'Sympathy for the Devil': In the Studio With the Stones
Pictures of the Rolling Stones recording a classic, 50 years ago.
Mark and Colleen Hayward/Redferns
Published June 8, 2018
Published 2 months ago
Ask Rolling Stones fans to name the band's best song, and countless titles will enter the mix: "Satisfaction." "Gimme Shelter." "All Down the Line." "Paint It Black." But one song, "Sympathy for the Devil," with its irresistible samba-rock beat and sexily sinister lyrics, has come to define the Stones at a certain point in time: 1968, when revolution really did seem to be in the air. Here, on the 50th anniversary of the recording of "Sympathy" in June 1968, FOTO shares pictures from the making of both the song and a documentary of the same name, directed by legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Above: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the studio, June 1968.
Mark and Colleen Hayward/RedfernsKeith Richards plays a clear Lucite guitar during the recording of "Sympathy for the Devil" at Olympic Studios in London, June 1968. The Stones recorded the song between June 4 and June 10 — a period of time that saw the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the arrest of James Earl Ray for the murder of MLK in April, anti-war protests, riots, the shooting of the band's friend Andy Warhol in New York City, and innumerable other indications, large and small, that something was not right with the world. That unease is palpable in the song's urgency, and its lyrics. ("I shouted out, 'Who killed the Kennedys?' / When after all, it was you and me.")
Mark and Colleen Hayward/RedfernsBrian Jones at work during the "Sympathy for the Devil" sessions. A year later, in July 1969, Jones — the man who formed, named, and was the early driving creative force of the Rolling Stones — was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool at his home in East Sussex, England. He was 27 years old. Rumors of murder have swirled around his death ever since, but Jones was clearly struggling with drug addiction, coupled with severe depression, well before his death. Nevertheless, If there was a single figure who drove the earliest success of the Stones, it was this brilliant, mercurial, and deeply troubled multi-instrumentalist.Mark and Colleen Hayward/RedfernsMost famous as the Stones' guitarist, Richards also played bass on some of the band's greatest songs, including "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Before They Make Me Run," and "Sympathy for the Devil." Here he is, with Jagger, in a classic pose, laying down a bass line with a cig roguishly hanging from his lips during the "Sympathy" sessions.Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesRolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, Richards, and Jagger during the "Sympathy for the Devil" sessions. Wyman left the Stones in the early 1990s, after three decades holding down the rhythm section with drummer Charlie Watts on the vast majority of the band's records and concert tours. Any bass parts he might have recorded for "Sympathy," though, ultimately were not used on the final recording, released in December 1968.
Keystone Features/Getty ImagesJagger in a London recording studio during the making of Godard's film "Sympathy for the Devil" (a.k.a. "One Plus One") in 1968. In the final cut of the movie, Godard interspersed shots of the Stones going through the long process of recording their classic song alongside other scenes — some documentary, others staged, and almost all steeped in a revolutionary or Marxist ethos that would feel perfectly familiar to fans of Godard's other work.Larry Ellis/Getty ImagesJagger and Godard confer during the "Sympathy" sessions.Keystone Features/Getty ImagesJones and Jagger.
Keystone Features/Getty ImagesJagger in the studio. The Stones' frontman once said that he wrote the lyrics to "Sympathy for the Devil" as if it "was a Bob Dylan song." (Certainly lines like, "And I laid traps for troubadours / Who get killed before they reached Bombay" sound as if they might have been written by a mid-'60s Dylan.) But both Jagger and Richards bridled when fans and the media started making noise about the band's "satanic" leanings. "It was only one song, after all," Jagger later told Creem magazine. "It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back.... Some people have made a living out of doing [that sort of thing]; for example, Jimmy Page."Larry Ellis/Getty ImagesGodard, the director behind such hugely influential films as "Breathless," "Band of Outsiders," "Alphaville," and scores of others, during filming.Keystone Features/Getty ImagesIn its list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time," Rolling Stone magazine placed "Sympathy for the Devil" at number 32.
Keystone Features/Getty ImagesThere's no doubt that "Sympathy for the Devil" is a remarkable rock and roll song. But so much attention has been paid to that one tune through the years that it has overshadowed other great — and arguably even better — songs from the astonishing album, "Beggars Banquet," on which it first appeared. "Stray Cat Blues," "Jigsaw Puzzle," and "Salt of the Earth" are just three such tunes that could vie with "Sympathy" for the title of "best Stones track of 1968."Keystone Features/Getty ImagesOne legend that has arisen around "Sympathy for the Devil" is that it's the song the Stones were playing when a fan was killed by a Hells Angel at the infamous Altamont Free Concert in December 1969. In fact, the scuffle that ultimately resulted in 18-year-old Meredith Hunter's death started when the Stones were playing "Sympathy," but the fatal attack occurred during another classic, unnerving Stones song, "Under My Thumb." The Hells Angel who stabbed Hunter was later found not guilty of murder charges.Keystone Features/Getty ImagesArtists ranging from Motörhead and Jane's Addiction to Ozzy Osbourne and Blood, Sweat & Tears have recorded covers of "Sympathy for the Devil." But the song will always be most closely and most viscerally associated with the Stones, with 1968, and with a world that seemed, to a lot of people, on the verge of going to hell.
Movie Poster Image Art/Getty ImagesThe Stones on a poster for the semi-documentary movie, released in November 1968 — a month before "Beggars Banquet" hit record stores.