Did you know that The Rolling Stones’ ninth studio album, Beggars Banquet, is 50 years old? Probably not. Are many people familiar with this album? Not so much. While it signaled a huge creative pivot for the band, it has been largely overshadowed by subsequent albums such as Exile on Main St., Let it Bleed, and Sticky Fingers. However, it was this album’s creative pivot that made their ascension to rock n’ roll superstardom even possible.
Prior to this album, The Rolling Stones were experimenting with the sounds of psychedelic pop. They had yet to make their mark on the classic rock genre. With Beggars Banquet, The Rolling Stones became the household name that is synonymous with the good ol’ days of music. Even without context it’s a great album – one that’s on par with some of their most iconic, memorable works.
After its release, the Chicago-Sun Times wrote on this album, saying, “The Stones have unleashed their rawest, rudest, most arrogant, most savage record yet. And it’s beautiful.” Larry Katz from the Boston Herald called it “both a return to basics and a leap forward.” Undeniably, Beggars Banquet was a sign for things to come for the rebellious rockers of London, England.
One of the album’s largest hits, “Sympathy for the Devil”, stands out for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s a very recognizable song; you’ve probably heard it at a family barbecue or two. Secondly, the lyrics are peculiar;Mick Jagger sings from the perspective of Satan, which infuriated people at the time. The song attempts to cast “sympathy” upon Satan. The band calls him “a man of wealth and taste” amongst a series of Biblical references. Jagger declares Satan’s involvement in events throughout world history, such as the crucifixion of Christ, World War II, and more. The song proves that evil is bigger than Satan, and nothing is as black and white as some might believe.
Hear the chorus: “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name / But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.” His name is Satan, and him being “pleased to meet you” is the song portraying him as human-like. He acknowledges that many are confused by this portrayal.
What exactly is his “game”? By blurring the lines between right and wrong, as well as the divine and mortal, “Sympathy for the Devil” calls into question the Bible’s absolutist view of evil. While Satan claims involvement in some of history’s worst atrocities, he does so as a human: he “killed the czar” and he “held a general’s rank” in Nazi Germany. This suggests that the idea of Satan is outdated, as evil exists in many mortal forms. The Bible reminds us that Satan will appear to the world in human form, wearing a three-piece suit like the trickster that he is. Jagger’s portrayal of Satan is just as deceiving, but with a little more nuance. (And a little more rock n’ roll.)
The lyrics of this song also convey that nothing is inherently good or bad; rather, everything contains some sort of mix between the two. Satan declares, “Just as every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners saints / As heads is tails,” emphasizing the duality of human nature. Even those responsible with protecting us can do the opposite, just as how those who sin might be the best people among us. The Rolling Stones want us to have sympathy for the devil – not because he is good, but because he’s everywhere. This song certainly spun the heads of religious zealots and haters alike, who had already begun to see rock n’ roll as the spawn of Satan.
50 years on, and this song still rocks. It was not only a big step for The Rolling Stones, but for the genre as a whole. “Sympathy for the Devil” takes some of music’s most taboo topics and turns them on their heads. It blesses its fans but also mocks its skeptics. For this reason, among many others, the legacy of The Rolling Stones will live on forever. They are one of the greatest bands of all time, and one of the most influential cultural forces in history. The world has a lot to learn from the spirit of rock n’ roll.
(Fun fact: Immediately following the release of this album, The Rolling Stones filmed a television special called “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”. This featured Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton, The Who, and John Lennon. Its original intention was to promote Beggars Banquet, but the film was not released until 1996. There are random clips of it on YouTube, but you can watch it in its entirety on iTunes here.)
Photo by Roger Jackson 1967