When the Rolling Stones Returned With ‘Mixed Emotions’
If Keith Richards was the subject of the Rolling Stones’ last mainstream Top 10 hit, 1989's “Mixed Emotions,” he could hardly accuse Mick Jagger of throwing the first punch. The lead track from that year’s return-to-form album, Steel Wheels, represented a new understanding between the pair, even if it didn’t represent the complete settling of their differences.
Richards and Jagger had fallen out during the making of 1986’s Dirty Work. The last straw was laid when the singer refused to tour in support of the album. “The band was in no condition to tour,” he later told Rolling Stone. "The album wasn’t that good. It was okay. … The feeling inside the band was very bad too. The relationships were terrible. The health was diabolical. I wasn’t in particularly good shape. ... So, we had this long bad experience of making that record, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend another year with the same people. I just wanted to be out.”
Richards admitted he was “really pissed” at his sparring partner. “I wanted to go on the road after we finished it," he recalled. "And I didn’t get a clear answer until the record was finished. Which was basically, ‘Screw off.’”
As a result, the longtime collaborators hadn’t spoken for several years, both relatively certain the Stones were over. That was the only reason guitarist Richards made his 1988 solo album Talk Is Cheap, which featured the song “You Don’t Move Me,” reputed to be a dig at Jagger – “You made the wrong motion / Drank the wrong potion / You lost the feeling / Not so appealing.”
Asked in 2019 if "You Don't Move Me" was indeed about the singer, Richards replied, “I’ve wondered ever since. I think probably. You see, the thing is, I actually had it going before [going solo] became a possibility. I had been playing around with it. When I wrote it, I was thinking of Mick singing it. And that’s the true convolution — it sort of ends up with me singing about him.”
Listen to Keith Richards' ‘You Don’t Move Me’
When the Glimmer Twins finally started talking again in 1988, the subject was a new Stones album and tour, and Talk Is Cheap even had a role to play, since “Mixed Emotions” shared DNA with another of the solo record’s tracks, “Take It So Hard.”
“I think I had the music, and I went to Mick and said, Bring your bit to it," Richards recalled. "Because it's a two-way street a lot of the time. … We can bring ideas to each other and sometimes it's strange – we hadn’t seen each other for maybe five or six months, and we get together and funny enough, we'd each have written a piece of music that actually fits together.”
Watch Keith Richards' ‘Take It So Hard’ Video
Jagger told Rolling Stone that his "Mixed Emotions" lyrics weren’t about Richards or their feud – “This coming and going is driving me nuts / This to-ing and fro-ing is hurting my guts / Then get off the fence now, you're creasing your butt” – but the guitarist was less sure. “I thought about that afterwards,” he said. “I was coming back from a session, my old lady, Patts, had just arrived, and I drove over to see her. And I told her how strange it felt, because it suddenly occurred to me that there was infinite room there for subliminal subjection. I realized what we’d laid down there had all the ingredients of an interesting autobiography.”
There’s another connection in the lines “So button your lip, baby, button your coat / Let’s go out dancing, let’s rock ’n’ roll” in that Richards later revealed he had to tolerate going to discos with Jagger as they worked to reconnect. “That was my sacrifice,” the guitarist said. “I humored him. And that’s when I knew we could work together.”
Life certainly seemed to return to whatever is normal in the Stones’ world. During the recording sessions on the island of Montserrat, a business executive reportedly tried to tell Richards how to rearrange “Mixed Emotions,” only to have a knife thrown at him by the guitarist, who then said, “Listen, sonny, I was writing songs before you were a glint in your father’s dick. Don’t you tell me how to write songs.”
Watch the Rolling Stones' ‘Mixed Emotions’ Video
Richards always denied the suggestion that the song's title was a play on “Mick’s Demotion,” saying he and Jagger worked up the idea together during early writing sessions in Barbados.
Released on Aug. 17, 1989, "Mixed Emotions" remains a track the singer likes, though he later admitted, “It’s very hard to do onstage. You go from the really hard verse to the very melodic chorus, which I like, but you always feel like you’re not going to pull it off, like it’s speeding up.” Steel Wheels helped bring the Stones’ career back up to speed, kick-starting an era of high-powered performances with an equally high-priced ticket.
“We’ve always done it for the money,” Jagger said before the tour began. “But also, to my mind, it has to be done in a good way where it doesn’t rip people off. It’s got to be good value for money. You shouldn’t charge less than everyone else. You can charge more than everyone else, but you also have to give them more than everyone else.”