Disco was a minefield for classic rock dinosaurs who managed to survive the onslaught of punk. Compared to the drubbing that was levelled against them by the likes of The Clash and the Sex Pistols, disco music seemed more of a safe haven for bands that always had a little bit of white-bread funk to them. Unfortunately, disco was a distinctly American and a distinctly black genre (at least at first), which made the style of music treacherous for middle-aged white Brits to wade in.
Not that it didn’t always work. In fact, The Rolling Stones scored the final number one hit of their career with their 1978 disco smash ‘Miss You’. Without abandoning the classic sound of their past, the Stones were able to adapt to the times better than most of their peers – for every success like Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. II’, there were ten ‘(I Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman’s. The one classic rock singer who sold out to the most shameless highs was Rod Stewart.
Featuring unmistakable four-on-the-floor rhythms, schmaltzy strings, and chunky guitar chords reminiscent of Nile Rodgers, ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ was immediately the line of demarcation that caused true-blue rock fans to start rebelling against what they saw as the sullying of their beloved genre. That rebellion was couched in quite a bit of nascent (or blatant) racism and homophobia, but the anti-disco wave was now in full swing. Released just a few months after ‘Miss You’ hit number one in the US, ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ rose to the top of the US charts in February of 1979, solidifying the idea that the best way to stay relevant was to visit the discotheque.
The connection between Stewart and the Stones goes deeper than just hopping on the disco train at the same time. Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood spent his early career with Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group, the Faces, and co-writing songs with Stewart during Stewart’s early solo career. When Wood jumped ship to the Stones in 1975, Stewart kept a close eye on what his former bandmate was doing. According to Stewart’s drummer Carmine Appice, that included picking up on the trends they were chasing as well.
“We were in the studio and ‘Miss You’ by The Rolling Stones was a big hit,” Appice recalled in an interview with Songfacts. “Rod was always a guy that used to listen to what was going on around him. He was always looking at the charts and listening. He was a big fan of The Rolling Stones, so when they came out with ‘Miss You,’ disco was really big at the time, so he wanted to do some kind of disco-y song, but nothing like Gloria Gaynor.”
“With the band, he would always tell us, ‘I want a song like this’ or ‘I want a song like that,’ so I went home and I came up with a bunch of chords and a melody,” Appice continues. “I presented it to him via a friend of mine, Duane Hitchings, who is a songwriter who had a little studio. We went in his studio with his drum machines and his keyboards, and he made my chords sound better.”
With some slick late-1970s production over the top, ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ fit in with the disco movement better than almost all of Stewart’s peers. While his approximation was successful enough to top the charts, Stewart also acted as the catalyst for the backlash of rock and disco mixing together. ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ mostly comes off as a goofy lark nowadays, but the hatred for the song ran deep for a number of years, with a number of Stewart’s longtime fans feeling alienated by the change in style.
After his switch to more modern music, Stewart continued chasing the contemporary audience of the times by adopting a more synthpop style in the 1980s. While this period produced hits like ‘Passion’ and ‘Young Turks’, Stewart’s music continued to get softer and softer until he largely became an adult contemporary artist in the 1990s. While he’s flirted with returning to his blues roots, Stewart never again created music as rock-centric as his early Faces work after ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’, and it might not have happened if it wasn’t for The Rolling Stones.