The Occult Influences of Sympathy for the Devil
Den of Geek online journal explores the mystique and back stories of the 1968 cult anthem Sympathy for the Devil, by The Rolling Stones in this in-depth article. Exclusive interview with Zeena throughout the article, recalling her first-hand experiences with and magical interpretations of the song and its influences (excerpted in parts below: Full article, HERE and again at end of this post):
Zeena Schreck, a Berlin-based interdisciplinary visual and musical artist told Den of Geek [...] “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 [...] 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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.’”
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.
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.”