The Rolling Stones in the Twilight Zone: In Praise of the Disco-y “Emotional Rescue”

Even the Rolling Stones fans who could endure “Lady Jane” never recovered from Jagger’s falsetto, among other things, in “Emotional Rescue”, but that’s their loss.

Emotional Rescue
The Rolling Stones
Rolling Stones
20 June 1980

“I glanced into my teenage daughter’s bedroom one spring afternoon last year, expecting to find her staring absentmindedly at the Zoom screen that passed for high school during the pandemic. Instead, she was laughing uproariously at a video she had found. I asked her what she was looking at. ‘It’s an old man dancing like a chicken and singing,’ she told me.

I came over to her laptop, not being above watching someone making an idiot of himself for 15 seconds of social-media fame. What I found instead was the septuagenarian rock star Mick Jagger, in a fairly recent concert…

“‘Is this serious?’ she asked. ‘Do people your age actually like this?’ … ‘Kind of,’ I answered.”

— Arthur C. Brooks, “How to Want Less”, The Atlantic, February 2022

John Lennon was wrong about some things, but he knew a good song when he heard it, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, even if that song was by one of his rivals. Lennon was never more right than when, in a December 1980 Rolling Stone interview, he praised the Rolling Stones’ single “Emotional Rescue”, released in June of that year. In an offhand reference, Lennon called it “a beautiful song. … I enjoyed it, a lot of people enjoyed it.”

Lennon and Jagger’s acolyte and friend David Bowie must have enjoyed it, right? Bowie’s single “Ashes to Ashes”, with its popping bass, spacious arrangement, mutant disco groove, and use of falsetto, surely owes a debt to “Emotional Rescue”? Well, not so surely, since “Ashes to Ashes” was released a mere two months after “Emotional Rescue”. It’s easy to imagine Bowie loving the Stones’ song, but it’s safer to say that dance music was on all these rockers’ minds. The Stones reined in Jagger’s dance-mindedness, but Bowie plunged headlong with Let’s Dance (1983).

How about Prince, who clearly listened to Lennon, Bowie, and the Stones? He enjoyed “Emotional Rescue”, right? His single “Kiss” (1986), with its popping bass, spacious arrangement, mutant disco groove, and use of falsetto, surely owes a debt to “Emotional Rescue”.

Some of us enjoyed the song enough to buy the 45 when it was released. “Emotional Rescue” was made to be played on a seven-inch single, whose wide grooves and bright sound enabled Charlie Watts’ simple, snare-heavy kit to thump and hiss, Bill Wyman’s plosive bass to pop, Bobby Keys’ sax to make surprise appearances as though cut to in a montage, Jagger’s falsetto to shriek pleasingly, and lots of aural space to exist between the highs and lows. I’m naming names here, but the recording never suggests actual musicians, humans collaborating. The one time the Rolling Stones performed this song in concert, they reportedly rearranged it.

On the recording, parts seem flown in from parts unknown. Sampling was in its infancy, but if “Emotional Rescue” were released today, it would make sense for all these elements, even Jagger’s shapeshifting vocal, to have been plucked from sources and assembled. Maybe the process wasn’t quite trial-and-error—more like “Let’s have some sax here … here … and, um … no, not there … here.” Dropping the needle on the disc felt like becoming a DJ in a bedroom dance club of one, where this soulful yet disembodied, inorganic, semi-robotic Frankenstein’s monster made sense.

In 1980, a suburban American teenager obsessed with pop rock didn’t necessarily have much record-buying money, so that teenager might have had to choose carefully. Plunk down money on the single, or save more and get the album? A year earlier, when the Stones’ Some Girls provided one radio-friendly masterpiece after another—“Miss You”, “Beast of Burden”, “Shattered”, all undeniable, addictive—that album justified the expenditure. With 1980’s Emotional Rescue the album, though, maybe the single sufficed. That song’s weirdness livened up the bedroom disco and fired up the teenage imagination, but other tracks heard sporadically on FM rock stations suggested the Stones had drifted into less compelling territory, sometimes serving up what sounded like 1978’s Some Girls leftovers lacking that album’s power.

