Sympathy for the Devil, Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Sympathy for the Devil, Bryan Ferry, (cover version, Live at the Albert Hall, 1974)
Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones (original, Beggars Banquet, 1968)
When Mick Jagger wrote ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ he was thinking Baudelaire. When Bryan Ferry recorded the song for his covers album These Foolish Things he was thinking amusement value. That both scenarios were possible is a testament to the Stones achievement in the song. In truth, the only snag with ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is the weight of its considerable fame: a staple of Classic Rock Radio for over forty years, it is hard to hear the track with fresh ears. Yet Ferry rises to the challenge, stripping the track of its back-story and witchy melodrama, choosing instead to deliver ‘Sympathy’ as a straight musical dance number. In later years Jagger would pay the Roxy front-man the ultimate compliment by adopting this version of the song to fill stadiums (and bank balances) across the world.
The ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that presented itself for selection on These Foolish Things was a very different proposition in 1973 that it is today, all smoothed out and easily digestible for world-tours and star-studded guests Madonna and Bill Clinton et al. ‘Sympathy’ was born in a transitional phase for the Stones, coming as it did on the coat-tails of a band keen to present itself as the anti-Beatles (“every story needs good guys and bad guys”). Early Stones (’62-’65) were a power-house of Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon covers, with a propulsive rhythm section and a intense (albeit 20 minute) live show. Caught up in the hysteria of Beatlemania, Jagger & Co gradually learned to write their own songs and hit mecca with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction‘ – a monumental achievement both in guitar innovation – the fuzzbox riff igniting a stampede of teenage boy garage bands (Iggy and the Stooges taking note) – and a lyric that took the restlessness of Eddie Cochran‘s ‘Summertime Blues‘ and placed it squarely into the consumer age, summing up teenage disengagement as succinctly as ever been captured:
When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But, he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
It’s interesting that Bryan Ferry didn’t select a similar mid-60s Stones track given that his early R ‘n’ B covers band The Gas Board would have been active during this period of the Stones career, watching from afar as the Jagger/Richards partnership gained steam with a series of incredible hits – ’19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Paint It, Black’, ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow’ – all plugged in, socially relevant, and tuneful as hell (just spend an hour with Hot Rocks and you’ll see what we mean). But what came next both propelled the band to greater musical heights, and also changed them irrevocably into the parody band we know today.
The first time I ever heard the song was when Mick was playing it at the front door of a house I lived in Sussex. It was at dinner; he played it entirely on his own, the sun was going down and it was fantastic.
I. Just Call Me Lucifer
First the drug busts: using London as their personal pharmacy (“When we got busted at Redlands, it suddenly made us realise that this was a whole different ball game and that was when the fun stopped”) Jagger and Richards escaped jail time on account of fan and (surprisingly) newspaper protests (see: Times Editorial ‘Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?‘). Released from jail, Jagger and Richards wore the win like a badge of honour – they had beaten the establishment in a very public battle, and now the “doors were off their hinges” – they were free to do as they pleased. Now the band were in the ascendant, living privileged, decadent (not necessarily wealthy), lives, not yet fully self-aware, or ironic, but keen to cultivate (and capitalize) on the image of darkness rising. All they had to do was re-connect with their audience and come to grips with the turbulence of the times in which they lived and represented. In this regard ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ came out of an angry place: “The violence was all pervasive. And you can’t help but live in it and reflect it back again. And then, of course, it goes into a feedback loop” (Jagger, Crossfire Hurricane).
That feedback loop presented the audience with an image of escalating paranoia and fear: in ‘Gimme Shelter‘ the key line is “rape, murder/it’s just a shot away” (sung by pregnant soul singer Merry Clayton at 3am in the morning – shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage). In ‘Midnight Rambler‘ Jagger turns from victim to killer by assuming the identity of the Boston Strangler: Did you see me jump the garden wall/I don’t give you a hoot of warning/A-dressed up in my black cat cloak – a narrative-point-of-view Ferry would pinch for his own highly paranoid and murderous ‘The Bogus Man’. And the albums of this period are soaked with gloom and decadence – Let it Bleed, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Through the Past, Darkly – and the point-of-view is unremittingly dark and violent. And so out of this mise en scène comes one of rock’s first Grand postmodern statements (Bowie and Ferry were taking notes): Jagger pens ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by himself (“I was just trying to figure out if it was a Samba or a goddam folk song”), and convincingly collapses the authorial gap between ‘rock star’ and ‘Devil’ (and future solo star and celebrity). Pleased to meet you, he winks, Hope you guess my name.
