Sympathy For The Devil: The Rolling Stones; Guns ‘N Roses; Rickie Lee Jones

Hello there! This is the fifth installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie.

This week’s blog entry is Sympathy For The Devil. This is a controversial and edgy rock song composed by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was featured in the 1968 movie One Plus One, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.

We will start with a brief review of the Rolling Stones. We will then review the movie One Plus One, and discuss the central importance of Sympathy For The Devil in that film.

Then we will review two covers of this song, one by Guns ‘N Roses and the second by Rickie Lee Jones.

The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil:

For over 50 years, the Rolling Stones have been one of the most successful bands in rock music history. They have also been one of our favorite groups to review in earlier blog posts: see here; here; here; here; here; here; here; and here.

As a result, we will give a short review of the band’s history in this post.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been primary school classmates and friends until their parents moved apart. Meeting up again when they were both in college, they realized that they shared an interest in blues and rock music.

So Mick and Keith joined up with multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones. Because Brian was the most accomplished musician, having played guitar with Alexis Korner’s influential band Blues Incorporated, Jones was initially the group’s leader.

After a few early personnel changes, the group settled on a quintet.  Below is a photo of the Rolling Stones in 1968. From L: bassist Bill Wyman; lead vocalist Mick Jagger; guitarist Keith Richards; multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones; drummer Charlie Watts.

Embed from Getty Images

Initially the Stones played almost exclusively covers, becoming leaders in an American blues revival movement in London. But then they switched from blues to rock ‘n roll. At first they played covers of R&B and rock songs, but soon Mick and Keith began writing original songs for the Stones.

In 1968, when the song Sympathy For the Devil was written, the Stones were one of the most famous rock bands in the world. While the image projected by the Beatles was initially as lovable mop-tops, the Stones had a well-earned reputation as “bad boys.”

As we will see, Sympathy For the Devil provided critics of the Stones with ammunition to argue that the group might be members of a Satanic cult.

One Plus One and Sympathy For The Devil:

One Plus One was a 1968 movie written and directed by the great French avant-garde film-maker Jean-Luc Godard. A central element of the movie was the filming of the Rolling Stones creating a song.

The tune that the Stones were rehearsing during Godard’s filming was Sympathy For The Devil. Throughout the movie, there are shots of the Stones writing the song, rehearsing it, and recording the parts that were then assembled to produce the final version.

To avoid confusion in this post we will refer to Godard’s movie as One Plus One. However, a producer’s edit of Godard’s film was also titled Sympathy For the Devil, and it is likely that nowadays more people know the film by the “Sympathy” title than by the film’s original name.

Sympathy For the Devil is credited to Jagger and Richards, but the lyrics were written by Mick Jagger alone. Jagger’s notion was to present the Devil as a cultured, urbane personality, who stimulated humans to engage in evil and to carry out atrocities. Jagger asserts that he got this idea from works by Baudelaire.

Sympathy For The Devil consists of an individual (the Devil) addressing the listener. He reviews a number of gruesome incidents in human history, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

[CHORUS] Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

The lyrics go on to describe violent religious wars waged in Europe; the Russian Revolution; and World War II. The times were sufficiently turbulent that Jagger’s original line “who killed Kennedy?” had to be changed to “who killed the Kennedys” after Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated in June 1968.

Keith Richards made significant contributions to producing the song; for example, Keith suggested that the song utilize African rhythms (known as “candomble,” our word for the week).

As a result, the song maintains a driving beat that is accentuated by the use of congas and other drums. In addition to the five Stones (Mick Jagger on lead vocals, Keith Richards on lead guitar and bass, Brian Jones on rhythm guitar, Bill Wyman on maracas, and Charlie Watts on drums), the song includes Rocky Dijon on conga drums and Nicky Hopkins on piano.

Everyone chimes in on backing vocals, including Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg. Here is a montage of scenes from the film One Plus One that feature the Stones.

This is just about the best video I have ever seen that shows the genesis and recording of a rock song. In addition to showing how the elements of the song were assembled, the film shows the increasing isolation of Brian Jones. It would not be long before Jones was kicked out of the Stones, and not long after that before he drowned in his swimming pool.

Godard traveled to Olympic Sound Studios in London to film the Stones at work. Godard’s shots of the Stones include long, slow tracking shots through the studio. Different individuals and groups are shown playing or rehearsing the tune. The video is priceless, revealing intimate details of the conception and production of this song.

Since this is a Godard movie, it contains many mystifying scenes and seemingly unconnected events. I will do my best to provide a short summary of the film, which was shot during Godard’s “Revolutionary Period.”

Throughout the movie, a group of Black Panthers wander around a junkyard, reading revolutionary pamphlets and swapping weapons. A number of white women have apparently been captured by this group, and are brutally treated by the Panthers. Apparently they are also killed, because from time to time women’s bodies appear in various scenes.

