Sympathy for the Devil

"Sympathy for the Devil" is a song by English rock band the Rolling Stones, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It is the opening track on their 1968 album Beggars Banquet.

It is considered one of the best songs of the popular music era, and it is ranked number 32 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. It is also the 14th best ranked song on critics' all-time lists according to Acclaimed Music.


"Sympathy for the Devil" is credited to Jagger and Richards, though the song was largely a Jagger composition. The working title of the song was "The Devil Is My Name", having earlier been called "Fallen Angels". Jagger sings in first person narrative as the Devil, boasting his role in each of several historical atrocities. The singer then ironically demands our courtesy towards him, implicitly chastising the listener for our collective culpability in the listed killings and crimes. In the 2012 documentary Crossfire Hurricane, Jagger stated that his influence for the song came from Baudelaire and from the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita (which had just appeared in English translation in 1967). The book was given to him by Marianne Faithfull.

In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said, "I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire's, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can't see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song." It was Richards who suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, turning the folk song into a samba.

Furthermore, Jagger stated in the Rolling Stone interview: "it's a very long historical figure — the figures of evil and figures of good — so it is a tremendously long trail he's made as personified in this piece." By the time Beggars Banquet was released, the Rolling Stones had already raised some hackles for sexually forward lyrics such as "Let's Spend the Night Together", and their cover of the Willie Dixon's blues "I Just Want to Make Love to You" etc. There were also claims they had dabbled in Satanism (their previous album, while containing no direct Satanic references in its music or lyrics, was titled Their Satanic Majesties Request). "Sympathy" brought these concerns to the fore, provoking media rumours and fears among some religious groups that the Stones were devil worshippers and a corrupting influence on youth.

The lyrics focus on atrocities in the history of mankind from Satan's point of view including the trial and death of Jesus Christ ("Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate"), European wars of religion ("I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made"), the violence of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the 1918 shooting of the Romanov family during World War I ("I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change/Killed the Tsar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain"), and World War II ("I rode a tank, held a general's rank when the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank"). The song was originally written with the line "I shouted out 'Who killed Kennedy?'" After Robert F. Kennedy's death on 6 June 1968, the line was changed to "Who killed the Kennedys?". And the answer is "when after all it was you and me", which is a way of saying that "the devil is not the other one, but eventually each one of us."

The song may have been spared further controversy when the first single from the album, "Street Fighting Man", became even more controversial in view of the race riots and student protests occurring in many cities in Europe and in the United States.


The recording of "Sympathy for the Devil" began at London's Olympic Sound Studios on 4 June 1968 and continued into the next day; overdubs were done on 8, 9 and 10 June. Personnel included on the recording include Nicky Hopkins on piano, Rocky Dijon on congas and Bill Wyman on maracas. Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, producer Jimmy Miller, Wyman and Richards performed backup vocals, singing the "woo woos". Richards plays bass on the original recording, and also electric guitar. Brian Jones plays a mostly mixed out acoustic guitar, although in isolated tracks of the studio cut, it is audible playing along with the piano.

In the 2003 book According to the Rolling Stones, Watts commented:On the overall power of the song, Jagger continued in Rolling Stone:The backing "who who-woo-woo' vocals, which helped to make the song's sound stand out, came about by accident thanks to Jimmy Miller and Anita Pallenberg. Pallenberg was in the engineering booth with Miller while Jagger was belting out an early vocal take of the song. According to Pallenberg, Miller was half talking to himself as Jagger sang, saying stuff like "Come on Mick, give it your all, who are you singing about? - Who, who?" He then repeated "Who who" several times after that as Jagger sang on, and Pallenberg realized how wonderful that all sounded. After the take, she told Jagger what transpired in the booth and suggested that "who who" be used in the song as a backing vocal chant. The Stones then gave it a go and after the first take, 'Who who" became "woo-woo", with most of this caught on film by director Jean-Luc Godard for his One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil) movie.


In an interview with Creem, Jagger said, "[When people started taking us as devil worshippers], I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of occult signs on the back. People seemed to embrace the image so readily, [and] it has carried all the way over into heavy metal bands today. Some people have made a living out of doing this; for example, Jimmy Page."

Of the change in public perception the band experienced after the song's release, Richards said in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, "Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they're saying, 'They're evil, they're evil.' Oh, I'm evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil ... What is evil? Half of it, I don't know how many people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody's Lucifer."

Hunter S. Thompson and his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta kept replaying the song hundreds of times during their drug-induced Chevy ride to Las Vegas in 1971 in order to maintain focus whilst high on class A drugs. However, in Thompson’s autobiography Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that fact was never mentioned. Neither was it mentioned in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of the same name.

