Sympathy for the Devil is a song. Channelled from another place by the Rolling Stones in 1968
, indeed it has a part of 1968 distilled within itself and is in turn part of 1968, like a snake eating its own tail. The first track from their album 'Beggar's Banquet
', the album where they put their heads together and got back on track after the nonsense of 'Their Satanic Majesties Request
'. For a good five or six years after this they were apparently one of the best bands in the world of any type. They're still going today.
Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste. The song is a portrait of Satan himself, cast as a spirit within us, a component of mankind rather than a little imp with a tail. The image is one of a handsome man in an old, fine suit, sitting in a cafe in Paris, regaling passers-by with his life. A milder Hannibal Lector, perhaps, without the camp, or Francis Urquhart without the asides to camera. A man who has signed death warrants, who has two children and a wife back home; the pinnacle of humanity. The man in the back room who you don't get to see. One of the men who decides things in advance, before the puppet walks out to the balcony and declares whether it will be war or peace.
Musically the song is curious, a mid-paced piano ballad with bongos, bass, and a brief, scratchy guitar solo which sounds like Keith Richards trying to shoo cockroaches away from his guitar, accidentally hitting the strings with his stained fingernails. Half-way through, the band and other studio hangers-on start chanting 'whooo-whooo', like a train, the same note all the way through, like the violins in 'Hey Jude'. It's all hung together as a samba, surprisingly funky for a song with such doom-laden lyrics, something Prince would evoke decades later with '1999'. I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made. The lyrics paint a broad picture of humanity's least attractive moments; tanks, burning bodies, revolutions, Pilate washing his hands of Christ, the routine assassinations we perform on our finest sons and daughters. Tell me baby, what's my name?
'Sympathy for the Devil' was not released as a single, its six-minute length and bleak subject matter at odds with chart tastes (instead, the group put out 'Street Fighting Man' to even more controversy, the song coinciding with riots in Paris). The album from whence it came was released in a year which saw the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Che Guevara; the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in order to impress upon the population the superiority of communism, which was another kind of death. At Altamont a year and a bit later, a member of the audience was stabbed to death whilst the Stones played 'Under My Thumb', contrary to urban legend.
The band were and are not satanists, and the song is as famous today as a source of headline copy rather than as a piece of music. Nonetheless it remains one of the Rolling Stone's finest works, surprisingly so given that it does not have a riff as such, or much in the way of a hook, apart from the whooo-whooos. Of the various covers the most interesting were those by Laibach, a group who understood and played with the distinction between knowing evil and supporting it; they recorded an entire mini-album of electro-pop reworkings of the track, complete with samples of Mick Jagger taken from Jean-Luc Godard's 'One Plus One', a film which examines in great detail the making of this song.
For no obvious reason beyond a love of money, the Stones sanctioned their own remix album of the song in 2003, including reworkings by Fatboy Slim, The Neptunes and Full Phat, who presumably has a friend called Semi Skimmed.
Salon have a fine article on this song: