45 Years Ago: the Rolling Stones Record ‘Sympathy for the Devil’
45 years ago this week, the Rolling Stones recorded one of their most enduring songs, 'Sympathy for the Devil.'
After taking what many viewed as a creative misstep with their bid for psychedelic street cred, ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request,’ the Stones decided to get back to basics, teaming with a new producer -- Jimmy Miller, best known at the time for having helmed Traffic’s ‘Mr. Fantasy’ album--and returning to the R&B-inspired stylings that had served them so well in the beginning. Among the new batch of Mick Jagger / Keith Richards compositions: a song which may or may not have been inspired by the writings of French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire but is definitely sung from Satan’s point of view.
Recorded initially at London’s Olympic Sound Studios on June 4-5 and June 8-10, with the famous “woo woo” backing vocals overdubbed later in Los Angeles, 'Sympathy for the Devil' features Jagger playing the part of the Prince of Darkness, singing his way through the history of humanity and his reactions to such events as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Russian Revolution, and World War II, wrapping things up in the present. When we say “the present,” we’re not kidding: when Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968, Jagger changed the original lyric from “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?’” to “I shouted out, ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’”
While Jagger is hesitant to commit to Baudelaire’s work as the specific inspiration for 'Sympathy from the Devil' (in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview, he admitted, “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”), the Stones frontman has always been quick to acknowledge that Richards had very little to do with the song, short of suggesting that they try it in another rhythm.
Charlie Watts acknowledges his own lack of involvement in the song’s creation in 2003’s 'According to the Rolling Stones,' noting that the first time he heard the song was when Jagger played it for him in its entirety. “We had a go at loads of different ways of playing it,” said Watts. “In the end, I just played a jazz Latin feel in the style Kenny Clarke would have played on ‘A Night in Tunisia’ -- not the actual rhythm he played, but the same styling.”
Coming on the heels of an album entitled 'Their Satanic Majesties' Request,' it's no wonder that a song called 'Sympathy for the Devil' resulted in the Rolling Stones suffering through accusations of devil worshiping, but given that they've managed to soldier on for another 45 years since its initial release, it's fair to say that the controversy didn't do a great deal of long-term damage. Since its release, the song has been covered by numerous disparate artists, including Sandie Shaw, Guns 'N' Roses, Bryan Ferry, Blood, Sweat, & Tears, Natalie Merchant, and Jane's Addiction, among others. Most critics agree, however, that the original remains untouchable.
Watch the Rolling Stones Perform 'Sympathy for the Devil'