Title: Sympathy for the Devil
Artist: The Rolling Stones
Album: Beggars Banquet
Man, did I ever miss an opportunity for a TWOsday! Yesterday, I featured William Shatner reading a translation of Baudelaire's "Spleen" and now here I am tonight with "Sympathy for the Devil," the idea of which Mick Jagger claims was taken from the work of Baudelaire! Que sera sera, I suppose.
I mean no discredit to the body of work that came before Beggars Banquet—there are some remarkable songs on those early records—but it seems to me this is the album where The Rolling Stones stopped trying to compete with The Beatles and went their own way. The failure (relatively speaking) of Their Satanic Majesties Request, with its knockoff Sgt. Pepper's... cover, must have felt like a low point for a band that had been on the rise since landing in America, especially given all of the strife within the ranks. (I talk about this in my discussion of "She's a Rainbow.") And no matter what kind of flack they took over suggestive lyrics in songs like "Let's Spend the Night Together," nothing could have been more brazen or brave than opening their new album with "Sympathy for the Devil."
It's not just the lyrics that make the song, but can you imagine the equivalent record being released in the USA by a major artist today? Bobby Kennedy was murdered just months before the release of a song featuring the lines "I shouted out 'Who killed the Kennedys?'/Well, after all, it was you and me." Just having the word "devil" in the title would probably get the album banned from major retailers here. To be fair, the Stones did fall under some scrutiny at the time and were accused of being Satanists by many but I imagine the backlash would be more severe in today's market.
Of course, context is important and the setting of these lyrics is unique even 45 years later. Jagger's original idea was a Dylanesque folk song, which would have been okay, I think—the lyrics are strong enough to be laid bare against an acoustic guitar. But Keith Richards took the song in a gloriously different direction, presenting it as a samba with multiple percussion and disembodied woo's. This combination must have scared the hell out of middle America! This was already a time of civil unrest and the Stones had marked it with their single "Street Fighting Man," which was banned from being played by Chicago radio stations during the Democratic National Convention. And now here they were with these tribal beats singing about the devil. In return, they received the upward career trajectory of their lives and an astounding creative outburst. Even Faust would have been impressed.