The Rolling Stones were the quintessential bad boys of rock and roll, they were the first to rile the establishment, they refused to bend to the system and forged an independence few in the business could rival. They didn't like the regimented style of British recording studios and producers and so they went to the states and cut records at their beloved Chess Studios in Chicago. Some of it was enhanced by their image conscious producer/manager Andrew Loog Oldham but it remained their core ideal that they wouldn't bend for anybody, it was us against them.
In their music they went places few went, they talked about not getting any sex, they sang about housewives popping pills, their songs had a nastiness to them. The year 1968 was tumultuous year for the world and especially in the U.S, the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King, the ensuing riots across the country and the deepening resentment of the Vietnam War created a divided nation. A new generation began to ask why, they began to mobilise and they began to voice their frustration, America had become a tinderbox and the sparks were flying. Who better to express that negativity, to give it a musical voice than the Stones, they weren't afraid to confront the times and expose the darkness. Sympathy for The Devil whilst not directly confronting the situation in the manner of Street Fighting Man it brought to bear the dark clouds hanging over America. It also drew on dark chapters of human history with the devil's bloodstained hands pulling the strings.
The song starts with an ominous squeal from Jagger as bongos and maraca's build a maddening rhythm, then there is that piano chord by Nicky Hopkins that opens the gates to hell, Jagger swaggers in,
Please allow me to introduce myself,
I'm a man of wealth and taste,
I've been around for a long long year,
Stole many a man's soul and fate.
The devil talks of seeing pain and doubt in Jesus as he watched as Pilate sealed his fate,
Pleased to meet you, hoped you guessed me name,
But what's troubling you, is the nature of my game
The momentum of the song begins to build, Keith Richards in an unusual role supplies a supple bass line with real rhythmic pulse. Jagger begins to build on the foundations of the foul deeds of the devil,
I stuck around St Petersburg
When I saw it was time for a change,
Killed the Czar and his ministers,
Anastasia screamed in vain,
I rode a tank,
Held a General's rank
While the blitzkreig rained
And the bodies stank
Keith Richards steps in as the percussive flow builds to a climactic frenzy, sending out stinging guitar line and a nice repetitive wail. Jagger then brings the song back to a modern context seemingly calling for restraint from those who have and abuse power.
Just as every cop is a criminal,
And all the sinners saints,
As heads is tails just call me Lucifer
As I'm in need of some restraint
So if you meet me, have some courtesy
Have some sympathy and some taste
Use all your well learned politics
Or I'll lay your soul to waste.
Sympathy for the Devil was never released as a single other than in France and later in Germany I believe, it was released on the Beggars Banquet album which came out at the end of 1968, after a six month delay due to Decca raising concerns over the cover art. The album itself signalled a return to form for the Stones after twelve months of arrests and the release of the panned At Their Satanic Majesties Request album. They would keep that creative head of steam going with the follow up Let It Bleed.