Musicians are constantly faced with the question: “How do you write your songs?”. It’s tempting to imagine that, like Mozart, artists such as The Rolling Stones had all their hits whirling around their heads fully formed, and all they had to do was pluck them out one by one.
But the reality is that a song can come from anywhere, and each one is bound to develop in an entirely unique way. Some might spring up fully formed (yes, it has been known to happen). Contrastingly, a song might do everything in its power to resist being written. And sometimes, a song might – as was the case with The Rolling Stones’ track, ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ – undergo multiple transformations before revealing itself. Although these things often drive musicians mad when they’re working in the studio, they are also demonstrative of the sheer mystery of songwriting, the magic inherent to the craft.
Music is a very spongy art form, perhaps more so than any other. And because it plays with our brains in a very abstract way, it’s easy for musicians to subconsciously absorb fragments of melody or particular songwriting styles and then regurgitate them without even realising. For proof of this, you need to look no further than the dizzying amount of lawsuits filed against musicians and record labels, accusing them of infringing on the copyright of some classic song.
Perhaps Mick Jagger had absorbed something of Bob Dylan when he sat down to write ‘Sympathy for The Devil’ because Kieth Richards later described the singer’s first draft of the track as feeling highly “Dylanesque”. Richards recalled how: “Mick came in with a song, but it was… Great song, but it was very Dylanesque. It was like a ballad.”
It seemed to Richards that the song simply wouldn’t work in its original form. But, far from giving up on the track, The Rolling Stones decided to take it into the studio to play around with it some more. For Richards, it was there that the magic happened: “And, you know, you go through the process in the studio, which is the process I love – of everybody going, ‘No, no. Let’s rethink. What if we, like, push the beat up a bit?”.
The Stones completely dismantled the track, taking it down to its bare bones and then rebuilding it with new materials. Richards remembers how he looked up, and suddenly, the song had transformed beyond recognition: “So suddenly I’m on bass [and] it’s a samba. [laughs] But that to me is the beauty of recording, of going to a studio. You go in with some sort of semi-conceived idea of what you think this song is supposed to come out like, and it comes out something totally different because it’s been filtered through all of the other guys in the band.”
The story of how ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ came together is a lesson in patience and determination. The Rolling Stones could easily have abandoned the track, but they trusted it to reveal itself. It took some time and a lot of graft, but gradually, the heart of the song emerged, taking on new life. In sticking with it, The Rolling Stones transformed something derivative into one of their most enduring and definitive tracks.