Saturday, November 24, 2012

(47th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "A Misleading Title"

Song: Sympathy for the Devil
Album: Beggars Banquet
Released: December 1968

Before wrapping up these Stepping Stones (next entry), I knew at some point I had to tackle that controversial song with the misleading title.  After all, Sympathy for the Devil (
 ) is one of the greatest of all Rock and Roll songs.  Rolling Stone Magazine agrees, having recently rated it at number 38 in the top 500 songs of all time.  But man, that title!  What were the Stones thinking?  Well, knowing this band, they knew very well what they were thinking.  That being said, had they fallen into a state of hubris?  This can do you in, and some have argued that such over-confidence may have brought the Rolling Stones some bad karma, particularly in the short term: Brian Jones death, Altamont, drug addictions.  At the very least it was the final nail in the coffin for the Stones with the conservative evangelical crowd. 

Yet despite all the outrage generated by the title and related misunderstandings at the time of the songs release (for example, Jagger singing from the viewpoint of the devil), ‘Sympathy’ is actually about exposing evil, not purporting it.  It’s loaded with historical references, reminding us of some of the most tragic and disturbing events of recorded times while stamping these events as being far from random.  In the process, this classic tune appears to emphasize what can happen if we try to ignore the sinfulness that is out there.  Coming on the heels of 1) their song We Love You 2) a brilliant cover of Robert Wilkins’ Prodigal Son (which summarizes the classic Biblical parable) and 3) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ genuine participation in the Beatles live TV footage of All You Need is Love, it is hard for a Stones aficionado to overlook the band’s true intentions here.  They just made it hard on themselves, which has never been an unusual position for these cats to be in.

When I was a teenager, none of this would need explaining.  It was simply understood, and I assumed that anyone else who listened got it too.  My focus at the time was primarily on the brilliant melding of music and lyrics.  I mean, this was a damn good song!  And being a history buff intensified this sentiment.  The Stones make their way through the centuries, from Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate to the 100 Year War to the Troubadours to the fatal end of Czarist Russia to the Nazi’s (I still believe Jagger sings ‘held a generous rank’ and not ‘held a generals rank’…  as it adds to the shadiness) and finally, the Kennedy assassinations (Bobby was killed a few days before the final version of ‘Sympathy’, which had Jagger modifying the lyrics from ‘who killed Kennedy’ to ‘who killed the Kennedys’).  While listening to this one song when I was a teenager, I picked up a sense of the meaning of these events more than I did during a handful of history classes, several of which included major discussion on these topics.  Interestingly, one of these classes, ‘History of the Post-War World’, which I took in college, focused on some of the same basic concepts the Stones do:  The insular, somewhat misguided optimism of the United States in the 50s, especially when comparing to Europe and Asia, which were digging out from under the rubble of war. 

The genius of ‘Sympathy’ is in its simplicity.  None of the instruments, other than the fast-paced bass guitar, appear all that difficult to replicate.  It’s a masterful song that can bring you close to the action, even if you are not a musician.  I recall being in the basement of a musician friend of Phil and Pete’s during our senior year in high school.  There were instruments all around.  A group of us settled in around the room (including an excellent jazz bass-guitar player who I had never met before and have never seen since).  The musicians started playing.  I picked up a pair of maracas and began shaking them to the beat, which slowly began to evolve and gel.  After a few moments, it became obvious to me that the beat was morphing into the intro to this week’s Stepping Stone.  The microphone was next to me.  I started mouthing the opening lines “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…..”, and proceeded to sing most of the song with the musicians around me locking in.  It was as close as I ever got to the feel of a studio session.  It was an incredible rush.

Another great memory related to this song was during my early days attending Carleton University in Ottawa.  I had spent a fantastic afternoon diving and swimming in the rapids of the Rideau River with several new found friends, including Steve V.  On the way back to the dorms, we walked along the Rideau Canal.  I initiated singing ‘Sympathy’ and soon had a chorus backing me with the classic sounding ‘Oooh, Oooh’ that kicks in halfway through the song.  These were the days I had no problem belting out a tune when surrounded by good friends or family (daughter Charlotte has stifled me way to often in recent years…. I’ve got to get back in the swing of it). 

The percussion beat to Sympathy for the Devil is the first thing heard when putting the needle down on side 1 of ‘Beggars Banquet’.  It initiated an amazing triumvirate of opening songs for the Stones, soon to be followed by Gimme Shelter off ‘Let it Bleed’ and Brown Sugar off ‘Sticky Fingers’.  What a run.  I challenge anyone to name a better or even equal streak.  I’m not sure the Stones ever really thought much about song order (in general) or the selection of an opening song (in particular) on any of their 22 British-released studio albums.  Unlike Lou Reed, who has discussed the importance of song order, I don’t ever recall members of the Rolling Stones stating anything to this effect.  For what it’s worth though, here are all opening Stones songs in chronological order, with my own personal ranking for each in parenthesis:

1.       Route 66 opens ‘The Rolling Stones’ (# 11)
2.       Everybody Needs Somebody to Love opens  ‘The Rolling Stones No. 2’ (# 20)
3.       She Said Yeah opens ‘Out of Our Heads’ (# 18)
4.       Mother’s Little Helper opens ‘Aftermath’ (# 7)
5.       Yesterday’s Papers opens ‘Between the Button’ (# 17)
6.       In Another Land opens ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ (# 22)
7.       Sympathy for the Devil opens ‘Beggars Banquet’ (# 2)
8.       Gimme Shelter opens ‘Let It Bleed’ (# 1)
9.       Brown Sugar opens ‘Sticky Fingers’ (# 4)
10.   Rocks Off opens ‘Exile on Main St.’ (# 3)
11.   Dancing With Mr. D opens ‘Goats Head Soup’ (# 14)
12.   If You Can’t Rock Me opens ‘It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll’ (# 16)
13.   Hot Stuff opens ‘Black and Blue’ (# 13)
14.   Miss You opens ‘Some Girls’ (# 5)
15.   Dances Part 1 opens ‘Emotional Rescue’ (# 8)
16.   Start Me Up opens ‘Tattoo You’ (# 6)
17.   Undercover of the Night opens ‘Undercover’ (# 9)
18.   One Hit (To The Body) opens ‘Dirty Work’ (# 15)
19.   Sad Sad Sad opens ‘Steel Wheels’ (# 19)
20.   Love Is Strong opens of ‘Voodoo Lounge’ (# 10)
21.   Flip the Switch opens ‘Bridges to Babylon’ (# 21)
22.   Rough Justice opens ‘A Bigger Bang’ (# 12)

Ok, so how could the Rolling Stones have made things easier on themselves with the title of this song?  Perhaps they could have gone with something like “We Know You Are Out There You Rat Bastard” or “Misery Loves Company”.  But ya know, part of me thinks they made the right call.  Someone had to push the envelope forward; pull in minds that would otherwise never be pulled into such discourse.  I would not have been one of them (having a strong faith installed at a young age, thanks in large part to my parents), but I do know many who fell into this camp.  By the time ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ was released, the Rolling Stones knew their audience.  They knew they were working with a fan base that was rebelling against an establishment they did not believe in.  The “Summer of Love” thing was not working anymore….at least for a while.   Some bands tried to ramp up the message of “Peace, Love, and Understanding”.   Many of these musicians fell out of favor.  The Stones knew they were dealing with a more complex situation than those bands did.  Their approach was risky…. but it worked.

-          Pete

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