The 1960’s was a time of questions. The young had the time and freedom to question all they were told, be it by world leaders, society or religious institutions. 1968’s ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is an extension of this desire to pose questions, but The Stones twist the idea on its head by taking the form of Lucifer, the original human form of the Devil, who asks questions of us.
They force us to question the role he played in moments from our past; the Russian Revolution and the execution of the Romanov family, WWII and the holocaust, the 100 years war, the Kennedy assassinations, and more.
Stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tzar and his ministers; Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank, held a gen’rals rank when the blitzkrieg
raged and the bodies stank
I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for
ten decades for the Gods they made
I SHOUTED out, “Who killed the Kennedy’s?”
When after all it was you and me.
Far from being the instigator, Satan claims he was merely present at these moments, holds a mirror to our definition of him, and points the finger of blame squarely back at us.
But it’s not only Jagger’s lyrics that shine. Watts’ samba percussion sets a steady rhythm as unsettling as the subject matter. Richards’ guitar punches and squeals intermittently, and dances with Jagger’s Michael Jackson vocals for the closing 2 minutes. The taunting ‘woo-woo’ backing vocals (re-recorded after the initial attempt by band plus Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithful below) add the hypnotic constant to Jagger’s increasingly agitated tone. Even though Brian Jones was nearing the end of his days, it’s hard to imagine that the mixture of genre’s and instrumentation is not at least partly his doing. Sadly, he would be dead in just over a year.
1967’s Satanic Majesty’s Request was to be the last time they competed with The Fab Four, with ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ raising the bar in a different direction. The Beatles asked questions of people. The Stones asked questions of a people, and in so doing showed the US that the British Invasion could do social commentary just as well as the Americans.