Graham Reid | | 3 min read
A jazz aficionado in the most enduring rock band of the past 60 years; poised and humble in a culture which often favours the dissolute and self-aggrandising; sometimes more detached than engaged; a car collector without driver's license . . .
While others on tour partied, Charlie – a former graphic artist – stayed in and sketched his hotel room.
As drum kits got bigger in the stadium rock era, he kept his small. He could make a hi-hat sing.
And in a group which sometimes fell into disarray, dissent and drugs he was the unflappable, dapper gent who would sit in with jazz bands and play the bebop he loved.
“It's like being a kid again,” he said of his own 30-piece jazz orchestra in the mid 80s. “I'm having as good a time as the audience.”
However he was also one of the greatest, most understated and subtle drummers in rock who, when required, could kick their music into life.
We here single out 10 diverse songs among the many dozens where Charlie Watts helped define the Stones' sound.
And we don't even mention the cowbell on Honky Tonk Woman.
You can hear the following at Spotify here to play along
Down the Road Apiece (1965)
The song dates from the boogie-woogie 40s but the Stones learned it from Chuck Berry's mid-tempo rock'n'roll version. However jazz-loving Charlie drives this swinging treatment elevating it above all previous versions.
Get Off Of My Cloud (1965)
With as much precision as a drill, Charlie's staccato beats at the end of every chord sequence here add thrilling urgency which underpin Mick Jagger's vocal in the verses. Then he nails down emphatically in the choruses. His drumming sets this up and at the 1.55 mark when the chords suddenly hit a different rhythm he responds by putting the drill aside.
Paint It, Black (1966)
When the Stones moved into dark Jagger-Richards originals, Charlie stepped up, as on this where his thrilling energy surges beneath Jagger's depressive lyric, the guitars and sinuous sitar. When everything drops away aside from Brian Jones' sitar and Jagger's vocal, Charlie jump-starts it again at 1.37 on “I could not foresee this thing happening TO YOU” and at the end parallels the martial rhythm propelling the exciting outro.
A masterclass of rock drumming in fewer than four minutes.
Street Fighting Man (1968)
In a purple patch for the Stones, they cracked Sympathy for the Devil (Afro-Cuban percussion), Jumpin' Jack Flash (spooky blues ) and Street Fighting Man. Although Jagger's lyrics here are as ambiguous as Lennon's Revolution, Charlie comes in like the thump of a truncheon on a protester's head. Drumming as social comment.
Gimme Shelter (1969)
Martin Scorsese's favourite Stones song is loaded with latent violence and often singled out for Merry Clayton's vocals and Jagger's harmonica. But Charlie's shifts of emphasis add such unease and menace the song is unimaginable without him.
Hot Stuff (1976)
A showcase for the intuitive understanding between Charlie and bassist Bill Wyman who owned this song, despite the Jagger-Richards credit. Check Hey Negrita on the same Black and Blue album which is also a reductive but successful groove on something which otherwise wouldn't amount to much.
And watch Charlie's detachment from all that is happening in front of him the Hot Stuff clip below. It works better with the sound off. It's hilarious.
Miss You (1978)
Inspired by disco, this doesn't quite conform to the familiar tropes of dance music. But Charlie's metronomic playing keeps this centred and when it cuts back at 2.15, he and Wyman lock into a subtle groove which separates this from other disco stylists at the time. Charlie is the epitome of bemused jazz-cool in the video.
Continental Drift (1989)
In a late 60s trip to Tangier, Jagger, Richards and Brian Jones had been in search of inspiration, experiences and hashish. Jones was impressed with the sound of the Master Musicians of Jajouka and recorded them. Two decades later Jagger, Richards and Ron Wood went to Morocco and recorded the Jajouka musicians for this rhythm-driven, exotically North African piece. But Charlie's strident drumming back in the studio anchors this oddity which threatens to fly apart in the tempo changes.
Little more than a clunking blues jam with guests Billy Preston (keyboards) and jazz legend Sonny Rollins (sax) but included here because it illustrates no matter how far the quality fell Charlie was always reliable. And we wonder what he and Sonny – who only went to the sessions for the Tattoo You album at his wife's prompting – chatted about? Wouldn't have been rock'n'roll.
Undercover of the Night (1983)
The unloved Undercover album confirmed that when the songwriters were settling for less, Charlie could hold down the album's retro-rock (She Was Hot, Pretty Beat Up), guitar funk (Tie You Up, Too Much Blood), reggae (Feel on Baby) . . . and this, where his slashing intensity alongside electrobeats and congas conveyed Jagger's political fury.
Did Charlie ever miss a beat? Check the urgent 19thNervous Breakdown (1965) – which could easily have been included here – and at 2.15 wait for the cymbal crash which had been there on every previous “here it comes”. And . . .