The Occult Influences of Sympathy for the Devil

Every cop is a criminal, and all us sinners? Saints, as The Rolling Stones broke the wheel that caged them.

Two days after The Rolling Stones recorded “Sympathy for the Devil,” presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of an assassinated president, was shot to death. Following the April death of Martin Luther King, Jr., it looked like the world was losing all its good men.

A devilish year to say the very least, 1968 saw the release of the films Rosemary’s Baby and The Devil Rides Out, both of which had stand-in characters for the wickedest man in the world, Aleister Crowley. The Rolling Stones also dropped what many fans, or at least this one, believe was their finest album, Beggars Banquet. It delved into the deepest blues, Mick Jagger contorting his voice to fit the ancient wisdom of Robert Wilkins’s Biblical “Prodigal Son,” and testifying to the relative virtues of 15-year-old (13 on one early take) prodigal daughters on “Stray Cat Blues.” It also featured some of the dirtiest licks Keith Richards ever squeezed through his fingers. The album opened with a request – majestic, animalistic, and satanic – to consider the achievements of temptation. “Sympathy for the Devil” will turn 50 this year, but courtesy has been paid for far more than a half century.

The devil is one of literature’s most sympathetic characters. A rebel angel who rode the serpent into the Garden of Eden to bring the kundalini energy of the Divine Mother, he was the first bad boy to rock the world. In Dante’s Inferno, the tortured anti-hero, who inflicted the harshest Old Testament cruelties for an indifferent god, sits in the coldest part of hell, chewing the heads of Cassius and Brutus, and cries. Hell, even Star Trek’s Khan misquotes Milton after being stranded on Seti Alpha 5 by saying it’s better to rule there than be a servant to heaven. Rock and roll threw off the shackles of petty morality in a revolution that spun 33 or 45 times a minute. But the Rolling Stones were rebels with a cause. The Street Fighting Man on the mic knew the time was right for fighting in the streets.

The Rolling Stones put themselves forward as the bad boys of the British Invasion. Rebellious, overtly sexual, they used to kiss you on the lips, but it’s all over now. Their Satanic Majesties Request came out in the middle of the Summer of Love, a summer that showed little love for the band, who had to record the album in between jail stints for Jagger, Richards, and Jones. 

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“Love is all you need,” the Beatles sang and supported the band’s plights by recording the backing vocals to the single “We Love You.” The Stones recorded the song to give their fans something to listen to in the event they’d be locked away from the recording studio. They’d been charged and convicted based on evidence planted by an unscrupulous, PR-hungry policeman who went on to bust the Beatles’ George Harrison and John Lennon before being convicted of evidence tampering and other sins.

Paranormal Papier-mâché

It wasn’t only Scotland Yard Jagger was weeding. Every cop is a criminal and all us sinners, saints, when love, under will, is the law. Since man created god, his fallen angel allowed humanity to descend into the depths of depravity and degradation dished out by destiny. The devil merely wants his due. He didn’t have to do much, really, for man to give in to his worst impulses, but he was there. Or she was there, depending on how you want to look at the iconic figure of Baphomet.

Mainly due to the song, the band was hit with devil worship accusations, which Jagger told Creem magazine he thought was really odd “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. Some people have made a living out of doing this.” Jimmy Page, he was looking at you.

“Sympathy for the Devil” has been covered by such diverse artists as Sandie Shaw, Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addiction, Ozzy Osbourne, Bryan Ferry, Blood, Sweat, & Tears, U2, Laibach, The London Symphony Orchestra, and Weird Al Yankovic. It was the last song Axl Rose, Slash, and Duff McKagan recorded together, adding the band’s breakup to the tune’s mythology.

Richards told Rolling Stone in 1971: “There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody’s Lucifer.”

Only the inner circle knows the works the Rolling Stones based their deviltry on in the mid-sixties. “It would be difficult to know for certain how serious the Rolling Stones were, collectively, about black magic, satanism, and the occult while creating that song since each of the individual players surely had different motivations and experiences,” Zeena Schreck, a Berlin-based interdisciplinary visual and musical artist raised within the construct of her father’s occult organization, the Church of Satan, told Den of Geek.

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“In those days, so many bands were competing for who could push the blackest envelope the farthest,” Zeena says. “I’m sure they didn’t mind the controversy that came with the dark associations from ‘Sympathy,’ or the previously released Their Satanic Majesties Request. I’d think the more sinister reputation would have been, for the Stones, a welcome delineation from the ‘I-wanna-hold-your-hand’ Beatles.”

