The Epic Track: “Sympathy For The Devil”

Editor’s Note: There are certain tracks that are, well, “epic” — memorable, larger than life, carved into music history. In this series, we look at one of them.


There are some rock and roll bands that, during the span of their existence, write and record just one song that could be considered epic, and essential listening. In the case of The Rolling Stones, there’s a load out’s worth of guitar cases full of tunes that are not only classics but literally define the group as we’ve come to know them. One of these songs is “Sympathy For The Devil,” the opening track on the band’s roots-oriented, blues-flavored 1968 album Beggars Banquet.

Largely composed by Mick Jagger, the tune is narrated in first person by the devil himself who boasts about his influence on mankind and touts his role in some of the darkest moments in history. The song was partially inspired by the novel The Master and Margarita, by writer Mikhail Bulgakov, which features Satan as a central character. Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull gave him the book as a gift, and in interviews, Jagger has also credited the writings of poet Charles Baudelaire as an influence on the song’s composition.

Originally conceived with more of a folk-leaning sound, the tune evolved into its final version when the band was recording Beggars Banquet at Olympic Studios in June of 1968. During the sessions, Keith Richards suggested a samba-styled flavor for the song. In addition to the then-current Stones lineup of Jagger, Richards, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, and Charlie Watts, the tune also includes Rocky Dijon, as well as the band’s frequent collaborator Nicky Hopkins.

Photographer Michael Cooper and Stones paramours Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg contributed to the backing vocals. “Sympathy For The Devil” features a salacious lead vocal from Jagger, wicked guitar work from Richards, Dijon’s cool congas, Wyman on shekere, moody piano work by Hopkins, and of course the ever-present solid drumming of Watts. The song’s mesmerizing soundscape, its swirling groove, as well as its striking imagery and lyrics all combine to create an instant classic. How can you forget that eerie intro, powered by Jagger’s almost lascivious come-on, “Please allow me to introduce myself,  I’m a man of wealth and taste…” Back when I was a young music fan, I first heard the song on my vinyl edition of the compilation Hot Rocks 1964-1971, and it quickly became one of my favorite Stones tracks.

Beggars Banquet was released in early December of 1968. “Sympathy For The Devil” was one of the key songs on the record, which also features “No Expectations,” “Salt of the Earth” and “Stray Cat Blues.” The raw, back-to-basics nature of the album won acclaim and positive reviews from critics and fans, but it also deepened the group’s bad-boy reputation, and created some controversy over the cynical, socio-political content of tracks like “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.”


There were other issues that some writers associated with the song’s darker themes. Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was in the studio filming the band during the recording of “Sympathy For The Devil” and some equipment from the crew caught fire, which damaged both the studio and the band’s instruments. Footage of the band crafting the song was later used as part of Godard’s documentary One Plus One, also known as Sympathy For The Devil. Contrary to some sources, the band was not performing the song at the infamous Altamont Speedway concert where Meredith Hunter was killed, they were actually playing “Under My Thumb.”

“Sympathy For The Devil” was not the end of the band’s ongoing relationship with darker material, which included songs such as “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler,” both of which were produced by Jimmy Miller. In addition to his masterful work on Beggars Banquet, he helped craft the band’s quintessential run of late 1960s and early 1970s records, including Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., and Goat’s Head Soup.

Since its original release, “Sympathy For The Devil” has become one of the most iconic entries in the Stones canon, and performing it has become a major component of their live shows for many years. The song has been covered by Guns N’ Roses, Motorhead, Jane’s Addiction, Ozzy Osbourne, and Rickie Lee Jones, and it’s been featured in countless movies and television shows. “Sympathy For The Devil” is truly epic, and it’s one of the most perfect marriages of singer and song in rock and roll history. Haven’t we all thought Mick had a little bit of the devil in him at one time or another?

-John Visconti

Photo: Getty Images

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3 comments on “The Epic Track: “Sympathy For The Devil”

  1. All time classic. I’ve always marveled that they could sing “Woo woo!” for 4-1/2 minutes. Stamina!

  2. John Smistad

    Really fine piece here, JV.

    Keith’s rollicking solo on the “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” live album version of “Sympathy” stands among his best ever.

    One of THE best ever.

  3. Thanks for remembering the Mikhail Bulgakov’s inspiration for this song. His Master and Margarita novel blended satire, surrealism, Christian theology, and covert political dissent. It was one of the strangest and most controversial of the century and of the Soviet Union era. Bulgakov’s novel was banned and misunderstood but it grew in influence, and the more one knows about the novel the more “Sympathy for the Devil” makes sense (the title is also a vamp on the British phrase “tea and sympathy”). I had evangelical Christian friends who took this song entirely the wrong way when, in fact, Jagger’s lyrics affirm a scriptural intention.

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