The follow-up single from Emotional Rescue, “She’s So Cold”, is much more standard-issue Stones. It proved a hit, but does anyone truly, madly, deeply like the song? Even if you put aside its misogyny—and I can’t, given that all the singer says is how hot he is and how “goddamn cold” she is—the music’s uninspired and the recording’s slipshod. Perhaps the trick is to put sense aside and focus on the rhythm of Jagger’s yammering (the way, for some reason, he makes “beauty” sound like “bourgie”), plus the interplay of those syllables with the band’s dangling wires. Whatever the song’s merits, its release as a single was meant to assure radio listeners that the band hadn’t, heaven forbid, gone disco, been taken over by Jagger’s tendency to strut his stuff.

Speaking of which: Not to beat up on Lennon, but for a representative example of how some guys feel, shall we say, ambivalent about Jagger’s self-presentation, consider Lennon’s 1970 Rolling Stone interview. “I think Mick’s a joke,” Lennon said, giving his opinion of the Stones, “with all that fag dancing.”

Ouch. Bear in mind the longstanding rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones. Understand that Lennon was in full-on demythologizing mode, especially regarding ’60s iconicity. But also know that three years after that interview, Lennon produced Jagger’s explosively funky cover of Willie Dixon’s “Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Broth)”. If you haven’t heard that one—ultimately released on 2007’s Very Best of Mick Jagger, here we go:

“All I can tell you is,” as Lennon put it in 1974’s “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out)”, “it’s all show-biz.” But the underlying attitude of his quotable quote from 1970, the sense that Jagger’s “fag”giness is the Stones’ embarrassing underbelly—made up for mainly by Keith Richards’ machismo—lingers even in Stones fandom. 

To have been a suburban American boy in 1980 who loved “Emotional Rescue” was to have been an outlier. The song was by an acceptably mainstream classic rock band, but for mainstream tastes, it was too “out there”, too wimpy and effeminate, too much of itself and not enough of what made the Stones the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.

In 1979, the very acceptable mainstream classic rock band Pink Floyd tapped into disco for their FM hit “Another Brick in the Wall (Pt. 2)”. They even included the sounds of children singing along on the chorus, but to mainstream ears, the undeniable catchiness and the lyrics saved that one. “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control … Hey, teacher, leave the kids alone!” was cool, so the song was acceptable and accepted. You could sing along and not be considered a freak.

By contrast, Jagger sounds like a “freak” from the start of “Emotional Rescue”, and pledging to come to someone’s emotional rescue, even if the pledger is a knight rescuing a damsel in distress, just makes you feel icky. Declaring “I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true”? No. A classic rocker should ask, “Brown sugar, how come you taste so good?“ or announce, per Led Zep, “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love.” Worst of all comes when the rhythm breaks down, and Jagger speaks in a combination of affected, unidentifiable accents:

“Yes, you could be mine, tonight and every night
I will be your knight in shining armor
Coming to your emotional rescue
You will be mine, you will be mine, all mine
You will be mine, you will be mine, all mine
I will be your knight in shining armor
Riding across the desert on a fine Arab charger”

It’s both convincingly chivalric and disturbingly declamatory. It’s also cheesy, as spoken passages in songs generally are. Consider Elvis Presley’s spoken passage in his 1960 hit “Are You Lonesome Tonight”:

“I wonder if you are lonesome tonight
You know someone said that the world’s a stage
And each must play a part
Fate had me playing in love
With you as my sweetheart
Now the stage is bare, and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down”