The Beatles featured Crowley as prominently as they featured Dion on their Summer of Love epic, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the epitome of psychedelic production, capturing inner balance. “But generally, it seemed they were tapping into the overall Zeitgeist of the times, of the overwhelming pop-culture focus on occultism, witchcraft, and Satanism,” Zeena explains. “Specifically, the theme of that song seemed more a literary reference, influenced by the Russian novel The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. I doubt there were any intentional sinister motivations.”

Painting History Black

Jagger said the song was influenced by The Master and Margarita by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated into English in 1967, the book was a gift from Marianne Faithfull. “He devoured it in one night and spit out ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’” Faithfull remembered in 1994’s Faithfull: An Autobiography, the memoir she wrote with David Daltoner. “The book’s central character is Satan, but it has nothing to do with demonism or black magic.”

The satirical novel follows Beelzebub as he visits Moscow in the 1930s fresh from the crucifixion of Christ. He even performs a magic show, much like Louis Cyphre did in William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, though not in the film it was adapted into, Angel Heart. Jagger also cited the French poet Charles Baudelaire, but couldn’t name the poem. He’d credited The Taoist Secret of the Golden Flower for inspiring Their Satanic Majesties Request.

“Mick wrote a three-minute song synthesized out of this very complex book,” Faithfull writes. In the song the devil may appear to be “a man of wealth and taste” who is “pleased to meet you,” but he killed the Kennedys right along with you. Satan was at the scourging, trial and death of Jesus Christ to make damn sure Pilate washed his hands of the whole thing. He watched with glee while kings and queens fought for ten decades in religious wars. The devil didn’t have to stand in line to watch the Russian Revolution of 1917 and stuck around St. Petersburg long enough to catch the Tsar and his ministers getting shot, and hear Anastasia Romanov’s vain screams. During World War II, the devil “rode a tank, held a general’s rank,” in the fetid air of the blitzkrieg. The song originally contained the line, “I shouted out ‘Who killed Kennedy?” but after Robert F. Kennedy’ death on June 6, 1968, Jagger changed it to “Who killed the Kennedys?”

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While the line about the troubadours who get killed before they reach Bombay could have been about some bad concert promoter booking bands on some Marrakesh Express tour, it also references how British colonialists committed spiritual genocide when they executed the Thuggee cult.

Based on the investigations of Civil servant William Henry Sleeman, “the government of India established the Thuggee and Dacoity Department in 1835, which saw thousands of men executed and led to the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871,” says Marie Bargasthe Hollywood Witch, herself a Kashmir Shaivist. “Kali the Goddess of Death and Time emerges in this day and age as the sexy Goddess of Tantric Sex reincarnated as as passionate divine mistress newly risen from her bestial form of blood drinking superhero demon slayer. She wears the clothes of sex and death in effortless fashion as ever Goddess should.” 

The Devil’s Music

The working title of the song was “The Devil Is My Name.” Before that it was called “Fallen Angels.” Most of the other Stones remember Jagger showing up to play it on acoustic guitar, as a Bob Dylan-styled folk song. This writer can picture a not-quite-25-year-old Mick driving round to each of the bandmates’ homes with an acoustic guitar in the backseat excitedly strumming this cool new song he wrote. Richards suggested changing the tempo and structuring the song through layered percussion.

Rock has been called the devil’s music since it began to roll. This is both overt bigotry and inferred spiritual racism. There must be real power in those jungle beats that pump out real magic. “Possibly one of the reasons that particular song developed such an aura surrounding it is due to the consistent, shamanistic-like percussion and chanting,” says Zeena. “The quality of the rhythm in ‘Sympathy’ is similar to magical drumming played to induce trance states. That type of hypnotic rhythm is a traditional method of inducing altered states of consciousness. Combine that with the copious amounts of drugs and psychedelics that everyone was taking those days, while invoking a (conventionally understood) malevolent force, then obviously the effects would be quite epic.”

Jagger called it “good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove.” Under the actual samba rhythm, it has “an undercurrent of being primitive—because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.”

The tracks were recorded at London’s Olympic Sound Studios on June 4, 1968. Overdubs were done on June 8, 9, and 10. The band took off June 6, possibly for devilish deeds.

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Drummer Charlie Watts laid the basic samba rhythm loosely inspired by the jazz Latin feel of Kenny Clarke’s “A Night in Tunisia.” Richards played a Fender Precision bass. He does the solo on a three-pickup ’57 Les Paul Custom Fender Telecaster through a Vox AC-30 or a solid-state Supreme. Brian Jones’ acoustic guitar is mixed out of the final mix, but you can hear its ghost when you isolate the piano, which was played by the band’s usual suspect, Nicky Hopkins. Ghanaian percussionist Kwashi “Rocky Dijon” Dzidzornu played the instantly recognizable conga. The band’s usual bassist Bill Wyman shook a West African instrument called the axatse. He would also be replaced on bass during the performance of supergroup The Dirty Mac, which featured Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, guitarist Eric Clapton with Keith on bass backing John Lennon on “Yer Blues” at the Rock and Roll Circus taping.

