Rolling Stones Keith Richards live in Germany, 1965
(Credit: Bent Rej)

Keith Richards at his best? The isolated guitar for The Rolling Stones ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

If there’s one man capable of playing both the angel and devil on your shoulder then it’s The Rolling Stones’, Keith Richards. And while we agree that his version of an angel may well be drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels as he offers advice, nobody can doubt the guitarist’s ability to morph into the devil.

Keith Richards may not be the most talented guitarist of all time. In fact, he probably wouldn’t make the top 10. But what some musicians have in technical prowess, Richards makes up for in sheer rock and roll ‘vibe’.

As part of the Glitter Twins alongside frontman Mick Jagger, Richards helped forge a brand new type of rock and roll with the iron ore of rock days gone by. While Brian Jones had been the main architect of the band’s early foundations, now it was Richards and Jagger who were the foremen.

By 1968, the duo were running the show and creating some of the band’s most notable pieces. There are few songs that inspire the rock and roll passion that pair began to enact than on ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. The opener to Beggars Banquet remains a bastion of spirit and power, and while Jagger’s vocal is sensational, it is Richards’ ability to wear the skin of Lucifer that has us reeling.

Although the song is attributed to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it is widely believed that Jagger wrote most of the song on his own through its original incarnations as ‘The Devil Is My Name’ and ‘Fallen Angels’, before settling on the song’s title. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said, “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong.”

He continues, “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. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” But perhaps most notably, it was Richards who suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, turning the folk song into a subterranean samba. He was Jagger’s devil on the shoulder who added the final ingredient: danger.

Aside from the sinister samba rhythm and the lyrical enjoyment of tragedy, the real seal of demonic approval comes from Richards’ flaming riffs. Moved away from the London blues sound which was permeating the streets of the capital in the mid-to-late-sixties, Keef attacks with intensity. It was a performance in the booth that would see The Rolling Stones labelled as Devil worshippers.

When you hear Richards’ piercing solo in the middle of this otherwise pleasant samba bop you get the picture of his intent, every single clench knuckle of it direct to the chin. It’s an uppercut of a lead line and one that not only cements his place as a great but makes Richards the vital component in the song.

Richards said in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, “Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil.’ Oh, I’m evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil … What is evil? Half of it, I don’t know how many people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody’s Lucifer.”

And truly, isn’t this the crux of Richards’ thinking, and in fact, his guitar playing? Richards is the mix of good and evil, the bubbling crucible of humanity. Neither too good nor too bad, The Rolling Stones and especially good ol’ Keef, are the core of us all, as capable of giving you angelic mortgage advice as burning the house down.

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