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100 Greatest Songs of All Time: 50-1

on September 21, 2012, 7:11am
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07. The Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil”

Beggars Banquet, 1968

When the Rolling Stones go on tour next year to celebrate their 50th season in hell, they won’t need an introduction. But as Mick Jagger pumps his maracas, he will likely ask for one anyway. Won’t you guess his name?

The lyrics were Jagger’s, but the music was Richards’: “I was just trying to figure out whether it should be a samba or a goddamn folk song,” said the guitarist. Ironically, “Sympathy For The Devil” turned out to be a samba with the timeless legacy of a folk song. Like Lucifer was there for Anastasia and the Kennedys, “Sympathy For The Devil” has had an eerie omnipresence in our cultural history. It divined Patti Smith and it destroyed Guns N’ Roses. It has been linked to both Wagnerian symphonies and Tropic Thunder scenes. The song, about the inescapability of death and the devil, is played at weddings, but never at funerals.

In 1968, at the Olympic Studios in England, the recordings for Beggars Banquet occurred across a narrow body of water from the civil unrest in Paris. A curious Francophile and former-exile, Mick Jagger, wrote the lyrics to the song as an interloper in the midst of a youth rebellion. Like Mikhail Bulgakov’s “foreign professor” in The Master & Margarita, Jagger lurked through the City of Lights when it was ablaze with violence and fear. The palace was under siege. The president exiled himself. Graffiti was everywhere (as it was scandalously featured on the cover of Banquet), and the revolutionary slogans were punchy yet surreal: “Je Suis Marxiste … Tendence Groucho” – “I am a Marxist … of the Groucho variety.”

The tragedy and the wit of that period inspired the Stones at a time when they were trying to, as Richards would say, “get back to basics” in both a musical sense and in their ruffled personal lives. Banquet peeled away the psychedelic viscosity of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Acoustic-driven and crisply arranged (thanks to a cassette-recording trick that Richards began to use), Banquet featured direct rock ‘n’ roll songs, like the unmistakably political, “Street Fighting Man”, and the biblical blues of “Prodigal Son”.

But “Sympathy” was something different. “The first time I ever heard the song,” Charlie Watts said, “Mick was playing it at the front door of a house I lived in at the time … he played it entirely on his own, the sun was going down – and it was fantastic.” In a sense, “Sympathy” was like Jagger’s squawk-job imitation of Edith Piaf. Ever the gangly, brooding Englishman, “Sympathy” draws to light Jagger’s fascination with Faustian pacts. And what is more Faustian than ‘la vie en rose’ – life in rosy hues – a beautiful city crumbling for its freedom?

On a personal scale, Jagger and the Stones experienced the pre-’68 Faustian-French life during their exiled years in the South of France and it changed their sound forever. Post-France (and for the most part, post-Brian Jones), “Sympathy” invoked an emotional presence not heard before. They eschewed popular song structures and embraced Latin and African dance rhythms, primitive grooves, and breezy woo-hoos.

“Sympathy” ushers in cultural erosions: a history that culminates and collapses with kings and queens, Baudelaires, Bulgakovs, blitzkriegs, and Brunis swirled into one big, effervescent glass that goes down with some courtesy, some sympathy, and some taste. –Sarah Grant


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