It’s pure schmaltz, and in concert, Elvis hammed it up unbearably. Jagger may be paying tacit tribute to King Elvis, being consciously cheesy to the point of absurdity. At the same time, he could be channeling Travis Bickle, who in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver  (1978) shifts between charismatic smooth-talker and terrifying straight-shooter. He could also be drawing on Humbert Humbert, who in Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) uses exquisite language to convey his depravity. He might be referring back to his role as the courtly, decadent, gender-bending Turner in Cammell and Roeg’s Performance(1970). He might also be referring back to the foppish courtier who did celebrate his mistress’s charms in the Stones’ “Lady Jane” (1966), outdoing Donovan for tweeness:

“My sweet Lady Jane
When I see you again
Your servant am I
And will humbly remain
Just heed this plea, my love
On blended knees, my love
I pledge myself to Lady Jane”

Jagger, of course, went on to live out what might have been a lifelong fantasy by becoming England’s Sir Mick. Meanwhile, methinks, some Stones fans, even ones who can endure “Lady Jane”, never recovered from the recitative in “Emotional Rescue”. Even though the Stones recovered, in mainstream classic rock fans’ eyes, with the unquestionably Stonesy opening chords of “Start Me Up” on their next album, 1981’s Tattoo You, there would forevermore linger the knowledge that they were, Jagger was, capable of revealing something uncomfortable.

Some Girls opened with the Stones’ clear precursor to “Emotional Rescue”, the disco single “Miss You”. Rockist fans seemed to accept that one, but they had problems with the side two opener, “Far Away Eyes”. The Stones had played country music before, but here Jagger acted the part of a Southern American country boy by employing a hick accent. He opens the song by speaking with an exaggerated twang:

“I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord on your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this that I ran twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Lord”

The guy’s a dolt, the song’s a put-on, and it’s unclear how broadly the mockery is being applied: to the Bible Belt, the whole South, the rural United States? Some listeners bristled.

However, the rest of Some Girls was different. In its ferocity, this music seemed the Stones’ response to punk. Mick, Keith, & Co. were letting the world know they heard the hard, harsh, yet often catchy new stuff as inspiration and provocation. “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones,” the Clash declared in their song “1977”, and the Stones were saying, “Oh yeah? Take this!”

Emotional Rescue was the next logical step: a nod to new wave and postpunk, especially as represented by reggae and dub-aware rock bands such as Blondie, Flying Lizards, Ian Dury, Public Image Ltd., the Slits, and the Clash, who’d expanded their stylistic palette to nearly the breaking point on 1979’s London Calling and would break it on 1980’s Sandinista! The Stones’ erstwhile companion/compatriot Marianne Faithfull absorbed some of these influences on her ear-opening comeback, 1979’s Broken English. To just rock straightforwardly would have seemed hopelessly passé in 1980. Rock needed to be broken into fragments.

This back story risks making Emotional Rescue sound like a carefully executed collection of stylistic excursions, whereas it comes across as a lesser effort. After writing a batch of memorable songs and playing the hell out of them on Some Girls, the Stones coasted on that momentum by tossing together a bunch of mostly dross that coheres only in being trashy. The collection’s saving grace is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its WTF attitude raises Emotional Rescue above at least the Stones’ 1976 effort, Black and Blue, which did its generally weak songs no favors by being no fun.

Emotional Rescue’s title track is, among many other things, fun. Although it is buried toward the middle of side two, it is the best song on the album. It would be the best, most ear-catching song on lots of albums. It shares a “Where did this come from?” quality with such Stones highlights as 1969’s “Gimme Shelter” and 1971’s “Moonlight Mile”. Given where the Stones have often been and now seem to have settled into—let’s say, phoning in their parts from studios located conveniently near luxury resorts in disparate parts of the globe—it’s hard to imagine even one member focusing long enough to craft the combination of sounds on this track.

Back in 1979, however, someone, someone named Mick, really worked on this one. It is hard to imagine what he might have achieved as a solo artist if he had taken the time and effort to focus on little details such as songwriting and the intricacies of crafting tracks. Imagine a whole album of creations as transcendent as “Moonlight Mile” and “Emotional Rescue”. However, the latter is hardly the only worthwhile track on its namesake album.