It’s a smart move and it works: by playing into one of America’s great music myths – Robert Johnson making a Faustian deal with the Devil at the Crossroads in exchange for a life of wealth and taste – Jagger creates his public persona: the wicked and contemptible Peter Pan, the transcendent outsider. The singer invites his audience to the Beggar’s Banquet and dramatizes his transformation into Lucifer at a live taping of the Rock N Roll Circus on 11 December 1968, dramatically peeling off his shirt in full view of an audience fascinated by the red (fake) tattoo on his chest, the Devil born, coiled and writhing on the stage like a character from Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ (‘When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin‘). Looking red-eyed and demented himself (too many drugs, a 5am taping time), Jagger’s intensity is convincing, earning him a rare compliment by West Coast concert promoter Bill Graham: “I hate him, but that “c*nt is a great entertainer!”
II. Blood on the Ground
When Bryan Ferry first heard ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ in 1968 the Stones were broke, and had not toured the US for three years. Cash poor and unable to get their hands on record income – manager Allen Klein held onto their money while the band investigated him for mismanagement – the only way to keep afloat was to tour. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was rolled out live during the famous Rolling Stones American Tour 1969 (“rock and roll legend” as they say in the biz – or at least Dave Marsh did). The tour started out with inadequate lighting, poor sound, and unprecedented high ticket prices – and ended up defining a new financial model for the industry. With ‘Sympathy’ recently recorded and filmed (see: Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil: a piece of new wave cinema capturing the band creating and recording the song), both ‘Sympathy’ and Jagger’s refined public persona was rolled out during the 75 minute live show, which often went past midnight, and kept the crowd waiting for over three hours or more. Keith Richards told Rolling Stone: “Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time. But after ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil’… There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer, and others who think we are Lucifer.” The reviews for the tour and the audience response were ecstatic, and when given the benefit of hindsight, even slightly hysterical.
That the tour ended with resounding grimness at the Altamont Speedway concert has been well documented (particularly in the excellent Joel Selvin book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day). Chasing the Woodstock vibe that had unfolded only four months previous – a vibe the Stones missed entirely – the band came under increasing criticism for high ticket prices during the ’69 tour (“How much can the Stones take back to Merrie England after taxes, anyway?” asked journalist Ralph Gleason). The Stones were forced to make an extravagant gesture: a free San Francisco concert on the final day of the tour. Oh, what hideousness ensued: we can safely say that if ever there’s been a vision of hell on Earth, it materialized on the cold rocky grounds of the decrepit Altamont Speedway on December December 6th, 1969.
Altamont Speedway was run down and mostly neglected, an end-of-life race track littered with derelict cars and old tires strewn across its barren landscape, a place that, at its peak, had never hosted more than a few thousand racing fans. Having blown their chance to host a local free concert in San Francisco the Rolling Stones mishandled negotiations for a free gig in Golden State park because they insisted that their representatives negotiate directly with city officials, who quickly rejected their request. A second option – the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County – was a well-established venue used to hosting large events and would have been ideal for the free concert. However, when Sonoma management asked for a share of the profits from the filmed documentary of the event (eventually titled Gimme Shelter), the Stones refused to pay. With only two days to go before the gig, the owner of the infrequently used Altamont Speedway offered the land for free, thinking that it would be good publicity for the venue (it generated publicity alright, but not the kind intended).
When the 300,000 fans started arriving at Altamont they discovered no basic amenities: no toilets, no facilities, and no way to purchase food, water, or any other essentials. It was early winter – Dec 6th – and getting cold (dropping below zero at night) and the landscape was harsh and barren and not in the least bit festive. There was no real stage to speak of – a ground-level wood platform had been hastily constructed, with only a line of strung rope acting as a barrier between fans and artists. To make matters worse, the local Hells Angels had been hired to maintain order but were (unwisely) paid in alcohol. The Angels were also selling vast quantities of LSD that had been laced with speed and various poisons, and it was being passed around to people in orange-juice containers – after eighteen hours of waiting, strangers shared the juice and drank freely, unknowingly passing on a very bad collective LSD and speed trip – half the crew filming Gimme Shelter were unwillingly drugged, some hiding behind their cameras terrified for their safety. Stepping out of his arrival helicopter, Mick Jagger was punched in the face by one drug taker. Another person tripping dove into the local aqueduct and was immediately ground up into tiny bits. (Two more people were killed at Altamont when a car drove into the crowd after the gig. The culprit was never caught). Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was punched in the face when he demanded that the violence stop. During the CSNY set, another Angel methodically carved Stephen Stills leg with a switch-blade until the blood trickled freely down his leg. Stills kept playing – wisely deciding to keep the set short.
The violence continued during the Stones set. ‘I pray that it’s alright‘ Jagger repeated over and over again, mouthing the lyrics to ‘Under My Thumb‘ while taking in the mayhem that was going on around him: a wolf-dog sauntering by, center-stage; an Angel staring up into the black heavens, his mind melting under the hideous acid concoction. A few moments later an 18-year-old African American pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by an Angel, his body kicked and pummeled, a trash can smashed on his head as a parting gesture. Rolling Stone magazine reported that it was the infamous and cursed ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that was being played as Meredith Hunter bled to death from his knife wounds on that cold stony ground. They were wrong (it was ‘Under My Thumb’), but what did it matter now anyway.
