There are certain aspects of The Rolling Stones’ 1968 masterpiece ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that make it absolutely untouchable as a stone-cold classic. Those fatalistic lyrics, a warped travelogue through some of histories darkest moments and the pitch-black humour that comes from them are significant factors — as is the very Stones-style swagger of the entire production, where danger and sexuality are not just inextricable but completely necessary in equal measure.
But beyond the more esoteric factors, there’s something that even the most precious of pearl-clutchers can’t deny: that indelible groove. With waves of Latin percussion and Keith Richards’ endlessly inventive bass line, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is impossible to sit still during. You don’t necessarily have to dance (and for most of us, it’s probably not recommended anyway), but if you’re not tapping your foot or nodding your head, chances are you need to check your vital signs for a pulse.
When talking to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in 1995, Mick Jagger said that he always knew the song was special from the moment he wrote it in 1968. “I knew it was a good song,” Jagger said. “You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on.” But Jagger also had to pretences about what made the song translate so well to the general public. “It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music,” he said. “It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove.”
It didn’t always start that way: during its initial writing, Jagger composed the song on acoustic guitar and intended it to be a folk ballad, not unlike perhaps the most famous folk singer of all time. “I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song,” Jagger admitted to Wenner. And when he brought the song to the band, that’s how it was for the first few takes, as can be seen in Jean-Luc Godard’s in-studio footage shot during the song’s recording. By his own admission, Richards didn’t add anything lyrically to Jagger’s composition but made the essential instigation of a new samba style to drive the slow ballad into a driving funk rocker.
That footage is a fascinating window into not only the Stones’ songwriting and recoding process, but also the fluctuations that the band were going through at the time. During the first trial runs, Jagger, Richards, and Brian Jones can all be seen strumming along with acoustic guitars while Bill Wyman sits with his bass patiently waiting for the arrangement to be fleshed out. By the time the song begins to take shape, Wyman is on shakers, Richards is on bass, and Jones is nowhere to be found, sequestered away still playing his acoustic guitar that mostly gets mixed out from the final take. It’s an appropriate, if somewhat sad, illustration of the band’s dynamics during Beggars Banquet.
Jagger didn’t hold on to any preciousness regarding the song’s final style. “It is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece,” he said. “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.”
Check out footage of the Stones recording ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ down below.