Aerosmith had already cemented their miraculous comeback by mid-1988 with a pair of Permanent Vacation smash hits, “(Dude Looks Like a Lady)” and “Angel.” But even in sobriety, this was not a band to do things in moderation, so they went for a hat trick with the album’s final single, “Rag Doll.”
The Boston rockers had reached their commercial nadir in the early ’80s, hobbled by drug addiction and the departure of guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford. Both members rejoined the fold for 1985’s Done With Mirrors, but the album lacked the focus and the hits needed to resuscitate their flatlining career.
Knowing their next album was do-or-die, Aerosmith changed their entire approach for 1987’s Permanent Vacation. The world-class hedonists got sober and teamed up with hotshot producer Bruce Fairbairn and Geffen Records A&R guru John Kalodner. The latter encouraged them to work with outside songwriters for the first time, including Bon Jovi collaborator Desmond Child and Bryan Adams co-author Jim Vallance.
Child assisted Steven Tyler and Perry on the tongue-in-cheek rocker “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” and Top 5 power ballad “Angel,” while Vallance lent his talents to the bouncy, blustery “Rag Doll,” which was originally titled “Rag Time” due to its old-school New Orleans feel and Tyler’s ample scarf collection. Kalodner loved the song but insisted it needed a name change.
“I heard the track for the first time and said, ‘This is killer. But what the fuck is “Rag Time”?'” Kalodner recalled in 1997’s Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith. “Steven gave me some bullshit about New Orleans, the old traditions, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, the five-piece horn section Bruce was going to put on it. I said to him, ‘Kids won’t give a fuck about “Rag Time.”‘”
Watch Aerosmith’s ‘Rag Doll’ Video
The A&R man called in another veteran songwriter to take the song over the finish line: Holly Knight, who had previously co-written Pat Benatar‘s “Love Is a Battlefield” and “Invincible” and Scandal’s “The Warrior.” Her contributions were minimal but crucial. “We brainstormed for three days in Vancouver. Nothing,” Tyler recalled in Walk This Way. “Finally we’re going through it again and Holly reads my lyrics — ‘I’m rippin’ up a rag doll / Like throwing away an old toy‘ — and she says, ‘Hey! Call it “Rag Doll.”‘ Along with that, and changing a few other words, I gave her credit on the song.”
Former band manager Tim Collins claimed that this credit split would later come back to haunt the band, particularly Tyler: “He’d yell at me: ‘Who’s to say that it wouldn’t have been huge if it was “Rag Time”?’ ‘We’ll never know’ was all I could tell him.” But Perry remembered the agreement differently in his 2014 memoir Rocks: My Life In and Out of Aerosmith.
“Again, we willingly shared credit evenly, not only because Holly earned it, but because the machine was humming along so efficiently,” the guitarist wrote. “If you had something to do with the writing of the song, it was split evenly. That took the pressure off any credit disputes and let the creativity flow. And since the band would ultimately play the song, no matter how it started, it always ended up sounding like Aerosmith.”
With a walloping groove from drummer Joey Kramer, greasy slide guitar work from Perry and spirited scatting from Tyler, “Rag Doll” deftly blended Aerosmith’s old-school blues and R&B affinities with the high-gloss pop-metal dominating airwaves at the time. Released as a single on May 3, 1988, the song vaulted to No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, granting the band its third consecutive Top 20 hit off Permanent Vacation and becoming a set list staple for decades to come.
Knight, meanwhile, acknowledged her contributions to the song were valuable but remained ambivalent about the writing process. “I always was regretful of the fact that I didn’t get to write more with them and show them what I could do,” she told Songfacts. “But I’ve had many, many people tell me that the contribution I made is what made it a hit. Sometimes just turning the screw is what makes all the difference.”