The story behind the Rolling Stones song

By tracing the origins of The rolling stones“Sympathy For The Devil,” a devilishly epic track from 1968, brings to mind the unlikely setting of the Soviet Union of the 1930s and a suffering country under the brutally repressive rule of its communist dictator, Joseph Stalin.

For it was here, at a time of great censorship when political dissidents risked execution, that author Mikhail Bulgakov would write his complex menippea satire, The Master and Margarita. It was a novel that tackled notions of right and wrong, juxtaposing a story about the devil visiting the contemporary, atheistic Soviet Union with one about the condemnation of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.

Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” now.

Over a decade in the making, the book had barely been completed when Bulgakov died in 1940, and so was not published. Finally, an abridged version was printed in a Soviet literary magazine in 1967, after which a manuscript was smuggled to Paris, where its first edition was finally published. A copy of The Master and Margarita had to go to London, and in the hands of the singer Marianne Faithfulwho in turn passed it on to her boyfriend, Mick Jagger.

The context

For the Stones, 1967 had been a tumultuous year. In February, police raided Keith Richards’ home in Sussex and charged the guitarist and Jagger with drug offences. The resulting trial in June ended with them being sentenced to prison – Mick was to serve three months, Keith a full year. Thanks to a tremendous show of public and media support, the couple were released after just one night, but the ordeal was significant and its impact immeasurable.

Musically, they had started the year with the glorious proto-psych pop album between the buttons and his double A-side single “Let’s Spend the Night Together”/”Ruby Tuesday,” but by the time the summer of love arrived, the Stones were in a decidedly darker place. Mick and Keith had endured the heavy pressure of their impending trials, while guitarist Brian Jones – who was facing his own drug charges – watched his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, leave him for Keith.

Their next album was made throughout those months, and it looked a lot like its creators had indeed been distracted. Request from Their Satanic Majesties is now rightly considered a classic of the psychedelic era, but at the time came six months after the Beatles’ masterpiece sergeant. Pepper, it was widely derided. Many felt that the trippy experimentations had strayed too far from their established blues rock style.

The dawn of 1968 must therefore have offered Jagger a sense of renewal. Able to enjoy a modicum of relative domestic happiness, it was through Marianne that Mick discovered great works of literature. “I educated myself,” he said. “I read a lot of poetry, I read a lot of philosophy.” Mixing lyrical ideas inspired by The Master and Margarita and decadent French poet Charles Baudelaire, that spring Mick began composing an acoustic folk song that would soon take on a wild new form.

The song

“The first time I heard the song,” drummer Charlie Watts recalled, “was when Mick was playing it outside the door of a house I was living in in Sussex. It was at dinner; he played it entirely by myself, the sun was setting – and it was fantastic.

In what he originally titled ‘The Devil Is My Name’, Mick crafted a dark, twisty tale in which the Devil – presented here as a sophisticated socialite (“a man of wealth and taste”) – claims responsibility for a chain of historical atrocities, including the fall of Christ, the Hundred Years’ War, the Russian Revolution, World War II and the assassination of JFK. Its bleak outlook seemed to reflect the landscape in which it was created – war raged in Vietnam, protests spilled onto the streets around the world (Jagger had joined the anti-war demonstration in London in March), Czechoslovakia sought to break up his Soviet Union. as Poland fought its communist rule and French students launched a series of campus uprisings, while in America the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked riots across the country. Revolution was explicitly in the air.

“It was a turbulent time,” confirmed Keith Richards. “It was the first kind 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… [but] you can’t hide. You might as well accept the fact that the hurt is there and deal with it any way you can. ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is a song that says, Don’t Forget It. If you confront him, he’s unemployed.

The record

Inspired by the political upheavals in London, the pioneer French director of the New Wave Jean-Luc Godard had chosen to shoot his new film in the city. As part of the film’s “creation” theme, Godard had arranged to capture the Rolling Stones at Olympic Sound studios. His timing was perfect; what he filmed in that first week of June was the complete and radical evolution of “Sympathy For The Devil”.

We first see Jagger lazily strumming his acoustic guitar, teaching the slow-paced song to Brian Jones, before it’s taken over by the band – augmented by Nicky Hopkins on organ – and gradually developed through a series of rhythmic trials over the next few days. 32 reported takes were made of the pensive folk version, in which at one point Keith had switched to bass, with Bill Wyman switching to percussion and Brian’s acoustic guitar rendered barely audible. After finding a samba groove, they enlisted Ghanaian percussionist Kwashi “Rocky Dijon” Dzidzornu to bolster Charlie’s drums with suitably persistent congas.

“That’s the beauty of recording for me, going into the studio,” Keith said. “You come in with kind of a semi-conceived idea of ​​what you think this song is supposed to sound like, and it comes out something totally different because it’s been filtered out by all the other guys in the band.”

Suddenly, swept along by that hypnotic, trance-like beat, the song’s wickedness had been on full display, instilled with the tragedies that still unfolded as it built. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 6, which immediately prompted Jagger to pluralize his words: “I shouted, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ / When after all, it was you and me.

The ominous, howling backing vocals were a suggestion from Pallenberg, who joined Keith, Charlie, Bill, Brian and Marianne in a chorus of “woo-woos” around a shared microphone. A final overdub was the big searing guitar solo, courtesy of Keith and his Les Paul Black Beauty, perfectly manifesting the fiery spirit of the song.

The version

The Scrapbook Banquet of beggars was released on December 6, 1968, reaching the Top 5 in the US and UK. The raw, rocky songs testify to the Stones’ stylistic reversal, which has seen them rediscover and deftly explore their blues roots, but it’s the opening track, “Sympathy For The Devil”, that has captured the most attention.

Subversive since their inception, the Stones have long endured accusations of moral corruption from the press and religious leaders. But with “Sympathy For The Devil” following so closely Request from Their Satanic Majesties, critics were quick to suggest that the band had aligned themselves with the occult. “I thought it was a really weird thing,” Jagger later said, “because it was just one song, after all. It wasn’t like it was an entire album, with lots of occult signs on the back.People seemed to embrace the image so easily.

The association itself, however, was not so far-fetched. Jagger would adopt a demonic persona for his main role in Performance, which was filmed shortly after “Sympathy For The Devil” ended, and he later collaborated with American occultist and filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Meanwhile, as Anita dabbled in witchcraft, her partner Keith seemed to enjoy flirting with dark imagery. “It’s something everyone should explore. There are possibilities there,” he thought later. “All those things shunned under the name of superstition and old wives’ tales. I am not an expert on this. I would never pretend to be, I just try to show it a little in the light of day.

“Sympathy For The Devil” would later be covered by other artists eager to covet the Stones’ devilish notoriety – Ozzy Osbourne, Motorheadand Guns N’ Roses would all attempt to recreate the sinister energy of the song – but the original remains unmatched. Today, it remains the band’s seventh most-played song in concert, often accompanied by flamboyant visuals and scarlet-draped Jagger – a reminder of the track’s role in forever defining the outrageous reputation of the baddest boys in the world. rock and roll.

Listen to The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” now.

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