I think Charlie Watts is more than a wee bit great. Like fucking brilliant. Like, one of the best drummers ever.
In fact I wrote about Charlie in my wee e-book called Drummers You Just Can’t Beat.
But if you want a bigger book about how great Charlie Watts is (my e-book is about 19 different drummers, just one chapter on Charlie) then I wholeheartedly recommend Mike Edison’s “Sympathy For The Drummer” – Why Charlie Watts Matters. Mike is a drummer and a massive fan of the Rolling Stones. So those are two good qualifications for accurately pointing out all of Charlie’s great strengths: the engine, the heart and soul of the band’s sound.
Charlie has a small kit. And he plays clean and simple – but no one can sound like him. He has this way of pushing and pulling the songs of the Rolling Stones into the exact right shape, a little bit blues and a lot of rock’n’roll. Charlie is a frustrated jazzer. A lifelong fan of the music, he didn’t quite have the full facility to do it. Not to the level he would have loved. He wanted to be Elvin Jones or Joe Morello. But instead, he is Charlie Watts. And I’d say that’s worked out pretty well for him.
I started listening to The Rolling Stones in a rather unusual way. The first two albums I knew were Undercover and Dirty Work. These are often thought of as the band’s worst albums, or bottom five, certainly. I love Undercover. Dirty Work is not by any shade great. But it was part of the fuse-lighting for me. I heard them as brand-new albums, my mum a devoted record-buyer in the 1980s. We got them when they were released. And then we basically got all hooked on the Stones as a family. Dad had played 19th Nervous Breakdown in a band back in the day. Mum had danced to it. They met, fell in love and are still married. My brother, five years older than me, was captain of the Stones Appreciation Club in our house. We did a South Island road-trip listening to his recently acquired Rolled Gold compilation. I still think that’s the best Stones hits-comp. (And I wrote a bit more about the family’s shared Stones love here). I think him and me getting into the band allowed our parents to relive their youth a bit. It was family-bonding for sure.
Now, I can’t say I noticed Charlie’s phenomenal contribution to the band when I first started listening to them. It wasn’t as obvious to me as Ginger Baker with Cream or John Bonham with Led Zep, Moon with The Who or Ringo with The Beatles. But then, when I noticed…
It’s there. And now it’s all I care about. I listen to The Stones these days for Charlie. He is who I hear. And I play along with songs like Slave and wish I could cop that feel, that flavour.
It is the secret sauce as far as The Stones goes. Keith’s right hand is pretty crucial. But really it’s about Charlie’s left hand and right foot. That is what is keeping the band together. That is what is putting the song in place. And it’s about the gap when Charlie lifts his hand off the hi-hat and lets the snare drum connect as the lone sound for that beat. Charlie can swing. And Charlie can groove. And Charlie can let the song drift, then whip it into shape. Many of the songs from about 1978 on start with a whipcrack of the snare. Charlie driving the band from there. Many of the songs from the earliest days are given their blues and rock’n’roll credentials thanks to Charlie’s big, solid backbeat.
Charlie Watts has very recently turned 80. And he is the greatest.
And in the late 80s when the band was celebrating its 25th anniversary there was a documentary called 25×5: The Continuing Story of The Rolling Stones. And just as I believe Rolled Gold to be their ultimate album comp. I believe 25×5 to be the best ever documentary about the band. One hour – covering 1964-1989. Which is everything important in the life of the band. We may marvel at them making it to 50 years and now nearly 60 years but ever since they reached that 25th birthday they’ve been doing variations of the same show, the same shtick. And the heat has fizzled. The fry no longer sizzles.
I’ve watched that Stones doco more than any other music feature – with the possible exception of a similarly themed, toned and timed doco on Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac at 21 – same deal, it covers the essential elements and the big hits).
In that Stones doco Charlie is often the funniest. He laments that his life has meant he has to go on the road to play the drums. But he hates going on the road. Hates being away from home. And then, when he is at home, he can’t play drums. So he wanders about bored. Until it’s time to tour again. That quandary has been his life.
So, today I say a beladed Happy Birthday Charlie. And I have made a playlist of 80 of Charlie’s finest performances with The Rolling Stones. I love making playlists like this, a way to listen to songs you already know but in a new way. Not every big Rolling Stones hit is here. Some of the best-known songs could have been on this list too, but this time they are not. But every song here is an example of what Charlie does so well: He plays just the right thing for the song in question. Every single time. He is no limelight stealer. He is not a soloist. He never comes close to overplaying.