Counterbalance: The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue

The Rolling Stones
Emotional Rescue
Rolling Stones

Klinger: We’ve spent quite a bit of time dissecting the Rolling Stones’ work — they appeared no fewer than five times during our coverage of the Great List’s top LPs. Four of those albums were released between 1968 and 1972 in what was one of the most incredible streaks of brilliance in all of rock history. But the rap on the Stones has always been that after Exile on Main Street, their work was more or less optional. Sure, there have been a few flashes of greatness on occasion (1978’s Some Girls remains rightly heralded, as is 1981’s Tattoo You, even if it is basically an odds-and-sods assortment of leftover tracks), but their post-1972 work has been generally viewed as a long, slow slide into irrelevance.

That’s partly why I’ve chosen the Rolling Stones’ 1980 album Emotional Rescue for this week’s Counterbalance. Lodged right between Some Girls and Tattoo You, Emotional Rescue has been generally written off, receiving tepid reviews when it was released and only-slightly-better ones now (when it isn’t simply lost in the shuffle). Today, it’s nowhere to be found on the Great List. But I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if this isn’t an album I’ve found myself reaching for a lot whenever there’s a break in our Counterbalance duties. Maybe it’s because Mick Jagger sounds like he’s having a great time. Maybe it’s just because it reminds of my youth. (I remember this title track being played on the syndicated TV show Solid Gold. A woman was interviewed on the street who said that the song made her think of how Ronald Reagan was coming to our nation’s Emotional Rescue. Imagine that.) Or maybe navigating the list made me crave something that wasn’t quite so focused on relevance.

Regardless, I find this album to be a hoot, and I find it odd that it hasn’t experienced much in the way of reassessment. You’re nowhere near as reverent as the list makers, Mendelsohn — what’s your take?

Mendelsohn: The Rolling Stones’ disco record? I’m surprised it’s not on the list. What could go wrong when one of the biggest rock bands gives in to the latest dance trend?

Now that I’m done being snarky, I will tell you that I wish this record had more disco. I get the feeling that, while the Stones are having a good time exploring the burgeoning world of dance rock, they are doing a really half-assed job. Make up your minds, fellas. If you are going to rock the dance floor, go all in or go home. That’s my only real complaint about this record, Klinger. It could have been better. Not in the better like golden age, 1968-72 Rolling Stones better, but in the real commitment to exploring a new genre better. Is that why it didn’t make the list? I don’t know. Probably.

Klinger: No, Mendelsohn, that’s not at all why Emotional Rescue didn’t make the list. Quite the opposite. A big reason why Emotional Rescue was dismissed and even reviled by critics is exactly because they “went disco”. For a certain segment of the rock populace in 1980, going disco was slightly below golfing with Bob Hope on the list of stuff you wouldn’t want to get caught doing. That crowd was already wary of the Stones when they had a massive hit with “Miss You” a couple years before, and now they’re at it again with the title track here, which has Jagger running a full gamut of Barrys — from Barry Gibb to Barry White — and that’s just the sort of thing that was going to push people’s buttons back then. Not to mention the fact that disco was really on the outs with the general public by 1980.

I hear Emotional Rescue as less of a half-assed stab at dance music than a whole-assed attempt to meet current sounds halfway. Yes, Mick seems to be fully in charge here (as we’ve noted in the past, the story of the Stones seems to be a pendulum swing in the balance of power between Jagger and Richards), but there’s still a good bit of tangly guitars from Richards and Ron Wood to mitigate the four-on-the-floor beat. And not only are there dance echoes here, but the group also makes a few nods to pinkish new wave sounds (“Where the Boys Go” most notably), even if Charlie Watts can’t help but swing too much to provide the necessary primitivism.

Mendelsohn: I understand why it didn’t make the list. It does matter who you were, if you prostrate yourself before the altar of disco, typically speaking, you are washing all dignity and respect down the drain. All I’m saying is, maybe, if Mick had cracked the whipped a little harder, had really given tried to inhabit the tiny frame of Barry Gibb, this might have been a better record.

