The Rolling Stones’ classic hit “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of my all-time favorite songs — it’s unique in almost every way. The material it mines is fairly unexplored in popular music, particularly with the lyrics from the perspective of the Devil (which led to the perception of Mick Jagger and his gang as Devil worshippers for a little while!). One of the interesting things about this song is that it breaks almost every rule of songwriting and yet it still managed to become one of the most beloved Stones songs of all time, so much so that it was released as a single twice, not counting remixes and covers. But what’s actually “wrong” with it, and what factors contributed to its anthemic longevity? Let’s find out!
The hook is buried.
Every song has got to have a hook — preferably the title of the song — somewhere in the chorus. Repeatedly, if at all possible. If you have any aspirations at all of becoming a mainstream songwriter, this is driven into your head in every book, interview, and seminar you can get your hands on. It’s pretty much the number one, unbreakable rule. Closely tied to this is another rule: The hook has to stand out. There are a variety of methods for doing this — high points in the melody, repetition, changes in arrangement, etc. There are exceptions, of course, but generally you want people to be able to sing your hook right back to you, and to themselves, and it needs to stick in their heads for that to be possible.
The Stones casually broke both of these rules, right off the bat. The actual hook (in my opinion) is “Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name” but it’s presented in such an offhand way that you could almost miss it. It shows up once per chorus, as the first line. Only at the very end, when Mick Jagger is riffing on it, does it really start to hit home that this may well be the lyrical takeaway from the song. The backing vocal vamp (“Who, who? Who, who?”), arguably a more singable hook in and of itself, lend credence to that theory. This is no doubt deliberate on the part of the band, and it’s insidiously clever. There are no large, flashing neon lights saying “This is a song from the devil’s point of view!” All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but you need to put them together.
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Where’s the title?!
The title appears nowhere in the song — not in any of the verses, not in a bridge, and certainly not the chorus. Generally, this tends to be another big “no no” in the industry. If the repeated lines are not the same as the title, how would listeners know what to call it? How could they request it on the radio, or at karaoke nights?
From a label’s perspective, this causes undue confusion. Yet somehow, through the build up of a very passive form of tension, it works so darn well here. The whole song is a sly wink, and the title alludes to that. To truly get the meaning behind the song, you’ve got to listen closely to the lyrics. You either get it or you don’t. More often than not, that would be too much to ask of all but your most diehard of listeners. But The Stones rolled the dice and won.
Frankly, it’s too long.
The generally accepted “pop” wisdom is that songs should be right around three minutes and thirty seconds long to maximize radio playability. But “Sympathy for the Devil” clocks in at a hefty six minutes and eighteen seconds — almost twice the recommended length! It wasn’t unheard of for rock tunes at the time to run long, Zeppelin‘s “Stairway to Heaven” is 8 minutes, The Doors’ “The End” is nearly 12, and Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” totals out at like 26 minutes, but all those tracks are somewhat progressive, meandering compositions, while “Sympathy” is constructed more like a typical rock song. It feels long, where the others feel like a journey. But again, this is not actually a typical rock single.
It’s exceedingly rare for a song to buck this rule and become a smash. This is even more true now, with attention spans even shorter than they were in decades past. Artists are lucky if radio listeners make it to the first chorus before channel surfing.
So what makes it work?
An old songwriting mentor used to tell me you need to learn the rules first, before you can break them. With several albums under their belt, The Stones were already seasoned songwriters and musicians at this point, and that makes a world of difference. Let’s take the example of food — say an amateur chef wants to create a new dish. He may only have a tenuous grasp on basic skills, but he’s trying to do something new and totally different. Maybe he’ll pull it off, maybe he won’t. But what if a top shelf professional chef were to try it? The odds are much, much better that he could make this new concoction work, because the fundamentals offer a strong platform for experimentation, and the seasoned chef might be able to avoid pitfalls the amateur couldn’t. Similarly, since they already had a growing following, The Stones could try new things out on their audiences. If this had been their very first release, it may not have caught on.
New writers (and artists) are told all the time “you can’t write that,” or “you can’t sing that.” Some are able to push through, shrug off the rules, or just plain ignore them, and hit it big. Creativity wins, time and time again! Yet the reality of being involved with a major label with worldwide distribution and money invested in a band is that the farther a song is from mainstream, the less likely it is to get attention. The Stones gambled, and they won, this song is incredibly well-loved and speaks to people all over the world.
And how did it wind up lasting the way it has?
The biggest factor in the song’s success is perhaps the most elusive and esoteric — it was the right song, for the right artist, at the right time, which is kind of a magical confluence of events. But most pop don’t experience the staying power of “Sympathy for the Devil.” To understand that facet, we need to look at the mythology and events surrounding the song that helped it become not just famous, but notorious.
The release of this song created (or solidified) a burgeoning conspiracy theory that The Stones were in fact actual “Devil worshippers” (not helped by their previous album’s title, Their Satanic Majesties Request). What better way to stir the pot and get people talking than to sing a song from the perspective of the Devil himself?
Elvis once said, “if people stop talking about you, you’re dead,” and he wasn’t wrong. Celebrities often go out of their way to grab headlines — whether saying something outlandish, shoplifting, or having a crazy party — The Stones did it by implying that they were dabbling in the occult! Bolstering that perception is the story that while The Stones were recording “Sympathy” in June 1968, a lamp caught fire and destroyed a lot of the band’s equipment… but the tapes were magically saved.
Adding to the sinister aura already bubbling around this song and their forthcoming album, Beggar’s Banquet, was this subversive pseudo-documentary film by Jean-Luc Godard. The film, which was controversial in and of itself, featured studio footage from The Stones’ session at Olympic Studios in London while recording “Sympathy” and some other tracks, prominently juxtaposed with images of revolutionistas, Black Panthers, and pro-Marxist quotes. Godard’s stated intent was to “subvert, ruin and destroy all civilised [sic] values.”
To say this was anti-mainstream would be an understatement. The film totally tanked in the box office, and many segments of the population were rankled. This surely only served to encourage the rebellious rockers and their fans.
A year later, on December 6, 1969, The Rolling Stones performed their notorious concert at the Altamont Speedway. With the Hell’s Angels doing security and a ton of drug use among concert goers, the evening succumbed to increasingly violent crowds, overwhelming property damage, and three deaths.
It was during “Sympathy for the Devil” that the initial fights broke out. The Stones stopped playing briefly after the song ended to let the Angels restore order, as there was consistent brawling throughout. But when they picked up again with “Under My Thumb,” the increasingly aggravated Hunter pulled a pistol out, pointed it to the stage, and was then tackled to the ground by one of the Angels and stabbed repeatedly. Naturally, the song itself was popularly blamed for the deterioration of the event and subsequent death.
While tragic, the concert cemented the song’s place in popular culture and indeed made it legendary. Few other songs could be said to have quite the same memorable history surrounding them.