“Sympathy for the Devil”, the 1968 Rolling Stones song released on their album Beggars Banquet, is a perfect example of the stylistic fusions that were taking place in the musical world of the late 1960s. The song incorporates aspects of the traditional folk song, with its story-like quality, along with musical characteristics of Brazilian samba, hard rock of the era, free-form jazz and politically charged lyrics critical of humankind, in accordance to the rebellious political stance of youth at the time. The song’s tempo and beat never wavers, staying in 4/4 time, but increasing the wild energy behind it with each new verse, as instrumentation is layered over time, parallel to the revelations and historical atrocities the lyrics relate. It marked a change in songwriting style for the Rolling Stones, introducing darker themes and allusions to literary works (in this case Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita), a more mature approach they would continue throughout their careers.
Sympathy for the Devil opens with what can be best categorized as a basic “samba” beat, with a drummer softly playing his snare and his hi-hat while a conga sets the staple rhythm for the rest of the song. We hear a couple of primal screams and laughing voices as the maracas come in, and around the twenty second mark, the electric piano, played by Nicky Hopkins, and singer Mick Jagger come in simultaneously. Jagger opens with the line “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste,” in a soft spoken and proper English accent, as Hopkins’ piano playing “comps” and plays chords sparsely on the downbeat of each bar. The piano and the lyrics mirror each other, starting off with a laid back approach so as to not intimidate the listener, who is also, hypothetically, the target of a Faustian deal with the Devil. For in this song, Jagger is adopting the role of Satan himself, boasting of the atrocities he has convinced humanity to commit over the centuries. Referencing the doubt and later, crucifixion of Jesus, as well as the Romans rejection of the savior, we can infer that we are dealing with a true force here, that at this point piques our curiosity, but hasn’t yet revealed all of his fury.
With the arrival of each new full verse, the song picks up more and more energy, the piano and the timbre of Jagger’s voice becoming more frenetic, angry and passionate, all while remaining rooted to the afro-Latin rhythmic structure. Joined by a constantly improvising and slightly distorted electric bass riff by Keith Richards, normally their guitarist, the song acquires a nature of relentlessness, moving forward throughout time and giving it a sense that it could go on forever, like the devil himself. This fusion of English musicians with exotic rhythmic patterns is an example of the cross-pollination of ideas that was taking place in the rock and roll world. It was borrowing ideas from jazz (that had already explored the musical traditions of the New World colonies with the fantastic incursions into Bossa Nova), black rhythm and blues and Caribbean “son”, music that employed the congas and maracas as its rhythmic core. The second verse is a prime example of this – Hopkins is now playing an all out, rock and roll piano chord progression that makes us want to dance, while Jagger sings over it relating about how Satan himself provoked the Bolshevik Revolution and World War II, smug and boastful, almost daring us to question his role.
In the third verse, Jagger’s timbre has become almost a snarl, and he is joined by voices in the background harmonizing a “woo woo” in the style of a cappella groups, another layer to the song’s dense aural experience. As the lyrics continue to shock us, re-telling of the awful nature of man and how he can be convinced to do even the most atrocious crimes in the name of ideology and religion, the tension builds, until release arrives in the form of a highly distorted electric guitar solo that replaces the vocals (also played by Richards), in the upper echelons of guitar notes. It is furious and fast, going on for sixteen bars while the rest of the accompaniment continues to drive the song along. This could be considered the song’s bridge, though it does not conform to the traditional AABA form of songs, adopting more of a verse-chorus format. After one final verse in which the singer reveals himself to truly be Lucifer, guitarist and singer play off each other, competing for the listener’s attention.
It is here where the influences of free-form jazz manifest themselves, with guitarist Richards, pianist Hopkins and singer Jagger all playing notes within certain musical modes, but without being constrained by fixed form, almost challenging the others to best them in a fashion reminiscent of the collaborations of great jazz groups like the Miles Davis sextet, where a musical idea was put forth and all were free to explore. The rough timbres and soloing on the part of each, with Jagger tauntingly asking us “what’s my name?” while Richards shreds it, superimposed over the now raging music ensure that the energy and drive in the song remain all the way until the end, when it just fades out, like the siren of a speeding ambulance that blasts by us.
Sympathy for the Devil is a brilliant critique of human nature, and the inherent cruelty that Jagger seems to insinuate can be teased out of all of us, while at the same time being a celebration of the best aspects of human kind – creativity, cooperation and vibrant energy. Exploring these themes of darkness while at the same time delivering them with such glee and gusto is what makes a good, thought provoking song, and one that strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of many listeners, who recognize the truth in the lyrics and the potential for this cruelty in their own person.