There are few songs that inspire the rock and roll passion inside you like The Rolling Stones song ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, it’s arguably the archetypal dangerous side of rock. The 1968 opener to Beggars Banquet remains a bastion of spirit and power, nowhere is that clearer to hear than in Mick Jagger’s isolated vocal.
The singer, not necessarily famed for his wide vocal range or voluminous power, the hip-swaying Jagger has instead made a career on drenching every one of his vocals takes in his unique and swaggering style. On The Rolling Stones’ track ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, Jagger controls the audience with every devilish note.
It would make sense to us too. Although the song is attributed to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — AKA The Glimmer Twins — 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.”
The ‘Brown Sugar’ singer added: “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.” It was Richards and his nous for a riff who suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, turning the folk song into a subterranean samba.
It’s a trademark groove that would not only highlight the subversive tone of the track, as Jagger confirms in RS: “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 slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it is 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 (candomblé). So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.”
The track begins with Mick Jagger singing in the first person, as the pointed Devil himself, claiming his place in the history books for being the force behind a list of human atrocities — crimes, murder, the trial and death of Jesus (“Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate”), as well as European wars of religion, and so on. Smug, sultry and sensual, Jagger embodies the Devil and his tempting ways with devastating effect.
Aside from the sinister samba rhythm which permeates every moment of the song and the lyrical enjoyment of tragedy, the real seal of demonic approval comes from Jagger’s own vocal tone. Moving away from the London blues sound which was sweeping the streets of the capital in the mid-to-late-sixties, Jagger’s vocal rings out with a fiery intensity. It was a performance that would see The Rolling Stones labelled as Devil worshippers.
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.”
While the song’s power and pulse come from the entirety of the band enacting Jagger’s original conception, it is Jagger’s vocal which takes the track to a whole new level.
Mick Jagger embodies evil with a sexy sultriness that had scores of fans falling at his feet as the true antichrist. However wrong they were, it’s hard to deny the song’s mystique and alluring perfume of siding, for once and for all, with the dark side of the world.
Listen below to Mick Jagger’s isolated vocal on ‘Sympathy For The Devil’.