As it is, Emotional Rescue is a mish-mashed grab bag. “Dance” and “Emotional Rescue” are just retreads of “Miss You”. “Indian Girl”, sounds like a “Beast of Burden”, outtake. And don’t get me started on that reggae number, “Send It to Me”. It’s bad enough to hear the Stones half-ass their way through disco. Failing their way through reggae is a whole new level. I just want them to pick one thing and stick with it. Want to do the disco thing? That’s cool. Knock out a couple more “dance” -like cuts. Need to explore some island-themed rock? Go for it. The sample platter of musical styles that makes it onto this album just reminds me of how messed up the early ’80s were. Seeing punk, new wave, reggae and disco come together under the Rolling Stones’ banner is just strange. What draws you to this record?

Klinger: On a certain level, I think it’s the mirror image photo negative of everything that repels you from this record. I love “Send It to Me” precisely because the group plays reggae like the Rolling Stones. It sounds like Jagger is having a blast with his vocals — he might actually be making them up as he goes. (Also at the end, does he say that she could be “Boo-Berrian”? Because that is awesome.) Besides, reggae was so far infused into rock music in the ’70s that I didn’t even hear it as an attempt, any more so than “D’yer Mak’er” or that middle bit in “Live and Let Die”.

It’s also to do with the group’s willingness to play around with those forms, and in the process mess around with people’s expectation of those forms. “Indian Girl” uses a ballad form to talk about Cuban intervention in Angola and the devastation that caused throughout the region — not exactly your standard rock fare. And the more directly blues-based “Down in the Hole” not only has really nice bits about bumming for cigarettes and nylons in the American Zone, but Jagger also sings the lyrics with a pronounced British accent instead of his fake-bluesman voice. And incidentally, you might want to make up your mind about whether the Stones should have stuck with one style or stopped churning out retreads.

Mendelsohn: Why can’t it be both? I want both. I want original music and I want cohesiveness. If the Stones were going to go disco, they should have gone all the way. They could have knocked out a solid album of dance rock. They had a good handle on it as evidenced by the success of “Miss You”, “Dance” and “Emotional Rescue.” But that’s just me, I like dance oriented rock, mostly the alternative or indie variety. If you can shred guitar licks over a 120 beats per minute, I’ll probably listen to it.

I also stand by my assertion of “Send It to Me”, as a failure. If you want to hear Jagger do some decent reggae, go listen to that Super Heavy record he put out with Damian Marley a couple of a years ago.

And I can’t stress this enough, I don’t care what Mick and the boys thought about the Cuba’s geopolitical shenanigans.

I get it though — I understand the appeal of this record. With a band like the Rolling Stones, who have a discography stretching over nearly a half century, they are bound to have some hidden gems, records that the hardcore fans are going to appreciate if only for the oddity or good old nostalgia.

Klinger: And clearly I’m convinced that Emotional Rescue is one of those. I do remember that when it came out, it initiated one of the first rounds of debate concerning whether the Stones were just way too old to rock, and whether these geriatrics were just embarrassing themselves with their desperate attempts to stay relevant. Mick Jagger was 36 years old. (At the time, I thought they were most definitely making fools of themselves. Also 12-year-olds can be jerks.) Of course, it wasn’t long afterwards that your Bruce Springsteens and Tina Turners and Phil Collinses began churning out megahits and everybody stopped thinking that being thirtysomething was the death knell. (And it wasn’t long after that that the TV show thirtysomething debuted and made us all annoyed by thirtysomethings again, but that’s a different story.)

At any rate, the Rolling Stones have borne the brunt of ageisty attacks since about 1980, which also helps explain how Emotional Rescue gets the old Spanish elbow, even compared to the Stones albums right before and after its release. And while I understand that the Great List is a vast ocean liner that’s largely incapable of swift changes in course, I hold out the unreasonable hope that someday Emotional Rescue will get the reassessment that it deserves.