Contrary to a widespread misconception, it was "Under My Thumb" and not "Sympathy for the Devil" that the Rolling Stones were performing when Meredith Hunter was killed at the Altamont Free Concert. Rolling Stone magazine's early articles on the incident typically misreported that the killing took place during "Sympathy for the Devil", but the Stones in fact played "Sympathy for the Devil" earlier in the concert; it was interrupted by a fight and restarted, Jagger commenting, "We're always having—something very funny happens when we start that number." Several other songs were performed before Hunter was killed.


  • Mick Jaggerlead vocals, bongos
  • Keith Richardselectric guitar, bass guitar, backing vocals
  • Brian Jonesacoustic guitar, bongos, backing vocals
  • Bill Wymanshekere, backing vocals
  • Charlie Wattsdrums, cowbell, backing vocals
  • Nicky Hopkinspiano, backing vocals
  • Rocky Dzidzornucongas
  • Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, Jimmy Millerbacking vocals


    Appearances in media

    The song was featured in the video games Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, Mafia 3 and Call of Duty: Black Ops. The Fatboy Slim remix was featured in the music video game Just Dance 2. The song also appears in the 2016 DC Comics superhero film Suicide Squad. It plays when the character of Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) is first introduced.

    In the Vertigo graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the character "V" quotes the opening lyrics to the song as he confronts a paedophile bishop who is later murdered by him.

    The title of the first episode of season 5 of the CW series Supernatural is named after the song, but the song does not actually play in the episode. Similarly, the song's name serves as the title for the sixth episode, or "session" of the Sunrise anime television series Cowboy Bebop, though the song itself does not play in the episode.

    In 1990, the song was used in the Season Two episode of the TV series Midnight Caller entitled "Nighthawk's Got the Blues". The song was also used in the 1998 film Fallen.

    In 2015, the song was used in the Focus and appeared on Track #7 of the soundtrack.

    It also appeared in an episode of The Black List to describe Red Reddington

    The 1968 film and others

    Sympathy for the Devil is also the title of a producer's edit of a 1968 film by Jean-Luc Godard whose own original version is called One Plus One. The film, a depiction of the late 1960s American counterculture, also featured the Rolling Stones in the process of recording the song in the studio. On the filming, Jagger said in Rolling Stone: "[it was] very fortuitous, because Godard wanted to do a film of us in the studio. I mean, it would never happen now, to get someone as interesting as Godard. And stuffy. We just happened to be recording that song. We could have been recording 'My Obsession.' But it was 'Sympathy for the Devil', and it became the track that we used."

    During the several days of recording the Stones as they played, a film lamp set up by Godard's crew, started a major fire in the studio that caused substantial damage to the studio and laid waste to some of the band’s equipment. However, the song's tapes were saved by producer Jimmy Miller before he fled the studio, and Godard kept his cameras rolling capturing the fire on film as it roared on.

    Guns N' Roses version

    Guns N' Roses recorded a cover in 1994 which reached number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100; it was featured in the closing credits of Neil Jordan's film adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (except the 4K cut of the film) and was included on their Greatest Hits album. This cover is noteworthy for causing an incident involving incoming guitarist, Paul "Huge" Tobias, that was partially responsible for guitarist Slash departing from the band in 1996. Slash has described the Guns N' Roses version of the song as "the sound of the band breaking up".

    Rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke, who does not appear on the recording, noted that the recording foreshadowed his departure from the band:
    They did that while I was on the road touring for [[Pawnshop Guitars


  • W. Axl Roselead vocals, piano
  • Slashlead and rhythm guitars
  • Duff McKaganbass guitar, backing vocals
  • Matt Sorumdrums, percussion
  • Dizzy Reedkeyboards
  • Paul Tobiasrhythm and lead guitars, backing vocals


    Sales and certifications

    Other recorded versions

  • Slovenian avant-garde industrial group Laibach released an album containing 8 different covers of the song in 1990.
  • In 2005, Cuban drummer and percussionist Horacio Hernandez ("El Negro") recorded a Latin jazz version of the song, sung by Latin great Rubén Blades.
  • British gothic rock band Inkubus Sukkubus released a cover of the song on their 2007 album Science and Nature.
  • Indie rock bands Band of Skulls and John & Jehn covered the song for the French TV show Taratata broadcast in March 2010.
  • Motörhead covered the song for their 2015 album Bad Magic.
  • Ozzy Osbourne covered the song on the 2005 album Under Cover.
  • Sandie Shaw covered the song for her 1969 album Reviewing the Situation.
  • Blood, Sweat & Tears released a version in 1970 on the band's third album.
  • English doom metal band Sabazius recorded their own 25-minute cover version of the song and released it as an EP of the same name in 2008.
  • Tiamat covered the song for their 1999 album Skeleton Skeletron.
  • Jane's Addiction covered the song titled as "Sympathy" on their 1987 self-titled album. This version was featured on the television series Sons of Anarchy and the 1988 film Alien Nation.
  • The song was used alongside "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Gimme Shelter" as part of the Broadway musical Moulin Rouge!.
  • The Industrial metal band Skrew recorded a cover on the album Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame.