The song was written by Stones members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The inspiration came, Jagger says, from Beaudelaire’s poetry and the book The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which Marianne Faithfull had given to him. “Sympathy for the Devil” was released as the opening track of their 1968 album Beggars Banquet. Rolling Stone magazine has the song on their “500 Greatest Songs of All time.”
This song helped to keep maintain the image of the Stones as bad boys — as opposed to those nice chaps, The Beatles. However, Mick Jagger says that this song is not about the occult or Satanism, but rather the dark side of man. Keith Richards has said regarding the meaning: “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.'”
The beat is based on a Samba rhythm. Richards says: “‘Sympathy for the Devil’ started as sort of a folk song with acoustics, and ended up as a kind of mad samba, with me playing bass and overdubbing the guitar later.” On the track were Mick Jagger (lead vocals), Keith Richards (electric guitar, bass guitar, backing vocals), Brian Jones (backing vocals), Bill Wyman (maracas, backing vocals), Charlie Watts (percussion, backing vocals), Nicky Hopkins (piano, backing vocals), Ricky Dijon (congas), Anita Pallenberg (backing vocals), and Marianne Faithfull (backing vocals).
The song is also featured for in the 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil (originally titled One Plus One) by director Jean-Luc Godard. The film shows the Rolling Stones in the studio recording the song.
There have been numerous covers of the song, including Guns N’ roses for 1994 film Interview with The Vampire, Sandie Shaw, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Jane’s Addiction, Laibach, Ozzy Osbourne, The Attack, Incubus Succubs, and Motörhead, to mention a few.