We were scared. It was scary. These people were crazy. And they were standing next to you and we didn’t know how to control it, stop it – it was completely out of our control. It was a nightmare.
III. The Groove is Very Good
This then is the song that Bryan Ferry decided to cover to open the second side of his “lighthearted” covers album, These Foolish Things. The mood around the Rolling Stones in 1973 – a few short years after the Altamont debacle – remained dark, almost certainly decadent and detached. The Stones were searching, trying to find the shape-shifting form they could assume in order to continue to make a living – Goat’s Head Soup had just been released in ’73, but it was treading ground. Bryan Ferry, on the other hand, was a new breed of artist – These Foolish Things was an attempt to reduce and re-produce pop music in purely post-modern terms: as product. In Ferry’s view, Dylan‘s ‘Hard Rain’ could be interpreted as a hard glam masterpiece; ‘River of Salt‘ could be sung free of ironic intent, open and bare. Keep the critics engaged was the game plan, and keep the fans happy by giving them a quality experience. The Rolling Stones quickly came to understand the power of product, and it was Bryan Ferry that showed the way, and he did so with the toughest and most feared cut in the Stones catalog: ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
If the 70s narrative is frequently portrayed as one of conflict between rigid and exclusive clans, whether political, social or aesthetical, then Roxy’s manicured mastermind asserts his position as that era’s glamorous go-between, a one-man movement of revisionism and unprejudiced appreciation for the entire pop panoply.
Still, I much prefer their version to mine.
It was bold for Ferry to select ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to open the second side of These Foolish Things. Not only was the Stones song a non-negotiable rock n’ roll epic – with dobs of violence to stoke the legend – but it was also Mick Jagger’s signature track: how do you sing Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste without thinking about the man and personae behind the song (Jagger, man & myth?). When David Bowie covered ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together‘ on Aladdin Sane (issued only a few short months earlier in April 13, 1973), his version merely propped up the Stones myth and replaced it with his own (Bowie’s cover is a bump-and-grind-affair presented against a backdrop of cocaine-addled sex and impending physical violence). Part of the appeal of These Foolish Things (today and yesterday) was its humble intentions, its desire to entertain. It was neither naive in its approach, nor overly calculating in its delivery: but it was calculated by design, and in deciding to shed ‘Sympathy’ of its voodoo, Ferry lifts the song from its sordid associations and brings it back into the realm of the purely musical. In addition, Ferry provides a structural framework by opening the second side of the These Foolish Things in the same way he opened it – with a mythological epic.
The cover of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall opens Foolish Things in spectacular fashion, as Ferry invents a new way of expressing Dylan’s poetry, producing a glam version of a mind traveling through human history, climbing across those twelve misty mountains and graveyards, the lyric unflinching in its honesty and poetic light (I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children). It’s a form we recognize from ‘Do the Strand‘ – observing across human history (The sphynx and Mona Lisa/Lolita and Guernica/Did the Strand) – and so it is with ‘Sympathy for the Devil‘: interviews show that Jagger wished to write an epic in the form of a Dylan song, his ambition likewise molded by the French symbolists and poets (Rimbaud, Mallarme, Baudelaire): “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s…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.” (Jagger). Rampaging across time, the poet-mind shape-shifts as Lucifer observes and comments on human history – the trial and death of Jesus Christ (Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate); the violence of the Russian Revolution (I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change); World War II (I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank).
Compare this to Dylan‘s “I met a young woman whose body was burning” and we begin to see Ferry’s game plan: opening each side of the original record with somber observations on the nature of history, murder, and human frailty provides context for what follows – pop music as just another “foolish thing“, a few wasted moments of escapism that help us move through time, adding to our collective, though limited, mortal experience. It’s a great set-up and does not intrude on the enjoyment of the album, as we make our way through stories of love won and lost, car races, Elvis and Beach Boys, and rivers of tears.
Draft track list, These Foolish Things.
Cutting through the stale dope-smoke fug of the hippie hangover, Roxy were the first true band of the 70s. But they also prophesied the 80s, their celebration of posing and artifice anticipating postmodernism, the new romantics, the Face, pop video and self-reinventing superstars like Madonna.
