In 1968, Mick Jagger came out to his friends, parents and adoring public as an antichrist. He did it with style, declaring his Beelzebub a demon “of wealth and taste” before recounting his famous misdeeds throughout history – leading the Nazi blitzkrieg, sparking the Russian revolution, shooting JFK and getting Jesus crucified – before a backing choir of “woo-woo”ers who seemed to think all this was a right old lark. But how much do you really know about ‘Sympathy For The Devil’? Here are the song’s darkest secrets.
If you’re looking for any signs of a ‘Curse Of Sympathy For The Devil’, which anything in popular culture even slightly occultist is required to have, start with the Guns’N’Roses cover for the Interview With A Vampire film in 1994. Slash was so upset that Axl invited a new rhythm guitarist Paul Huge to play on the song that he quit the band, leaving G’N’R to begin a slow, 20-year slide into Shitsville.
You might also point to the story that, during the five days of recording the song in early June 1968, a film lamp allegedly started a fire which destroyed much of the band’s equipment, but didn’t harm the tapes.
The song’s working title was ‘The Devil Is My Name’, which would have rather undermined the mystery of the whole thing, we suspect.
Jagger claims to have taken the inspiration for the idea of a song from Satan’s perspective from Baudelaire. “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.”
Although, many of the song’s lines have direct correlations with The Master And Margarita by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, a book about Beelzebub visiting 1930s Moscow, fresh from Christ’s crucifixion. The book, which Jagger received from Marianne Faithful, includes a scene in which Satan performs a magic show, further evidence that David Blaine is the Evil That Walks Among Us.
At the original recording at London’s Olympic Studios, the chant of “woo-woo” started in the control room, kicked off by producer Jimmy Miller and a group including Anita Pallenburg, Marianne Faithful and a coterie of “elite film crowd” who’d turn up at the studio to sing along to whatever the Stones were recording that day. Producer Jimmy Miller put a mike in the control room to record them, but their takes were scrapped and re-recorded by Jagger, Richards and Miller in LA.
The line “who killed the Kennedys” originally went “who killed Kennedy”, but was changed when Robert Kennedy was shot and killed while the recording was underway.
Accepted Stones myth suggests that the band were playing ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at the Altamont festival at the time when crazed fan Meredith Hunter was killed. Not true; it was ‘Under My Thumb’. Bad luck, scary supernatural theorists! Nonetheless, because of the public outrage at the (wrong) story, the Stones didn’t play ‘Sympathy’ live for the next seven years.
The Stones certainly got their fair share of controversy out of the song, though, as religious groups pointed to this track, plus the fact that their previous album was called ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’, as proof that the band were devil worshippers. This tickled the band no end. “"Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time,” said Richards, “[then] they're saying, 'They're evil, they're evil.' Oh, I'm evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil... What is evil?… There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody's Lucifer."
Jagger believed that the controversy around the track might have kick-started heavy metal’s Satan-bothering bent. “I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today."
The recording of the song was filmed by French new wave film icon Jean-Luc Godard, who was so taken by the track that he retitled the film about 1960s American sub-culture – originally called One Plus One – to Sympathy For The Devil for its 1968 producer’s cut. Perhaps Satan told him to do it?
The first time Charlie Watts heard the song was when Jagger turned up on his doorstep and played it, solo and acoustic, at his front door at sunset. Considering the lyrical content, Watts was a brave man indeed to let him back into the house.
Ahead of the likes of Brian Ferry, U2, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Ozzy Osbourne and ‘Weird Al’ Yonkovic, the first act to cover the song was the incongruously fluffy Sandie Shaw. ‘Succubus On A String’, anybody?
The song started life as a folk tune in the style of Bob Dylan and was tried in six different rhythms before they settled on a dancey bongo samba. “It was all night doing it one way,” said Watts, “then another full night trying it another way, and we just could not get it right. It would never fit a regular rhythm.” Jagger attributes the power of the song to its samba rhythm which, he said, has “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.”
Only two takes of ‘Sympathy’ were recorded, the first one, according to Richards, “a disaster” and the second one “perfect”. Jagger took a method acting approach to the song, taking on the role of Satan while singing. “It's like acting in a movie,” he said, “you try to act out the scene as believably as possible, whether you believe it or not. That's called GOOD ACTING.”
Jagger has claimed the song is more about the evils of mankind than the supernatural devil figure, but that doesn’t quite tie in with the appearance on TV show Rock’n’Roll Circus in 1968 when Jagger sang it topless, covered in fake devil tattoos.
The “troubadours who got killed before they reach Bombay” line has caused much debate amongst fans trying to work out who it could refer to, the best conclusion being hippies travelling the ‘Hippy Trail’ to India by road, many of whom would be killed or robbed by drug smugglers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Two words – Air India.
Karen in Will And Grace demanded to walk down the aisle to ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at her fourth wedding. With hilarious consequences.
In 1988, Slovenian industrial rockers Laibach recorded an entire album of covers of the song. Have you heard it? Then the number for the Samaritans is 08457 909090.
In 1998, Intel Vice President Steve McGeady quoted a verse from ‘Sympathy’ in court as part of the antitrust trial of Microsoft, allegedly referring to Microsoft as the devil. The lines he quoted were “So if you meet me have some courtesy/Have some sympathy, and some taste/Use all your well-learned politesse/Or I'll lay your soul to waste”. Whether he did this standing on the desk, sticking his arse out, pursing his lips and clapping was unrecorded by court stenographers.