Tribute: Charlie Watts’ unique style is what helped make this Stones song their most underrated of all

(August 29, 2021).  Of the several tribute articles I’ve read about the late Charlie Watts since he passed away on August 24, there’s a certain song that I haven’t found on any of the lists of the Rolling Stones’ greatest as it relates to Watts’ drumming.

Its omission is not surprising, quite frankly, as I didn’t expect to see this particular song listed because it generally gets very little love from critics when it comes to rating the Rolling Stones’ best tunes, whether they’re based on Watts’ drumming or not.

Charlie Watts playing drums in the video for “Emotional Rescue” (1980)

The song in question is their “rock-meets-disco-Part-2” big hit “Emotional Rescue,” from the band’s 1980 album of the same name. I say “Part 2” because history maintains that “Miss You,” from the band’s previous album, Some Girls, was their first attempt at blending the two genres…to great success I might add: “Miss You” topped the pop charts in the summer of 1978 and sold a million copies in the process. It also reached the top ten of the Billboard disco chart, peaking at a very respectable No. 6.

In fact it was “Miss You” that helped turn the rock and disco genres – bitter enemies before then – into cordial acquaintances from 1978 through the early part of 1980. During that time disco would experience both its greatest success and a most dramatic downfall. In the two years between “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue,” everyone from Donna Summer and Blondie to Rod Stewart and Amii Stewart (no relation) blurred the lines between disco and rock with songs that ultimately topped the Hot 100.

But while “Miss You” conveniently rode the wave of disco’s meteoric rise in the wake of the unprecedented success of Saturday Night Fever (thanks mainly to a slew of hits by the Bee Gees), “Emotional Rescue” was an even bolder move by the Stones. In terms of timing, “Rescue” came in the second half of 1980 when disco was a year removed from its peak and in the throes of a devastating backlash that would see it completely wiped off the pop top-40 just a year later.

Even musically speaking, while “Miss You” takes all the heat (and the hate) for being the Stones’ introduction to disco, “Rescue” was arguably even more disco-ey than “Miss You” had been. It was certainly better disco – technically speaking – than “Miss You,” and Charlie Watts’ stick- and footwork had everything to do with that.

Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones

Beginning with Watts’ syncopated four-on-the-floor, in-the-pocket groove where the bass drum and hi-hats are most prevalent, and continuing with a vocal by lead-singer Mick Jagger that was easily his best Barry Gibb falsetto imitation ever, “Rescue” was not just the Stones’ most discofied single, but it was arguably more disco-sounding than anything else released by a rock band during 1980 (yes, that includes Blondie’s “Call Me” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”).

So essential was Watts’ groove to “Emotional Rescue,” that it was his stick work that gets the whole affair started, with mainly his kick bass drum and eighth-note hi-hat carrying the song’s first few bars. When he is joined moments later by bassist Ronnie Wood and lead guitarist Keith Richards to establish the song’s unique rhythm pattern, we knew instantly it was something we’d never heard before.

In my best layman’s attempt at describing the song’s unique drum pattern, Watts’ first snare drum hit is what gets the song started as the hi-hat and bass drum carry the beat from the beginning. But it’s his second and subsequent snare hits that are what set the beat for “Rescue” apart from most other songs – disco or otherwise.

Throughout the song, the snare comes in an offbeat hit – between the seventh and eighth notes – seemingly resetting the song’s groove with each bar. Watts’ drumming basically sets the unique time signature for “Emotional Rescue” and it is the thing for which the song is best known – well, aside from Jaggers’ half-comical falsetto and those lyrics about being someone’s “knight in shining armor.”

Watts’ drumming on “Emotional Rescue” is both taut and loose. He tightly keeps the song’s timing with its four-on-the-floor disco-ey beat, but he throws in a few good fills for the transitions between verse and chorus (wait, does the song actually have a chorus?).

He also periodically transitions between the song’s unique skip-beat pattern and a few bars where the more standard snare hits on the second and fourth notes occur. While this maneuvering between beat patterns is intentional, Watts has a way of making it seem haphazard or random. The net effect is that “Emotional Rescue” morphs from a casual groove in the beginning to a more urgent affair as the song progresses. This sense of urgency is furthered by the song’s tempo, which increases towards the end as the guys jam it out.

I’m no expert in drumming, but I have always admired Watts’ stick work. His was the kind of beat-keeping that made amateurs like me want to get lessons or at least take up air-drumming, which I’ve done numerous times to “Emotional Rescue.”

As an unapologetic fan of disco music, I was one who actually appreciated the Stones’ wink and nod to the genre, not just once but multiple times. It took balls for Charlie and the boys to put out another album with several disco-friendly tracks on it in 1980. Even though the album had been recorded in 1979 during disco’s peak, releasing it a year later in the wake of disco’s backlash was a gutsy move by rock’s greatest band.

That the album contained one of the Stones’ most underrated tracks – one heavily characterized by Charlie Watts’ uncharacteristic beat pattern – made “Emotional Rescue” – the album and the single – even more special.

“Emotional Rescue” climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1980, making it their second biggest hit of the decade behind “Start Me Up” the following year. “Rescue” also returned the Stones to the disco chart where it peaked at No. 9 (while co-listed with the even funkier disco tune “Dance – Pt. 1,” the album’s lead track, and followup single “She’s So Cold”).

Check out Charlie – in his characteristically disaffected style – and the rest of the Stones in this video for “Emotional Rescue.”


Rest in beats, Charlie Watts (June 2, 1941-August 24, 2021)

Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

DJRob

DJRob

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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