Sympathy for the Devil

Originally Performed ByThe Rolling Stones
Original AlbumBeggars Banquet (1968)
Music/LyricsJagger, Richards
Phish Debut1988-02-03
Last Played1988-02-03
Current Gap1870


Writing a hit song is no easy task. Nevertheless, since its inception in 1958 over 1,000 songs have risen to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. So while no small feat, a significant number of songs – including many more that did not climb to the top of the pop charts – can rightly be described as “famous.” 

Yet relatively few songs can be truly said to be “infamous.” The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” will likely always be associated with the Manson murders. The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was labelled treasonous. 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny,” among others, will forever be associated with the Parental Advisory stickers it inspired. And songs like “Smack My Bitch Up,” “Cop Killer” and “Suicide Solution” probably need no further explanation. Unlike these songs that gained notoriety largely out of flawed interpretations and/or premeditated shock value, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” achieved infamy out of events that were all too real.

The many different views and opinions surrounding Altamont are too complex and varied to cover here. What is not in dispute is that eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death shortly after a visibly shaken Mick Jagger finished singing “Sympathy for the Devil.”

The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” – 12/6/69 Altamont Speedway, CA (from Gimme Shelter)

Sung as a first person narrative, the opening track of Beggars Banquet is generally considered as one of the Stones’ masterpieces, despite its baggage. Layered over an almost primal groove, the song tells the story of how this “man of wealth and taste” influenced world history. It also warrants mentioning that Keith Richards’ solo on the Get Yer Ya-Yas Out version does not suck.

Perhaps sensing the baggage associated with the song, the Stones played the song rarely throughout the ‘70s. Though the song would return to the “Nostalgia Stones” ‘90s repertoire, it will likely forever be associated with those tragic events. 

Phish performed “Sympathy for the Devil” on one known occasion, on 2/3/88 at Gallagher’s. Safe to say Phish’s reading was not as moving (for good or ill) as the Stones’. 

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