There is a scene where a camera crew films a character called Eve Democracy. This woman appears in a peasant dress and answers every question in a monosyllabic “Yes” or “No.”

There is also a confusing scene inside a bookstore that sells everything from old comic books to Nazi propaganda pamphlets to pornographic magazines. Customers who enter the store
approach a bookshelf, pick up books or magazines, exchange them for a sheet of paper, and then slap the faces of two Maoist hostages sitting patiently next to a book display.
The customers deliver a Nazi salute as they leave the bookstore.

In the movie’s final scene, the roving camera crew appears on a beach. They pick up a woman in a white dress and lay her on a platform along with a movie camera. The platform is raised above the beach by a crane, while the completed version of Sympathy For The Devil plays (this is the final scene in the video clip above).

I believe that Mick Jagger’s point in this song was that evil in our society was created collaboratively by the Devil acting through individual humans.

However, that is not how the song was received. Religious groups accused the Stones of devil worship or Satanism. This was bolstered by the fact that the Stones’ previous album had been titled His Satanic Majesty’s Request. Even though that album contained precious little in the way of Satanism, the title of the album was sufficient to draw criticism.

Negative press about the band intensified when one year later, a spectator was killed by Hells Angels who had been retained as crowd control while the Rolling Stones were performing at a concert at Altamont Speedway in California.

It is widely believed that the Stones were performing Sympathy For The Devil when Meredith Hunter was murdered at Altamont. It was not – the song they were playing was Under My Thumb. However, this rumor fueled the notion of the Stones as Satan-worshipers.

Whenever the Stones produce a patently offensive song, they simply claim that “It’s just rock and roll. It doesn’t mean anything.” I don’t cut the boys any slack for misogynist tunes like Under My Thumb or Stupid Girl. I believe the Stones should be severely criticized for such songs.

However, I am inclined to give the Stones the benefit of the doubt on Sympathy For The Devil. I don’t see any significant history of Satanism in the band. There are rock ‘n rollers who are on much shakier grounds – for example, Jimmy Page’s long flirtation with the sinister occultist Aleister Crowley; or even David Bowie’s fascination with Nazi memorabilia.

In any case, fifty years later the Stones are still going strong, with a surprisingly small number of personnel changes over the years. They jettisoned Brian Jones in 1969; Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor left the group at the end of 1974; and former Faces’ guitarist Ronnie Wood joined the Stones in 1975.

Bassist Bill Wyman, the oldest member of the Stones, left the group in 1993. Since then Darryl Jones has played bass on most of the Stones’ tours, although Jones is not an “official” member of the Stones.

It’s hard to imagine that the Rolling Stones are still touring, more than 50 years after the band formed. The Stones have proved to be one of the greatest and most durable rock music acts of all time.

Guns ‘N Roses, Sympathy For The Devil:

Guns ‘N Roses were an L.A. band. For about a decade from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, they were an incredibly hot and influential group. They then suffered a dramatic flame-out, and the original ensemble imploded.

In 1985, guitarist Izzy Stradlin and vocalist Axl Rose from the band Hollywood Rose joined forces with three members of L.A. Guns. The group adopted the name Guns ‘N Roses, and they are often known by the acronym GNR.

However, the three former members of L.A. Guns did not last long. GNR subsequently added lead guitarist Slash who had previously played with Hollywood Rose, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler.

This formed the “classic lineup” of Guns ‘N Roses. Below is a group photo of GNR in Oct. 1985. From L: Duff McKagan; Izzy Stradlin; Axl Rose; Slash; Steven Adler.

Embed from Getty Images

The band sharpened their talent and developed a fan base by working at Hollywood clubs. In 1986 they were signed to a contract with Geffen Records.

GNR’s big breakthrough came with their 1987 album, Appetite for Destruction. Initially, the album experienced disappointing sales. However, CEO David Geffen of Geffen Records persuaded MTV to place the GNR single Welcome to the Jungle in late-evening rotation.

MTV agreed to a trial: they showed the music video for Welcome to the Jungle one time, at 4 AM on a Sunday. Amazingly enough, that generated a significant demand for that song.

GNR then released a second single from that album, Sweet Child o’Mine. That song steadily climbed the charts and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in summer 1988. Welcome to the Jungle was then re-released and made it to #7.

Over the years, Appetite for Destruction has sold over 30 million albums; this made it the best-selling debut album of all time, and made instant superstars of Guns ‘N Roses.

GNR followed this up with two albums, Appetite for Destruction I and II, that were issued on the same day in 1991 but sold separately. Together, those two albums have now sold 35 million records worldwide.

At this point, GNR had achieved the dream of every “hair band.” They were headliners in monster tours all over the world. The combination of Axl’s distinctive edgy vocals, combined with Slash’s impressive guitar solos and the band’s hard-rocking arrangements, made them a titanic hit.