Emotional Rescue’s opener, “Dance (Pt. 1)”, extends the funk thread started on Black and Blue’s “Hot Stuff”. These tracks have nothing on their minds, but they make it fun to imagine Jagger doing his chicken dance in the studio like it’s Studio 54. Indeed, this one managed to become a hit on Billboard’s dance chart. The sequel, “If I Was a Dancer (Dance Pt. 2)”, appears on the hilariously titled Stones compilation Sucking in the Seventies (1981), and pretty much continues the groove. However, it’s an effective groove that shares DNA with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. That disco delight, a muscular megahit immediately accepted by the classic-rock mainstream, was released two months after Emotional Rescue.

That album’s playfulness is signaled by the titles of its hardest rockers, “Summer Romance” and “Where the Boys Go”. It’s as though the Stones have taken inspiration from the sheer frivolity of ’60s beach-and-surfing movies, such as Robert Sparr’s A Swingin’ Summer (1965) and Henry Levin’s Where the Boys Are (1960). These tracks are both basically the same song but a potent one. The latter gets especially intense as the band lingers in one spot—the spot, no doubt, where the boys go (“down the disco! … for a giggle and a laugh … and a little piece of ass”)—and hammers away.

Even more intense is “Down in the Hole”, the B-side to “Emotional Rescue” and the perfect counterpoint to the A-side’s experimental weirdness, baroque romanticism, and banging-on-a-tin-can assemblage. “Down in the Hole” may be the Stones’ slowest, most lowdown blues—the scraping along a hard floor they’d been working toward from their beginning. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just illustrates what it feels like to be down in the hole. 

Also of interest are “Indian Girl”, which closes side one, and “All About You”, which ends the album. In “Indian Girl”, Jagger may overdo it with his faux South American accent, but he earns credit for trying something new and heartfelt in implicating himself as he addresses the plight of a street child in a war-torn country (“Please, Mr. Gringo, please find my father”). Strummed guitars, Nicky Hopkins’ patented contemplative piano, and a woozy rhythm create the cinematic atmosphere. In “All About You”, Keith Richards earns credit for applying his thin, raspy voice to a ballad. The song pushes the composition boundary, approximating languorous soul but never quite solidifying. Maybe the music’s formlessness intentionally echoes and delivers the ambiguities of the love/hate relationship discussed in the lyrics (“You want it, you get it / So how come I’m still in love with you?”).

Do you see where this train of thought is headed? The most interesting songs on Emotional Rescue show the Stones marrying form and content, so the music enacts the lyrics. The title song represents the apotheosis of this approach in that its over-the-topness lets us experience the singer’s state. Beneath its concerns about identity and chivalry, the song explores desire that goes too far, that can make a person ridiculous—feel ridiculous, appear ridiculous. That’s okay, the song says. Risk ridiculousness. Don’t fear that extreme within the range of human experience. In pursuit of ecstasy, sometimes you play the fool.

Some Stones fans just can’t accept the band’s ventures into throwaway glittery junk. They want nothing but the ultra-seriousness of Exile on Main St. (1972), where the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band codified their contribution to rock as an art form. The Stones had made many classic recordings up to that point, and the three albums leading to Exile on Main St. stand among rock’s strongest statements, but would the Stones have quite the same stature if they had broken up in, say, 1971?

Some Stones fans think they peaked in 1972. At that point, their status as debauched, hard-living, hard-loving contemporary bluesmen was set in stone. For fans wedded to that period, accepting the pastiche of “Far Away Eyes” and the fauxness of “Emotional Rescue” opens the door to thinking about the fakeness of the whole enterprise. Should white Englishmen have been singing the blues, especially after becoming rich superstars?

Other fans know that the serious exterior and bad-boy image are only part of the Stones’ story. Another part is the frontman in the chicken suit.

Thanks to Susan Connor for her invaluable contributions to this piece.