Before Heavy Metal was born and bands started to sing about the devil, the Rolling Stones released the groundbreaking track “Sympathy For The Devil” on their 1968 album “Beggars Banquet”. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the track became one of their biggest hits and since then has been on their live setlist.
But what is the song really about? Well, Mick Jagger once explained the meaning behind it.
The meaning of “Sympathy For The Devil” explained by Mick Jagger
The track was inspired by French literature and Bob Dylan, having nothing to do with black magic, as all the tabloids of that time speculated. “My whole thing of this song was not black magic and all this silly nonsense. Like Megadeth or whatever else came afterward. It was different than that. We had played around with that imagery before – which is Satanic Majesties – but it wasn’t really put into words,” Mick Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995.
“(…) 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,” Mick Jagger said.
Jagger said he wrote the song alone but the rhythm was Keith’s idea
During the same interview he said that although the song was also credited to Richards, he wrote the whole thing alone. According to the singer, Keith’s contribution was suggesting that they did the song in another rhythm. That change gave the song “a very hypnotic groove”, according to Jagger, which made it sound even bigger.
Also in that interview, Jagger talked about the band trying to back off from the kind of “satanic imagery” they kind of had after all those released mentioned the devil. “The satanic-imagery stuff was very overplayed (By the press). We didn’t want to really go down that road. And I felt that song was enough. You didn’t want to make a career out of it. But bands did that. Jimmy Page, for instance,” Mick Jagger said.
Besides Mick and Keith, at the time the band was formed by Charlie Watts, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman. The song also had Nicky Hopkins on piano and Rocky Dzidzornu on congas/cowbell. The backing vocals were recorded by Michael Cooper, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg. The track sold an estimated amount of more than 600 copies only in the United Kingdom.
The rhythm was inspired by the Brazil’s “Samba”
As pointed out by the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Mick Jagger spent some time in Brazil with his then girlfriend Marianne Faithfull and her son Nicholas in 1968. They went to popular music festivals and even Candomblé sessions, which is an Afro-Brazilian religion with strong elements from African religions.
“We spent days laying on the beach or playing with children from a nearby house. We played hand drums with candomblé worshippers,” Mick Jagger told Esquire in 1969.
In 1975, when he was visiting Brazil he recalled that the “Sympathy For The Devil” rhythm was really inspired by Samba. “(It is) Samba with a strong and steady rhythm. Yeah, it’s samba, not in a formal way. But for me, it is. I don’t care if it doesn’t sound like a ‘real’ samba.”