But the group was developing a reputation for bad behavior almost as much as for their songs. Riots nearly broke out at various GNR shows, and at England’s Monsters of Rock festival in August 1988 two members of the audience were crushed to death by the crowd during the GNR performance.

Several band members were also having serious issues with drugs and alcohol. GNR gained a reputation for starting concerts extremely late; in some cities this led to performances being curtailed because of local curfew ordinances.

Axl Rose also became infamous for his rants during concerts whenever anything upset him – and apparently nearly anything could piss off Axl. After performances, Rose would continue his diatribes against music critics, concert organizers and rival musicians.

Steven Adler was thrown out of the band because of his addiction issues; conversely, Izzy Stradlin quit after he became sober, when he perceived that his band mates would threaten his new-found sobriety.

Below is a music video of Guns ‘N Roses performing Sympathy For The Devil.

Yes, I realize that this is not actually a live performance. It is just the audio of their record, combined with a collection of clips of GNR performing.

However, I thought it was worth including. If you can get past the big-hair-band image with the excessive use of peroxide and tattoos, and focus on the music, GNR is a most impressive rock band.

Axl Rose begins with spoken verses, but at about the 1:30 mark in the song he launches into his trademark vocals. Axl’s harsh, screaming style is easily recognizable. And Slash is an extremely talented guitarist.

The song Sympathy For The Devil was recorded as a single by Guns ‘N Roses in 1994, near the end of the life of the original band. At that point Gilby Clarke had replaced Izzy Stradlin as the group’s rhythm guitarist.

The song Sympathy For the Devil appeared in the movies Interview With The Vampire and Fallen. It was also included in the band’s Greatest Hits album.

However, shortly after releasing this song, Guns ‘N Roses pretty much disintegrated. Within a short period of time, Axl Rose was the only remaining original member in the band.  There then ensued a decade of chaos, uncertainty and turnover, while Axl worked on a new album, Chinese Democracy.

By the time Guns ‘N Roses finally released Chinese Democracy in Nov. 2008, I was long past caring about either the record or the group. The record had cost $14 million to produce, far and away the most expensive album of all time.

In their early days, GNR was an enormously successful and influential rock band. They show up on many “Greatest Bands” lists, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, their first year of eligibility. The band has sold 100 million records, and a couple of their albums are all-time best-sellers.

On the negative side, GNR was the poster child for bad behavior, particularly their frontman Axl Rose. If the band showed up at all for concerts, they invariably started late. Some of their songs were overtly sexist, and I will never forgive them for including a Charles Manson song on one of their albums.

Would I pay money to see Guns ‘N Roses perform nowadays? How does the saying go, “Fool me once, shame on you …?”

Rickie Lee Jones, Sympathy For The Devil:

Rickie Lee Jones was born in 1954 and grew up in the American West. When she was 21, she began to perform at clubs in Venice, CA.

She continued to perform through the 70s, and in 1978 she met singer Tom Waits. For a time the two were an item, and Waits helped her make contact with various people in the music business.

Below is a photo of Rickie Lee Jones, from 1981. She is wearing what at the time was her trademark beret.

Embed from Getty Images

In 1978 Jones was signed to Warner Brothers Records to work with producer Lenny Waronker. Her first eponymous album, released in spring 1979, was a big hit. The album made it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 200 album charts, while the single Chuck E’s In Love reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

In 1980, Rickie Lee Jones was nominated for four Grammy Awards, and she won for Best New Artist. Her music was an appealing fusion of folk, blues and jazz, and she collaborated with some very talented session musicians.

Jones’ second album, the 1981 release Pirates, was also a commercial success, reaching #5 on the Billboard 200 despite not having a hit single. At this point in her career, Ms. Jones looked something like a younger version of Joni Mitchell. However, her career would never hit the heights reached by Joni.

Here is Rickie Lee Jones in a live performance of Sympathy For the Devil. This was released in 2012 on an album of covers called The Devil You Know and produced by Ben Harper.

Rickie Lee Jones gives a bluesy, folksy rendition of Sympathy For The Devil. The arrangement is quite sparse. She is accompanied by a cello and electric guitar (later in the song, the guitarist switches to keyboards).

I enjoy this as it is so radically different from the Stones’ version (and the Guns ‘N Roses tune follows the Stones’ version quite closely). So this is a welcome change.

It is typical of Rickie Lee Jones to produce a cover that gives an entirely novel take to a song. She has followed this path for the past 30 years.

In 1983, Jones moved to Paris where she focused more on covers of jazz and blues standards. She then shifted her interest towards electronic music. Her albums received critical acclaim but were not very successful commercially.

We wish Rickie Lee Jones all success. She continues to issue albums as she expands her range of musical interests. At the same time, she is involved in raising her daughter, in gardening, and in political activism. You go, girl!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sympathy For The Devil
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Sympathy For The Devil (film)
Wikipedia, Jean-Luc Godard
Wikipedia, Guns ‘N Roses
Wikipedia, Rickie Lee Jones

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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