Jagger & Keith Richards
Recording date: June 1968 Recording location: Olympic Sound Studios, London
Producers: Jimmy Miller Chief engineer: Glyn Johns
Performed onstage: 1968-70, 1975-76, 1989-90, 1994-95, 1997-99, 2002-03, 2005-07, 2012-16
Bass: Keith Richards
Electric guitar: Keith Richards
Lead vocal: Mick Jagger
Background vocals: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, Marianne
Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Nicky Hopkins & Jimmy Miller
Piano: Nicky Hopkins
Congas: Rocky Dijon
Maracas: Bill Wyman
I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire's, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can't see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing*. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song. And you can see it in this movie Godard shot called Sympathy for the Devil, which is very fortuitous, because Godard wanted to do a film of us in the studio. I mean, it would never happen now, to get someone as interesting as Godard. And stuffy. We just happened to be recording that song. We could have been recording My Obsession. But it was Sympathy for the Devil, and it became the track that we used.
[*Note: The principal inspiration for the song was actually the novel The Master and Margarita by Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov. Many lines from the song have direct references in that book. In his 1981 book The Last Twenty Years, David Dalton lists it as one of the books Mick purchased in 1968.]
(I wrote that song alone). I mean, Keith suggested that we do it in another rhythm, so that's how bands help you... I knew it was something good, 'cause I would just keep banging away at it until the fucking band recorded it... But I knew it was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It's all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different. Especially in England - you're skewered on the altar of pop culture if you become pretentious.
It started out as a folky thing like Jigsaw Puzzle, but that didn't make it so we kept going over it and changing it until finally it comes out as a samba.
Sympathy for the Devil started out as a Bob Dylan song and ended up as a samba.
Sympathy for the Devil started as sort of a folk song with acoustics, and ended up as a kind of mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later. That's why I don't like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand.
Sympathy for the Devil was tried six different ways. I don't mean at once. It was all night doing it one way, then another full night trying it another way, and we just could not get it right. It would never fit a regular rhythm. I first heard Mick play that one on the steps of my house on an acoustic guitar. The first time I heard it, it was really light and had a kind of Brazilian sound. Then when we got in the studio we poured things on it, and it was something different. I could never get a rhythm for it, except this one, which is like a samba on the snare drum. It was always a bit like a dance band until we got Rocky Dijon in, playing the congas. By messing about with that, we got the thing done.
Sympathy was one of those songs where we tried everything. The first time I ever heard the song was when Mick was playing it at the front door of a house I lived in in Sussex. It was at dinner; he played it entirely on his own, the sun was going down - and it was fantastic. We had a go at loads of different ways of playing it; in the end I just played a jazz Latin feel in the style that Kenny Clarke would have played on A Night In Tunisia - not the actual rhythm he played, but the same styling. Fortunately it worked, because it was a sod to get together... Good song, though.
But if you've got a good song, it could become anything. Which is the mark of a good song, I think. That one is a good song.
We've done about three nights of this kind of (film) shooting. We shot a number called The Devil Is My Name which is on the LP. The first run-through was a disaster and then the second take everything went perfect. It could well be the feature track on the album.
Anita (Pallenberg) was the epitome of what was happening at the time. She was very Chelsea. She'd arrive with the elite film crowd. During Sympathy for the Devil when I started going whoo, whoo in the control room, so did they. I had the engineer set up a mike so they could go out in the studio and whoo, whoo.
My whole thing of this song was not black magic and all this nonsense - like Megadeth or whatever else came afterward. It was different than that.
It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn't speed up or down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it's also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive - because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it. But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it's a very unpretentious groove. If it had been done as a ballad, it wouldn't have been as good.
Vaguely, (the line about the Kennedys) means you can't pin their deaths on anyone, because there were so many people who would have liked to see them dead. It is our responsibility because crime in our society is our responsibility.
(We took the subject of the devil seriously) for the duration of the song. That's what those things are about. It's like acting in a movie: you try to act out the scene as believably as possible, whether you believe it or not. That's called GOOD ACTING. You have to remember, when somebody writes a song, it's not entirely autobiographical... Sympathy for the Devil was pretty... ah, well, it's just one song, as I said. Hell, you know, I neve really did the subject to death. But I DID have to back off a little, because I could see what was happening. It's an easily exploitable image, and people really went for it in a big way.
Sympathy is quite an uplifting song. It's just a matter of looking (the Devil) in the face. He's there all the time. I've had very close contact with Lucifer - I've met him several times. Evil - people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn't rear its ugly head. Sympathy for the Devil is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil. It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can't hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. Sympathy for the Devil is a song that says, Don't forget him. If you confront him, then he's out of a job.