The track opens with one drum, followed by the congas and then the accents before the shakers transform it magically into jungle beat. Jagger grunts and howls in the distance, a tribal call. The lyrics come in accompanied by the establishing chords played on piano, with the bass hitting the root and sustaining. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste” comes off veddy veddy British against all that tropical heat. Keith makes it through Jagger’s proper and refined first four lines before the bass starts to pop, building on the percussion, and threatening to rush the pace. Keith is a guitarist and plays the bass like a guitarist. He doesn’t throb on a repetitive groove. He improvises, which adds a dangerous tension. By the second verse, the piano goes from holding the chords to a blitzkrieg of improvisation.

The background “whoo, whoos” come in at the third verse. It was started impromptu in the engineering booth by Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg. Producer Jimmy Miller put a mike in the control room and joined in. Their take was later re-recorded by Jagger, Richards, and Miller in Los Angeles.

Richards’ playing on that song doesn’t sound like any other solo he ever recorded. He’s never played like that. His vibrato is never like that. When Richards fucked with distortion in “Satisfaction,” he dug low. But he trebles the shit out of this solo against a Vox amp. His phrasing is singular. His attacks are manic. He throws up his opening line like he’s got a snake caught in his throat. In the early days, Richards was always bitching to Jagger about “why don’t you sing like you play harmonica?” The guitarist repeatedly chided the frontman to free his vocals the way he did on the blues harp. Jagger repeatedly explained it’s not the same thing, and even if it was, what was he supposed to do with his famous lips?

Richards has no problem letting his fingers fly, sometimes in seemingly opposite directions. He bends blues phrases into 12-tone babble as his passing tones step over the hot rocks of hell itself. The remainder of the song is a duet between Richards’ guitar and Jagger’s vocals. They tease each other, mock each other, sing and play in unison as Jagger flings toss-away falsetto at Richards’ pentatonic punches. The song never ends, it just fades away. Ah yeah.

Invoking a Demon Brother

“Sympathy for the Devil” was captured in two takes, the first one Richards declared a disaster, before hitting on the perfect alchemy. The recording was filmed by French new wave film icon Jean-Luc Godard, who renamed his film One Plus One in honor of it for its 1968 producer’s cut. During the five days of recording, as the stories go, a film lamp started a fire that laid waste to the band’s equipment. The tapes were protected, another clue to the possessed nature of the noise.

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The band’s mythic satanic alliance was further cemented by their association with American underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, a former child actor who wrote the tell-all book Hollywood Babylon. Anger was a Crowleyan who called his movies Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Scorpio Rising, and Fireworks “visual incantations” and “moving spells.” Jagger played the synthesizer soundtrack for his Invocation of My Demon Brother. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin scored one on Crowley. Anger met the Stones through art gallery owner Robert Fraser and asked if they would work on a film called Lucifer Rising. Anger wanted to cast Mick as Lucifer and Keith as Beelzebub.

Zeena says that, during the 1960s and 1970s, the filmmaker “transmitted the influences of Curtis Harrington, Jean Cocteau, and Maya Deren [to her],” adding that her own art “was influenced early in life by the mentorship of her godfather Kenneth Anger.” During her childhood and adolescence, Zeena “was privy to Anger’s conversations about his involvement with such contemporaries as the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page and Anita Pallenberg.”

“Occasionally Kenneth Anger would mention his involvement with the members of the band,” Zeena says. “When the subject came up, he’d say they’d brought destructive energies upon themselves. Ironically he, himself, helped facilitate that, being their magical mentor. Despite the Stones’ backing off from the 60s’ dark occult influences around them, there can be no denying that Anger was a strong influence for a time, as witness Jagger’s soundtrack for Invocation of my Demon Brother.”

But Zeena, who was teaching magic and sorcery at the age of 16, “never agreed with Kenneth’s admiration and proselytizing of Aleister Crowley and Thelema. It’s a very destructive and misogynistic philosophy which has brought a lot of harm to people who take it seriously.” Zeena severed ties with her father and his Church, and is now a teacher of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, where the music of the Rolling Stones is more welcome.

“Although Kenneth Anger was befriended with both the Rolling Stones and my father during the same years, you definitely would not hear ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ playing at Church of Satan headquarters,” Zeena says. “The simple reason is that the High Priest had very rigid, idiosyncratic interpretations of what he considered ‘satanic music.’ Rock music, heavy metal, or any other kind of popular music, were definitely not part of his satanic jukebox.”

