened didn’t occur during the playing of “Sympathy For The Devil”, it is plain to see that the seeds for it were sown here. The Rolling Stones do not look like they are in control of their own stage at all here. So, watch the video if you are interested in seeing a nasty bit of history, like those depicted in the song, itself.

The link to the official website for The Rolling Stones, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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