Charlie Watts has been a vital cog in The Rolling Stones’ machine for almost 60 years. While Watts isn’t a founding member of the group, with The Stones recruiting him a year after their formation after a slew of drummers who didn’t fit their operation, once they found Watts, they needn’t look again.
“Charlie Watts gives me the freedom to fly on stage,” Keith Richards once remarked about his bandmate. The two musicians share a special kinship, even though they couldn’t be any more different on paper. While Richards is a walking rock ‘n’ roll cliche, Watts is far from that.
He’s a lover of jazz, and music is all that matters to him. Everything that happens away from the stage has never been on Watts’ radar. Instead, he spends his time not on tour breeding Arabian horses, enjoying a quiet life in the country with his wife.
While outrageous anecdotes about Watts are few and far between, his drumming credentials are aplenty. To mark Watts turning 80, let’s revisit five of his best musical moments through the isolated drum tracks, which bring his contribution to the forefront.
Charlie Watts’ best isolated drum tracks:
‘Sympathy For The Devil’
The Rolling Stones’ samba-tastic ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is a masterpiece, but hearing it through the exclusive lens of Charlie Watts’ work alone allows the listener to enjoy it in a whole new light. The track is rightly considered to be one of the Rolling Stones’ greatest creations. On top of that, it remains one of the most formidable opening album tracks ever, with ‘Sympathy For The Devil‘ getting the party started on Beggars Banquet.
Mick Jagger later remarked: “It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on. Still, it is also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive—because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm (candomblé). So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.”
‘Stray Cat Blues’
‘Stray Cat Blues’ features some of Charlie Watts’ finest drumming as he perfectly sets the tone for the ferocious rock ‘n’ roll number. Another delightful part of listening to Watts’ isolated drums is that you don’t get to hear the ‘questionable lyrics‘ that Mick Jagger is blurting out about underage girls.
This effort wasn’t deemed fit enough to be a single shows how strong The Rolling Stones were back in 1968 and adds further fuel to the argument that Beggars Banquet is their finest record.
‘Gimme Shelter’ absolutely typifies everything great about The Rolling Stones. There’s a dark overtone to it, but the euphoria isn’t too far away either and ‘Gimme Shelter’ sees The Stones carve something beautiful out of bleakness.
The 1960s proved to be a crazy decade, a time when The Stones arrived at the forefront of a swashbuckling typhoon that lit the world up as a bright new dawning came bustling in. Although The Stones aren’t the most political band ever to exist, they couldn’t bring themselves to stand idly by while atrocities took place across Vietnam, which they lament on the impassioned ‘Gimme Shelter’. You can hear that energy clear as day on this isolated track.
‘Start Me Up’
Keith Richards later revealed that this revered Stones classic originally started life as a reggae track, which is a strange thing to envisage. However, during a break in recording, he and Watts decided to mess around but inadvertently turned it into the rock ‘n’ roll behemoth we recognise today.
“Right after that we went straight back to reggae,” Richards once explained. “And we forgot totally about this one little burst in the middle, until about five years later when somebody sifted all the way through these reggae takes. After doing about 70 takes of ‘Start Me Up’ he found that one in the middle. It was just buried in there. Suddenly I had it. Nobody remembered cutting it. But we leapt on it again. We did a few overdubs on it, and it was like a gift, you know?”
‘Honky Tonk Women’
‘Honky Tonk Woman’ was conceived when Richards and Jagger set up shop in Brazil for a while. They were inspired by the inhabitants of the country’s rural and remote areas known as ‘caipiras’ and let Richards guitar do the rest. The Glimmer Twins took the bones of the song back to the band, and as you can hear, Watts helped bring their vision to life.
Keith Richards said of the song: “‘Honky Tonk Women‘ started in Brazil. Mick and I, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg who was pregnant with my son at the time. Which didn’t stop us going off to the Mato Grasso and living on this ranch. It’s all cowboys. It’s all horses and spurs. And Mick and I were sitting on the porch of this ranch house and I started to play, basically fooling around with an old Hank Williams idea. ‘Cause we really thought we were like real cowboys. Honky tonk women.”