The British band might also have stopped dropping quarters into the American director’s nickelodeon. “Kenneth Anger they thought laughable,” Faithfull wrote in her memoirs. “Mick and Keith were utterly contemptuous of his satanic hocus-pocus.”

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“However, a more direct magical influence, aside from Kenneth Anger, influencing the group during the making of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, would have more likely been Anita Pallenberg,” Zeena says. “She openly practiced black magical rituals and never hid her fascination for the darker side of life. She not only performed backing vocals but also had a creative influence on the music and style of the group, being their sort of ‘resident witch.’ I know one of Pallenberg’s cousins who confirmed she was always into the black arts and a little ‘witchy.’”

Paranormal Papier-mâché

Pallenberg was left path enough to do a nude ménage a trois scene with Jagger in the film Performance, but the Rolling Stones directed most of their magic into music. That didn’t stop people from scouring the albums and songs for clues. When the Stones performed the song for the long-buried TV show Rock’n’Roll Circus in 1968, Jagger sang it topless, covered in fake devil tattoos. The original 1973 album cover of the Rolling Stones album Goat’s Head Soup turned a rare ethnic dish into a conspiratorial free-for-all.

When Jagger spooned out “Dancin’ With Mr. D” for the album, he infused it with a horror movie motif. The singer had his tryst “down in the graveyard” with a man with human skulls “hanging right ’round his neck.” He also found his dark presence “hiding in a corner in New York City” and looking “down a forty-four in West Virginia.” One night, while he was dancing with a lady in black, with black silk gloves and a black silk hat, he saw “the flesh just fall off her bones, the eyes in her skull burning like coals,” and realized he was dancing with Mrs. D, apparently on a vacant Hammer Horror lot.

Satanic sympathy pays off in the long run. Jagger was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in June of 2002. The Rolling Stones had not yet become the butterflies broken on a wheel in 1965, when the Beatles got their MBEs (Member of British Empire) medals. Lennon later joked the band smoked a joint in the Buckingham Palace bathroom, much like Willie Nelson says he got seriously high on the White House roof while visiting president Jimmy Carter. In 1996, McCartney was knighted for his “contributions to British music and society.” He was the Beatle who suggested Crowley’s face adorn Sgt. Pepper’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Crowley, who left the Order of the Golden Dawn to form his own mystical sect, the Order of the Silver Star, is best known for transcribing The Book of the Law, which was dictated to him by the spirit Aiwass through his wife Rose in Cairo in 1904. But Crowley’s biggest achievement was the use of backward phonetic breakdowns of Christian prayers during Gnostic and darker rituals.

Because Swinging London in the ’60s only really ranged a few blocks, both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were loosely connected to the sixties counter-spiritual group, the Process Church of Final Judgement, but mainly because they all went to Pink Floyd shows. “The Stones’ playing with popular satanic themes and imagery may have begun superficially at first but ultimately a malignant seed was planted and the conditions for destructive consequences ripened,” Zeena says, referencing another tragedy that played into the song’s morbid mythology.

The legend of the “Sympathy for the Devil” took more sinister turn during the Altamont Free Concert in 1969. Though Meredith Hunter was killed by Hell’s Angel’s bikers who were working security while the band was playing “Under My Thumb,” the fight that killed him interrupted the band as they kicked into their rhythmic satanic anthem. “We’re always having—something very funny happens when we start that number,” Jagger said before the band restarted the number. Because of the public outrage, the Stones didn’t play the song live for the next seven years.

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Brian Jones was played out during the recording of Beggars Banquet, but he was not silent. Richards worked double and triple duty, but Jones did the wonderful slide work in “No Expectations,” and played the sitar and tanpura on “Street Fighting Man.” The album would be the last with Jones, who was discovered drowned in his Sussex swimming pool on July 26, 1969.  His own musical exploration propelled the band to take the lead in many major musical movements. “Speaking only for my years composing with Radio Werewolf, I wouldn’t say ‘Sympathy’ or Satanic Majesties Request had direct influence on my music within Radio Werewolf,” Zeena says. “But I did have a strong affinity with their music produced in the Brian Jones years – their music when it had a more medieval flavor. That sound is what I’m naturally drawn to and often create.”

In the 2002 shadow of the Twin Tower attacks, Richards called the tune “an uplifting song. It’s just a matter of looking the Devil in the face. … You might as well accept the fact that evil is there and deal with it any way you can. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is a song that says, Don’t forget him. If you confront him, then he’s out of a job.”

There are no idle hands in The Rolling Stones, and moss doesn’t grow on tours. While the song may not have conjured a curse on the musicians, the band obviously sold their souls at some crossroad because they’ve been condemned to tour throughout eternity.

** Photo of Zeena courtesy of/copyrighted to Zeena Schreck

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.