The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

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.

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Rod Stewart – “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

HIT #1: February 10, 1979

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

When the Rolling Stones went disco, they made sure not to go too disco. “Miss You,” the Rolling Stones’ #1 hit from 1978, found a way to inject the beat of that moment with the sex-drunk blues-slither of the band’s classic material. “Miss You” made sense. It found common ground between disco’s syncopated strut and the very different kind of syncopated strut that the Stones had already been doing for years.

Rod Stewart did not give a fuck about any of that. When Rod Stewart went disco, he went fully, shamelessly disco. He dove right in. “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Stewart’s third #1 single, is a deeply silly and tawdry song, but that’s fully in keeping with the Rod Stewart mentality. Stewart had come from the same authenticity-fetishizing London blues-rock scene that had nurtured the Stones, but even in his earliest days, he was a drunken fuck-happy party-monster. If Rod Stewart could make a big hit song about partying and fucking, he was going to do it, and he wasn’t going to worry too much about what his old fans thought of it.

There’s a flirtiness in “Maggie May,” Stewart’s first #1, that you don’t hear in too many of his contemporaries. And Stewart was, after all, the guy who sang, “Spread your wings and let me come inside” on “Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright),” the massive smash from 1976. So of course Rod Stewart was going to go full disco. “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” in its own way, made as much sense as “Miss You.”

In fact, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was, at least in some ways, a direct response to “Miss You.” “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” has three credited songwriters, but the one who had the most to do with the song was Carmine Appice, Stewart’s drummer. Appice had formerly been part of Vanilla Fudge, the heavy ’60s psych-rockers who helped clear the way for metal. (Vanilla Fudge’s highest-charting single, their 1968 cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” peaked at #6. It’s a 7.) Appice recently told Songfacts that Stewart was in the studio, talking about how he wanted a song like “Miss You.” So Appice went home and tried to write him one.

Appice got together with his friend Duane Hitchings, who had his own studio. Using keyboards and drum machines, the two of them put together an early version of the track. They brought it to Stewart, who came up with the chorus. A couple of years ago, Hitchings said in an interview that he thought the song was “a spoof on disco” and on “cocaine lounge lizards.” And maybe there’s some ironic detachment to the song. But then, Stewart made a pretty convincing cocaine lounge lizard himself.

“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” isn’t about Stewart, even though he was pretty clearly concerned with whether people thought he was sexy. (This was around the time that Stewart, in a move that would prove prescient, started teasing his hair out and wearing spandex.) Instead, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is a story song. Two people lock eyes across a dancefloor. They’re both nervous, but apparently they’re not that nervous, since they both eventually end up at the man’s apartment.

Stewart tells much of the story in little snatches of dialogue, and we’re not sure who says what. One of them asks for a dime to phone their mother. One of them tells the other to relax, baby, because now they’re all alone. When the man apologizes that he’s out of tea and coffee, one of them suggests watching the early movie. We don’t know which of them is talking on the chorus, making requests of the other: “If you want my body, and you think I’m sexy, come on, honey, tell me so.” It could be either one. It doesn’t matter.

Stewart is taking clear joy in seeing these two get together and start fucking: “Don’t you just know exactly what they’re thinking?” And we know the man in the story isn’t Rod Stewart himself because it’s impossible to imagine Stewart being nervous or acting shy. There’s a delightful prurience to the song. Stewart, always horny himself, is happy to see other people being horny and getting what they want. It’s shameless.

The songwriting itself is shameless, too, albeit in a different way. After “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” came out, the Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor sued, claiming that the chorus melody had come from “Taj Mahal,” a 1972 song he’d written in honor of the American bluesman. Stewart, who’d been to Rio’s Carnival in 1978, later admitted that he’d heard the song and accidentally stolen from it, calling it “unconscious plagiarism.” Stewart settled the lawsuit and agreed to donate all the single’s proceeds to UNICEF. (He’d just played at the Bee Gees’ all-star Music For UNICEF Concert.)

