There’s Mick Jagger and he’s incredible really. At sixty-odd. He’s the Monkey when they perform Monkey Man; he ducks and dives across the stage as the band tears another hole in the tune that was Street Fighting Man and of course we all know which side he takes when they offer Sympathy For The Devil. He’s a man of wealth and taste. Ridiculously arrogant and close to soulless when he’s not on stage playing the role of Mick Jagger; a job he happens to know how to do. But he’s not the most important member of the band he founded over forty years ago.
Check out Keef. He was a pirate way before Johnny Depp. His face looks like it belongs on Mount Rushmore; his Harrods likeness looks more like him than he does. He only uses half the neck of his guitar and five strings – and he’s never in tune. He’s the human riff and he has written more great guitar intros than anyone. AC/DC’s Angus and Malcolm are the understudies but they’ll be studying under him for a while yet. He jerks his arm up at the end of phrasing a chord; it looks like he’s boiling a pot of water and just had to test the temperature (but captured in slow-motion). He moves his other hand away occasionally too – you’re sure this guitar plays on auto-pilot now, but actually that’s not the case. The guitar is not even plugged in to an amplifier anymore; it’s plugged directly in to Keith. He’s mainlining electricity. He just might be the greatest guitarist-as-songwriter in the world. The Human Riff – but he’s not the most crucial component in the Rolling Stones.
And the new boy – Ronnie Wood. New in the sense that he’s only been playing with the band since 1975. He looks like a bird. He mixes nonchalance (is he actually on stage with Mick’n’Keef? Or is he still on stage with Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck?) with that boyish twinkle that suggests he is the one who still thinks of himself as the new boy, the one nightly auditioning to keep his place on the stage (“can you believe it, I’m here with Mick and Keith!” his eyes seem to say. Or are they just asking for another pint of Guinness?) But that searing slide of his works so well against Keith’s rumbling slow-fire. And he does his best to keep Mick in check and Keith in tune. He’s a drunken loon – but you’ve got to love ole Woody. Still, he could never be the most important member, even though he epitomises The Stones (in his own way) every bit as much as any current member, certainly more than any past members.
You see that old guy up the back? Looks like his Dracula suit is at the dry cleaners? That’s Charlie Watts. The drummer for The Rolling Stones. And here’s a fact – he is the single most important component of the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band. Making him, almost by accident, the world’s greatest rock’n’roll drummer. And how does he do it? With the reluctance of any drummer who would love to play jazz for a living but has worked out that a) it doesn’t pay enough and b) he’s frankly not quite good enough. Charlie is the engine-room. Sure, Bill Wyman bought a certain signature bass rumble to early songs like ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’. And yes, Darryl Jones is super-slick as a session-pro fill-in (you don’t survive playing in Miles Davis’ band without chops galore). But it’s Charlie’s show – and what makes it so good is that he legitimately looks like he is only there to earn his wage; there for the job not the lifestyle. His vocation is the ultimate example of an extended occupational hazard. I once heard him say it himself on a documentary that saw the band celebrate their 25th Anniversary (and that was now over 25 years ago!) He said that this [playing the drums] “was a sort of vicious cycle that has always been my life. To earn money I have to play drums. And to play drums means I have to go on the road. When I’m at home during breaks I walk around with my hands folded. I’m useless”.
I love the fact that the greatest rock’n’roll drummer is a victim of circumstance. John Bonham had a supernatural ability, Keith Moon was guided by particular spirits (chiefly bourbon and gin) and Ringo suffered many cruel jokes (none crueler than that comedian’s joke attribute to John Lennon, which was mean to sum up Lennon’s snark rather than Starr’s inability “Is Ringo Starr the best drummer in the world? Don’t be stupid, he’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles!”) in spite of actually being a phenomenally gifted, inventive player. He just had the misfortune of being the only non-singer/non-writer in the world’s greatest pop band. Bummer.
But Charlie? That guy is super-good and yet so many people figure the genius of The Stones is in Mick and Keith’s songs. They’re a live band first and foremost; playing live is keeping them alive – hence the endless tours at geriatric age. But listen to the engine that Charlie Watts is; pistons cranking. I love the way he never plays the same eighth-note beat on the hi-hat with his right hand at the moment when his left hand hits the snare drum. That is something you have to consciously un-learn. And that right there, in a heart-beat, or rather an eighth-note beat, is what makes Charlie the glue.
Drummers You Just Can’t Beat started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page