Behind the Meaning of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil”

Few song openings are as recognizable as the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Mick Jagger’s ad-libbing over that jaunty rhythm is at the same time groove-inducing and foreboding. The slow-building song has gone down as one of the best songs in history, never mind just in rock ‘n’ roll.

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The fiendish track can be traced back to the Soviet Union-era satire The Master and Margarita, written by Mikhail Bulgakov. The complex work was a meditation on the omnipresent battle between good and evil as seen through the lens of Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship.

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But, how did a 1930s novel about the Soviet Union inspire the Rolling Stones to pen this rock classic in 1968? And how did it change their career and image? Both of these questions are up for discussion, below.

Behind The Meaning

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole million man’s soul an faith

In this track, Jagger introduces a socialite version of the devil, who claims the responsibility for a number of historical tragedies including the Hundred Years War, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Assassination of JFK.

The satan-centric lyrics got the band accused of devil worship—as did many rock bands in the ’60s and ’70s. Despite the lyrics, Jagger has claimed the song is more about the darker nature of man than celebrating the devil.

Keith Richards said of the song in 2022, “‘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 a song that says, Don’t forget him. If you confront him, then he’s out of a job.”

The track came at the perfect time with a largely unpopular war raging in Vietnam, America rife with protest, and Martin Luther King’s assassination still heavy on the hearts of the country. The track cleverly pointed a finger at the evil present around the world and gave the listener someone to blame.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

Summer of Love

For context, 1967 was a rough year for the Stones. In February, the police raided Richards’ home and charged both him and Jagger with possession. The frontman and guitarist were sentenced to jail (Jagger got three months and Richards a whole year) but, thanks to public outcry, the pair were released after a single night. Though their punishment was short, the impact on the band’s image was irreversible.

Though it was the summer of love, the Stones weren’t joining in the blithe, “flower power” celebrations and were instead in a much darker place than their contemporaries. Their Satanic Majesties Request, also released that year, was deeply evocative of that fact.

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Given the weight of their public trials and tribulations, by the time 1968 rolled around the group was searching for a new path forward. “I was educating myself,” Jagger once said. “I was reading a lot of poetry, I was reading a lot of philosophy.” It was around this time that his then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull introduced him to The Master and Margarita. Inspired by the story, Jagger started to shape a folk rock song that would eventually take on a far more raucous form.

Jean-Luc Godard

French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard decided to film a 1968 project in London, in light of the political upheavals present around the country. As part of the film, Godard set out to film the Stones at Olympic Sound Studios. The filming dates happened to align with the recording of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

In the film, the band can be seen working out what would become the final product. Reportedly 32 takes of the folk version of “Sympathy” were cut before Richards took to the bass and they found a samba-esque groove.

“That to me is the beauty of recording, of going to a studio,” Richards said. “You go in with some sort of semi-conceived idea of what you think this song is supposed to come out like, and it comes out something totally different because it’s been filtered through all of the other guys in the band.”

Find The Rolling Stones album, Beggars Banquet, HERE

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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