Stewart also admitted that he’d stolen the song’s synth riff from Bobby Womack’s 1975 song “If You Want My Love (Put Something Down On It).” This was straight-up plagiarism, not the unconscious kind. Stewart figured that the riff wasn’t essential to the melody of the song, so Womack couldn’t sue. Womack didn’t sue, so Stewart got away with that one. (Bobby Womack’s highest-charting song was his 1974 version of “Lookin’ For A Love,” a song he’d first recorded in 1962 with his group the Valentinos. The 1974 “Lookin’ For A Love” peaked at #10, and it’s an 8.)

There are all sorts of reasons to get mad about “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”: the unabashed sellout move of the blues-rock howler going full disco, the eyebrow-wiggling sleaze of it, the ultra-glossy production, the willingness to steal from not one but two other people’s songs. People hated “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” for all those reasons. And I like it for all the same reasons. Anyone willing to get that flagrantly vulgar commands my respect.

“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” I’ll argue, is a pretty great piece of tacky, insincere disco. The bass, from Jamaican session musician Phil Chen, is a full wobble-strut that elevates the song more than it probably deserves. The guitars sidle and strut. Stewart makes better use of that synth line than Bobby Womack did, and producer Tom Dowd makes it sound like champagne sloshing out of glasses and staining shag carpets. I love all the goofy little touches, like Stewart hooting out an owww! just before the smooth-jazz sax solo hits, or like Stewart rasp-mumbling most of the lines on the verses rather than full-on singing them. This is a cheap, sticky, deeply artificial piece of music, and it never aims to be anything but that. It does the job.

Rod Stewart went full disco, but he didn’t find his voice within the genre the way his fellow ’60s-vintage Englishmen in the Bee Gees had done. Disco didn’t give Stewart a new lease on his career or anything. But this worked out pretty well for Stewart, longevity-wise. When the disco backlash hit, it sucked the Bee Gees down with it, but Rod Stewart endured. He’d already been making videos for years, and he’d gotten pretty good at it. (The girl in the “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” video was Lillian Muller, Playboy’s Playmate Of The Year in 1976. Later on, she’d star in Van Halen’s Hot For Teacher” video.) So Stewart was pretty well-positioned when MTV hit.

Stewart kept making top-10 hits all through the ’80s, but “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” turned out to be his last #1 hit as a solo artist. Rod Stewart will return to this column, but not for a while, and he won’t get there on his own.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Five months after “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” hit #1, the Chicago DJ Steve Dahl held the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago, blowing up a stack of disco records between White Sox games at Comiskey Park. The event, which turned into a riot, kickstarted the anti-disco backlash in earnest. It’s now remembered as a dark moment in pop history — the day when the racist and homophobic undercurrents behind that anti-disco sentiment rose up and made themselves heard. You can hear some of that, in any case, in “Do You Think I’m Disco,” the “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” parody that Dahl recorded before Disco Demolition Night. Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Ministry/Front 242 side project Revolting Cocks’ sweaty, rumbling 1993 cover of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” which got played at a lot of parties when I was in high school:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Post-punk party-starters Les Savy Fav used the “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” riff on their 1997 song “Cut It Out.” Here it is:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Back when they were in their now-disowned Bad Boy shiny-suit era, the Lox interpolated “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” on their 1998 single “If You Think I’m Jiggy.” Here’s the video:

(“If You Think I’m Jiggy” peaked at #30. The Lox have never had a top-10 hit as lead artists; their highest-charting single, the 1998 Lil Kim/DMX collab “Money, Power, Respect,” peaked at #17. But the Lox did guest on Puff Daddy’s “All About The Benjamins (Remix),” which peaked at #2 in 1997. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Rod Stewart shamelessly remade “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” with DNCE in 2017, even performing it at the VMAs with them that year. Here’s that version:

(DNCE’s highest-charting single, 2015’s “Cake By The Ocean,” peaked at #9. It’s an 8. As a member of the Jonas Brothers, DNCE frontman Joe Jonas will eventually appear in this column.)

Tags: Rod Stewart