Today the world lost one of its best-beloved drummers. Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones was brilliant in the way that he doubled up as the band’s graphic designer as well as their rhythmic linchpin. Largely influenced by jazz, Watts always brought an effortless cool to The Stones, a relaxing force amongst their classically raucous behaviour.
Watts has been a vital cog in The Rolling Stones’ machine for almost 60 years. While he 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.
Whilst, he partook in some debauchery, with it getting particularly out of hand in the ’80s, Charlie Watts was always his own person. One famous incident in reflection of this came on the infamous 1972 American tour when the band visited Hugh Hefner’s palace of pleasure, The Playboy Mansion. However, instead of frolicking like the rest of the band, Watts elected to spend his time there in the games room.
After all, this was the man who once opined, “I’ve never filled the stereotype of the rock star,” he remarked. “Back in the ’70s, Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted.” A man who always embodied respect, he was ever faithful to his one and only wife, Shirley, and is said to have turned down numerous sexual favours whilst The Stones were on the road.
Although he was the definition of calm, cool and collected, Watts was not one to be walked all over. In Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography, Life, he recalled an iconic moment where Watts made clear that he was not to be toyed with. The story goes that in the mid-1980’s, the time when Watts was
suffering from somewhat of a “mid-life crisis”, and the effects of alcohol and drug use, it was frontman Mick Jagger who felt the wrath of Watts.
Inebriated, Jagger phoned Watts’ hotel room in the middle of the night and asked him, “Where’s my drummer?”. Allegedly, Watts got up, shaved, donned a suit and tie, put on some freshly shined shoes, descended the hotel’s stairs and punched Jagger in the face, proclaiming: “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!” Like Albert turning on the Batman, this shocking anecdote showed the respect that Watts’ character demanded.
Alongside Jagger and Richards, Watts was the only original member of the Rolling Stones to play on all their albums, a mean feat considering the wanton trail of hedonistic destruction they left in their path. As well as being a talented musician, Watts also had a penchant for cricket, football and art. In fact, it would be right to label him an artist rather than a musician.
He famously expressed a love-hate attitude toward touring, which makes his ever-present force in the Rolling Stones even more remarkable, given the innumerable number of late nights and brushes with the law that their extensive tours brought. Showing the true nature of the late genius, on his 2001 appearance with BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Watts revealed that he had a compulsive habit of sketching the entirety of every hotel room he stayed in with the band, furnishings et al. He also kept every sketch in an archive.
“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.
Rest in peace to the man who was the epitome of grace and respect. Through the Stones’ legendary back catalogue, Charlie Watts will continue to live on.
Charlie Watts’ greatest 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 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.”