This perpetuated the image of the Stones as frightening bad boys, as opposed to the clean-cut Beatles. It was great marketing for the band.
The lyrics were inspired by The Master and Margarita, a book by Mikhail Bulgakov. British singer Marianne Faithfull was Mick Jagger's girlfriend at the time and she gave him the book. Faithfull came from an upper-class background and exposed Jagger to a lot of new ideas. In the book, the devil is a sophisticated socialite, a "man of wealth and taste."
Jagger claims this is about the dark side of man, not a celebration of Satanism.
A documentary by French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard called One Plus One captured the recording of this song, which took place over 5 days: June 5, 6, 8 - 10, 1968. At one point, a lamp for the documentary started a fire in the studio. The tapes were saved, but a lot of the Stones' equipment was destroyed. (thanks, Rich - Midland Park, NJ)
The original title was "The Devil Is My Name." Says Jagger: "Songs can metamorphasize. And Sympathy for the Devil is one of those songs that started off like one thing, I wrote it one way and then we started the change the rhythm. And then it became completely different. And then it got very exciting. It started off as a Folk song and then became a Samba. A good song can become anything. It's got lots of historical references and lots of poetry."
Keith Richards (2002): "Sympathy is quite an uplifting song. It's just a matter of looking the Devil in the face. He's there all the time. I've had very close contact with Lucifer - I've met him several times. Evil - people tend to bury it and hope it sorts itself out and doesn't rear its ugly head. Sympathy for the Devil is just as appropriate now, with 9/11. There it is again, big time. When that song was written, it was a time of turmoil. It was the first sort of international chaos since World War II. And confusion is not the ally of peace and love. You want to think the world is perfect. Everybody gets sucked into that. And as America has found out to its dismay, you can't hide. You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. Sympathy for the Devil is a song that says, Don't forget him. If you confront him, then he's out of a job." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France, for above 2)
The Stones played this at the Altamont Speedway concert in 1969 before a fan was fatally stabbed. The crowd got more unruly as the song went on. The Stones were playing "Under My Thumb" when the stabbing occurred, but they did not perform "Sympathy For The Devil" for 7 years after the incident due to the public outcry.
Some of the historical events mentioned in this song are the crucifixion of Christ, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Kennedy Assassinations. Robert Kennedy was killed after this was written, but they changed the lyrics to get in the timely reference.
Other historical events alluded to in the song include the 100 years war ("fought for ten decades") and the Holocaust ("and the furnace stank"). (thanks, Phil - Rochester, NY)
The "Whoo-Whoo" backing vocals were added when Richard's girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, did it during a take and the Stones liked how it sounded. Pallenberg sang this on the record along with Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Marianne Faithfull and Jimmy Miller. (thanks, Rich - Midland Park, NJ)
Stones producer Jimmy Miller: "Anita (Pallenberg) was the epitome of what was happening at the time. She was very Chelsea. She'd arrive with the elite film crowd. During Sympathy for the Devil when I started going whoo, whoo in the control room, so did they I had the engineer set up a mike so they could go out in the studio and whoo, whoo." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
On their 1989 Steel Wheels tour, The Stones performed this with Jagger standing high above the stage next to a fire. Mick wore a safety belt in case he fell.
The Stones performed this on Rock and Roll Circus, a British TV special The Stones taped in 1968 but never aired. It was released on video in 1995. During the performance, Jagger removes his shirt to reveal devil tattoos on his chest and arms.
Guns N' Roses covered this in 1995 for the move Interview With The Vampire (This song appears at the end of the movie, which stars Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and a young Kirsten Dunst). Their version hit #9 in England. Jane's Addiction also did a cover. (thanks, Brett - Edmonton, Canada)
The beat is based on a Samba rhythm. Says Richards: "Sympathy for the Devil started as sort of a folk song with acoustics, and ended up as a kind of mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later. That's why I don't like to go into the studio with all the songs worked out and planned beforehand."
The opening lines of this song, "Please allow me to introduce myself I'm a man of wealth and taste" were quoted by The Devil character (played by actor Rick Collins) in the film The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie. (thanks, Jeff - Haltom City, TX)
In 2003, The Stones released this as a "maxi-single," with 4 versions of the song. The original was on there, as well as remixes by The Neptunes, Fatboy Slim, and Full Phatt.
The industrial band Laibach released an entire album containing different covers of this. The character and tone of the Laibach covers are largely very different from the Stones original. In the opening track the lead singer sings/shouts in a very deep bass voice with a thick Slavic accent. One of their covers contains references to the violence at the Altamont raceway.
Some other worthy covers: Sandra Bernhard, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Bryan Ferry, Guns N' Roses, Jane's Addiction, The London Symphony Orchestra, Natalie Merchant, U2. (thanks, Neal - Cleveoh, OH)
One verse of lyrics was recited by Intel Vice President Steve McGeady during his testimony in Microsoft's antitrust trial in November 1998. McGeady had written a memo about Microsoft with the subject "Sympathy For The Devil," and when asked whether he was calling Microsoft the devil, McGeady recited the passage about using your well-learned politesse. (thanks, Keith - Seattle, WA)
In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus states that this was influenced by Robert Johnson's song "Me and the Devil Blues." Keith Richards describes Johnson's influence as "Like a comet or a meteor" in the liner notes to Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings. (thanks, elijah - Cincinnati, OH)
The "Troubadours who got killed before they reached Bombay" refers to the hippies who traveled the "Hippie Trail" by road. Many on them were killed and ripped off by drug peddlers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those shady deals were probably the "traps." (thanks, Jose - Minneapolis, MN)
Jagger (1995): "It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn't speed up or down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it's also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive - because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it. But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it's a very unpretentious groove. If it had been done as a ballad, it wouldn't have been as good."
Jagger (1995): "I knew it was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It's all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different. Especially in England - you're skewered on the altar of pop culture if you become pretentious." (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France, for above 2)
In 2006, this was included in The National Review magazine's list of the 50 most conservative Rock lyrics. They claimed that this is an anti-Communist, conservative song and that the devil being referred to is Communist Russia.
Guns and Roses Version