Popular music got ahead of itself in the late 60s, burning out on endless Cream solos, Altamont, and the paranoia brought on by the Manson murders (name-checking Manson is always risky, but investigate the 60s music industry & Beach Boys Dennis Wilson relationship with the homicidal and delusional Manson, Tex Watson, etc). If you want to get a sense of how drab and depressing the early 70s were, watch the Beatles at work on Let it Be and feel the cold seep into your bones. Our heroes – Bowie, Bryan and Brian – saw the 70s in a much different way, of course, cutting through the “fug of the hippie hangover” to produce in Europe what was known as Glam rock – or, as John Lennon accurately called it, “rock n’ roll with lipstick” (Lennon). Ferry was keen on stripping his tunes to their basic universal musical message, to produce, as music critic Ian MacDonald observed, “as a light-hearted and positive an album as you could expect from anyone in these turbulent times” (MacDonald). For Ferry, the groove and the lyric were the thing:
I recorded a version of Sympathy For The Devil on my first solo album, These Foolish Things, in 1973. I always try to pick songs with lyrics that interest me, and those might be Mick’s best. Sympathy is a really outstanding song, it’s lyrically surprising and it gets going and grooves along. The percussion is great on the Stones version, that was what really stood out to me first. Jimmy Miller produced it and he always liked lots of maracas and tambourines going. I added women’s voices singing the “hooh hoohs”, whereas they just did it themselves, but it’s very effective like that. We had horns and lots of things going on, quite a big band, fun times.
Bryan Ferry, 2012
Musically, the original ‘Sympathy’ really hits the money. The steady Brazilian beat, the slow build, the guitar solo: quite possibly my favorite solo ever: crisp, contained, an inspired clarity of attack and creativity on display. It’s a really savage 17 measures, and much credit here must go to Keith Richards’ innate musicality and taste, compounded by his thrilling and expressive bass run that chases down the track and does not let go. Wisely, Bryan Ferry does not take on the weight of the original recording, but chooses to expand and modernize it, re-purposing the song as a Glam teen anthem, a ‘Hard Rain‘ to open the second side of the LP.
Ferry’s cover wears its glam heart on its sleeve – over-baked and over-the-top, a synthesizer fart in the opening bars introduces the modern touch, while a series of carefully-separated drums bully to get on the soundscape at 0-10s. The first power chord arrives at .11s, announcing this is glam – obtrusive, over-fed, self-aware. Throwing out the trade-mark congas, maracas, piano and bass, Ferry’s ploy is to fill as much space as he can right off the mark, leaving behind the slow-build of Jagger’s original as a mere 60’s footnote. Ferry’s arrangement skills are particularly sharp here as he brings forward the “woo-woos” to the beginning of the song at .20s, nailing down the vocal trademark early in the track to ensure brand recognition for a vocal line that does not show up in the original until around the two minute mark.
Anticipating his audience’s lack of patience, Ferry throws in a surprising manipulated vocal at .28s – a technique Iggy Pop would deploy later in the late 70s (see: New Values @ 1.56). In spite of the Darth Vader sound effects, Ferry carefully enunciates each word, respectful of the original, yet the effect is schizophrenic, verging on the comic. [Question – sternly]: I shouted out who killed the Kennedy’s? [Answer – with conviction]: well after all, it was you and me (3.20). The heavily processed vocal has trouble cutting through the noise, and the changes in tone and emphasis demands too much of the listener: you’re either surfing on top of the imagery or you’re inside it, and we’ve already seen what being inside ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ entails..
Nevertheless, Ferry cackles convincingly throughout the song at 3.00 & 4.00, though sometimes treading a little too close to ‘Grimly Fiendish’ territory. Whether the bombastic approach is ultimately successful probably depends on what kind of mood you’re in: do you prefer the blow-dried and perfumed ‘Sympathy’ as seen in the live Stones movie Shine a Light (come on kids – “woo-woo!”), or do you hanker for some authentic French New Wave burn-down-the-studio mise-en-scene, as Jean-Luc Goddard delivers the goods in Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One). Either way, Ferry’s guitar and keyboard overload does not discriminate, nor will it allow lazy criticism. And this in its own quiet way is revolutionary – as Ferry commented at the time of the album’s release: “I hope the general point will be understood. Its amusement value, I think“ (Viva).
This would have been music to Mick Jagger’s ears: wanting to leave behind the Satanism and diabolique, opting instead for safety (for his band and for his audience), the boy from Dartford could see an opportunity to re-invent himself again, and take on a fresh move towards something “not so dangerous”:
The [new] feeling was you were having a good time. It was more kind of fun. But, it was more colorful and produced and it wasn’t supposed to be taken totally seriously.
Jagger, commenting on the Steel Wheels tour, ’89/90.
The Manson clan gets a hearing from the unwittingly sympathetic media; The Stones, mid-60s hit-makers; Book cover, The Sixties: The decade remembered now, by the people who lived it then (a Rolling Stone publication), 1977; Kafka Die Verwandlung; Altamont pics; Rolling Stone magazine ground-breaking article on the after-math of the Speedway concert; Ferry in the studio, These Foolish Things; Ferry solo ‘Hard Rain’ Top of the Pops, and interview 1973; Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour inflatable.