Since we’re on the subject of ’80s flops that deserved to be bigger hits… Oh, wait! We weren’t? Well, it’s a topic that’s never too far from my mind, so let’s discuss, shall we?
What about “Ruthless People” by Mick Jagger? If you remember the song at all, you probably haven’t thought about it since 1986, the year it appeared on the soundtrack to the Bette Midler-Danny DeVito film Ruthless People and peaked at No. 51 on the Hot 100.
Today when my iPod landed on it while I was running up that hill, via treadmill, I accelerated, thinking about Midler’s glory days as a movie star, then I slowed down, pondering — and imitating — the unfortunate commercial trajectory of what has been Mick Jagger’s career outside of the Rolling Stones. I always thought he deserved better. Perhaps he officially launched his solo career a bit too late, in February of 1985, when he was several months away from turning 42, with She’s the Boss, an album that was released a half-decade past the Rolling Stones’ prime.
Sting would go solo four months later, with far greater success, thanks, in large part, to his better timing: He disbanded the Police at the height of the band’s success. As a solo artist, from The Dream of the Blue Turtles on, he also veered in a completely different musical direction, indulging his inner Mingus wannabe who would dare to ask if the Russians love their children, too, while, for the most part, discarding the reggae-lite trappings he’d worn so well while in Police custody.
Jagger, too, went in a markedly different direction as a solo artist, diving straight into the mainstream, playing the pop star that had always been hiding in plain sight behind his rock-God poses. It produced a few successes — “Just Another Night,” “State of Shock,” with the Jacksons, and “Dancing in the Street,” with David Bowie, all Top 15 hits in the U.S. — but despite having a surplus of excellent moments — “Ruthless People,” “Lucky in Love,” 1993’s Wandering Spirit, ripping off part of Tina Turner’s dress at Live Aid in 1985 — solo Jagger was mostly a commercial dud.
Too bad. Though he began his solo career ensconced in the world of ’80s pop, by Wandering Spirit, his third solo opus, he was branching outside of the limiting confines of the genre, producing one of the great rock & soul albums, while delivering his usual flawless, instantly recognizable vocals. They’ve always been one of his underrated strengths, but because he’s not as inclined to vocal acrobatics as some of his lead-singer contemporaries — say, Robert Plant or Roger Daltrey — it’s easy to overlook what a fantastic vocalist Jagger is, both solo and with the Stones. His moves like Jagger always upstaged his voice.
Too bad. Now rock & roll’s first great frontman, the guy who influenced everyone from Steven Tyler and Michael Hutchence to David Bowie and Iggy Pop, might be best known to whippersnappers as the titular subject of a No. 1 hit by Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera. Meanwhile, to sneak into the Top 40 as a recording artist, he has to team up with will.i.am. and Jennifer Lopez — which he recently did on the clumsily titled and even more clumsily produced (by will.i.am) “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever).”
Screw Satan. We should take our sympathy for the devil and give it a rock icon who deserves it a hell of a lot more.