In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
For the rock bands of the late ’70s, disco must’ve looked like a reckoning. This music — flashy, glamorous, built around a whole new beat — was utterly dominating the pop charts, making grimy blues-derived rock sound like a relic. You could keep playing arenas if you kept making straight-up rock music, and people like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and the Who were doing just fine without ever much playing around with disco. But the moment did not belong to them. It belonged to something else.
By the time the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” hit #1, at least a few rockers had messed around with disco, trying to figure it out. The Bee Gees, of course, had completely reinvented themselves, transforming into the most dominant pop group since the Beatles. But more typical was something like “Love Is Like Oxygen,” the final top-10 hit from former glam yelpers Sweet. “Love Is Like Oxygen” attempted to fuse slick, nervy disco stomp with the gleaming studio-rock of bands like Boston, and it stripped away everything that had once made Sweet so good. It was a hit, but it was also the sort of thing that inevitably led to instant backlash. (“Love Is Like Oxygen” peaked at #8 a few weeks before “Miss You” made its ascent; it’s a 4.)
The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, weren’t doing too well. In the five years since “Angie” had hit #1, they’d kept recording and touring, and their albums and live shows did business. But things in the band had remained in a perpetual state of chaos. After five years, Mick Taylor had left the band in 1974; they’d replaced him with the former Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood. Keith Richards had been arrested with cocaine and heroin in Toronto, and he was looking at a possible years-long prison sentence. And the Stones weren’t making any kind of pop-chart impact. In the five years after “Angie,” they’d only had one top-10 hit. (1976’s “Fool To Cry” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)
While Richards was dealing with his drug case, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts had started going to discos, and they liked what they were hearing. Jagger, in particular, had been spending a lot of time at New York’s Studio 54 with the model Jerry Hall. (He divorced his wife Bianca in 1977.) In the years after “Miss You,” different members of the band have said conflicting things about whether or not they were trying to make a disco song. But “Miss You” is, more or less, a disco song. It’s just a very Rolling Stones version of a disco song.
“Miss You” is a best-case scenario — a great band understanding how to play around with a cool new sound without sacrificing any of what made them great in the first place. The groove on “Miss You” is a sidling strut — different enough from the Stones’ old blues throb that it worked on 1978 radio, similar enough that nobody else could’ve made it. The Stones understood which parts of disco would work with the sound and the persona that they’d already built. They played disco as an insistent, bluesy slither. They made it their own.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the two credited songwriters on “Miss You,” but that’s the Stones way. Richards didn’t really have anything to do with the song, and he’s still pretty openly dismissive of it. Richards was too bogged down in Toronto to have much say in any of Some Girls, the truly great album that the Stones released in 1978. Instead, Jagger took the lead, writing most of the songs and dictating the form of the thing.
But “Miss You” wasn’t just Jagger. Jagger came up with most of “Miss You” while jamming with Billy Preston, getting ready for the Stones run of 1977 shows at the Toronto club El Mocambo. (That’s what Richards was doing when he got arrested.) Preston had come up with a bassline, which the Stones bassist Bill Wyman had honed and polished. And while most of Some Girls is just the Stones without guest musicians, “Miss You” has a few. The prog veteran Mel Collins plays saxophone on the song, and Ronnie Wood’s former Faces bandmate Ian McLagan plays electric piano. The harmonica player is a guy named Sugar Blue, a Harlem native who a Stones associate heard busking in the Paris Metro.
Together, these musicians come up with a depraved-ooze club groove. Charlie Watts’ drums are the anchor, and they stay in that classic four-four dancefloor stomp, but they’re lower in the mix than most disco drums are. Bill Wyman does a sort of klonopin-haze version of busy, high-stepping funk bassline. Sugar Blue howls like an angry cat. Richards and Wood circle each other warily. The band simmers and fades, building to crescendos and then ebbing back again. That’s a classic disco construction, but they do it messily, chaotically.
Mick Jagger, meanwhile, pulls a classic Mick Jagger move: He sings about not having sex while making it clear that he is having so much sex. Jagger wants you to know that he misses you. He’s thinking about you all the time, to the point where he’s not even thinking about his own safety. He’s walking in Central Park, singing after dark, in an era when this wasn’t just a whimsical thing to do. He’s stumbling and shuffling up to strangers, asking them, “What’s the matter with you, boy?” This is probably not a smart thing to do. Friends keep trying to get Jagger back to his old self — there are cases of wine to be drunk, and there are Puerto Rican girls just dying to meet him — but he’s not interested. He’s waiting on a phone call from you.
Jagger’s vocal performance on “Miss You” is a pure masterwork. He gargles and pants and howls and grunts and launches into falsetto yips. He manages to drawl out a catchy and wordless refrain — the haa-aah-haa-aaah-aah thing — while giving the impression that he doesn’t even realize he’s making noises, that these sounds are just leaking out of him. Sometimes, he murmurs low. Sometimes, he yells against the flow of the beat. He seizes on strange, counterintuitive phrases and picks weird words to emphasize. He wants to let you know that he’s full of loss and longing, but he also wants to let you know that he’s the absolute man. When he whispers — “People think I’m…… crayyyy-zayyy” — you hold your breath to hear what he’s about to say. As a straight-up acting performance, it’s as good as anything Al Pacino did in the ’70s.
Even on the rest of Some Girls, the Rolling Stones weren’t too interested in exploring the disco territory they’d staked out with “Miss You.” Maybe that’s for the best. It’s a standalone song, a one of one. But it’s also a total miracle. Plenty of days, it’s my favorite Rolling Stones song.
Some Girls reinvigorated the Stones’ careers, and it firmly established them, once again, as one of history’s great rock bands. Even without Some Girls, the Stones would probably still be able to tour stadiums today, but the album definitely helped cement their legend. They kept making hits for more than a decade after “Miss You.” (Their most recent top-10 hit, 1989’s “Mixed Emotions,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.) But the Rolling Stones never scored another #1 hit after “Miss You.” They will not appear in this column again. Instead, they ended their 14-year run of #1 hits as well as it could possibly be ended.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Snoop Dogg interpolating “Miss You” on his 2000 Kokane collaboration “Y’all Gone Miss Me”:
(Snoop Dogg will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Snoop collaborator Dr. Dre, along with Mike Elizondo, remixed “Miss You” for the soundtrack of the 2002 motion picture Austin Powers In Goldmember. Here’s their take on it:
(Dr. Dre will appear in this column as both a producer and a guest-rapper, but he’s never had a #1 single as lead artist. Instead, Dre’s highest-charting single, the 1992 Snoop Doggy Dogg collab “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Mirwais, the French dance producer who is mostly known for his work with Madonna, released a pretty amazing “Miss You” cover in 2002. Shudder To Think’s Craig Wedren did the vocals. Here’s that:
(No Mirwais solo track has ever charted in the US, but a Mirwais-produced Madonna song will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Three 6 Mafia sampling “Miss You” on their 2008 song “We Got Da Club”:
(Three 6 Mafia have never had a top-10 hit; their highest-charting single, 2005’s “Stay Fly,” peaked at #15. But Three 6 member Juicy J will eventually appear in this column as a guest rapper.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Miss You” cover that former French First Lady Carla Bruni released in 2017:
(“Miss You” also appeared in the 1984 pilot episode of Miami Vice. It was the first song to be featured in the entire series. You can watch that here; it’s not embeddable. The Miami Vice soundtrack will eventually have its impact on this column.)