Charlie was the overdriven 500 watt powerhouse of the Rolling Stones sound. Charlie had that primal beat, that jazz syncopation. Charlie had the restraint and the energy, the power and the absolute glory. The energy of his percussive forefathers ran through the sinews of his arms, and that correct and delicate hold on the drum sticks, transforming the Rolling Stones from a cute little rock and roll ’60s teenbopper-screaming-and-fainting-girl fest, into something altogether more serious and worthy. Where the band was a ragged and torn gaggle of bad boys marketed as boys yer mother wouldn’t want to see at the dinner table, as every parent’s personal nightmare, Charlie provided the sophisticated classy, restrained and refined edge. That isn’t to say that Charlie weren’t bad: Charlie was the baddest boy of them all behind that drum kit.
Charlie Watts, who passed today, aged 80, after receiving treatment for an unspecified illness, was the drummer of his generation. Keith Moon was a cartoon character, Animal behind the drum kit – louche and loud and inventive. Nick Mason knew his place and glued together the Pink Floyd pillow of dreams. Ringo …is Ringo. What can we say, he got the job done and never seemed like anything other than a guy that was way too nice for rock and roll. Charlie was different, Charlie was magickal. Charlie didn’t just have class, Charlie was the entire school district. I can say, hand on my heart, without Charlie Watts, without Keith and Mick and Brian finding Charlie, persuading him to join the band over a period of months, making him a believer in the Stones and their longevity, not to mention tolerating their junkie, crazy mess of a world, there would have been no Rolling Stones – not as we know and love ’em.
The Stones had to cut down on their spending to try and pay Charlie a proper salary, it took months to entice him to join the band full time. It might have been the most important wooing of a band member in rock and roll history. The band was incomplete without the Watts ingredient x.
Keith Richards knew how lucky the band was to have Charlie, and his autobiography is peppered with compliments and respect. He is not that sweet about Mick Jagger, trust me, whereas Charlie could do no wrong in Keith’s eyes. He wrote: “In that respect we’re damn lucky we got to work with Charlie Watts. He was playing very much like black drummers playing with Sam and Dave and the Motown stuff, or the soul drummers. He has that touch. A lot of the time very correct, with the sticks through the fingers, which is how most drummers play. If you try to get savage you’re off. It’s a bit like surfing; it’s ok while you’re up there. One thing drives another in a band; it all has to melt together. Basically it is all liquid.” (Keith Richards, Life, pages 158-159) .
One of my favorite Rolling Stones folk-law stories came courtesy of Charlie Watts. Richards tells the story in his biography of how Jagger called Watts ‘my drummer’. Charlie allegedly got dressed, went to Jagger’s room, and punched Mick in the face and then calmly walked away, meeting Richards in the corridor of the hotel, and telling him he had just punched Mick. Watts was the drummer for The Rolling Stones, he was not Mick’s personal anything. Mick’s disrespect was not going to go unpunished. Classy even when he was brutal. A beautifully dressed ghost in the machine of the Stones corporation, a poltergeist who threw things around and made noise when he needed to, and the rest of the time remained dignified and apart from the Stones own personal circus.
There is not a better engine, not a better solvent to dissolve the good medicine of the Stones sound, than Charlie Watt’s drums. Charlie surfed that wave of brutality and finesse. He knew when to hold off – Charlie was as successful providing the schmaltz for Wild Horses, and Angie, as he was providing the hi-hat jive for Gimmie Shelter.
Life had a darker side for Charlie, he infamously came off heroin when Keith told him that he should ‘do this when you are older’. Keith the drug counselor and best friend! Can’t have Charlie turning into a fiend! Charlie followed in the footsteps of the jazz greats, jazz and smack go together like tea and cake, yet Charlie had the discipline to look around hell, and then get the heck outta there when the devil showed him some sympathy. Charlie was one of a kind, a rare beast, who could tame that primal beat and urge, but let it bleed when he needed to both on the stage, in the recording studio and in his private life. Control and fury. Feral and wild, yet correct and retrained. Louche, yet on top of the beat. Charlie was the best drummer this side of Joujouka.
Quiet, sophisticated Charlie who removed himself from the insanity of the Exile On Main Street recordings in the Côte d’Azur mansion, Nellcôte, instead choosing to stay in Vaucluse, several hours drive away from the makeshift dungeon-basement studio, never seemed to be a man who relished stardom. A lot is said about his restrained conversational style, his sophisticated saville row suits and his stable personal life – he married his wife Shirley in 1964 and they remained devoted to each other ever since. He is as intriguing for his lack of rock and roll instability, as he is for his drumming: but when all is said and done, it is his drumming that really matters.
The Stones set out to be the best blues band in London, a gaggle of underpaid practitioners of the Chicago blues living in squalor. They were missing a drummer, and what they found in Watts was that classical sound with that ancient edge. He didn’t have a huge drum kit, he wasn’t flashy until he had to be. What he did have was the ‘big jungle rhythm’ as Keith puts it in Life, that Bo Diddley lick, languid idiosyncratic jazz soaked sound, honkey-tonk white boys who play like they are from the Delta. Charlie was the real deal.
Finesse and power are the name of the game for the Stones rhythm team. Brian Jones became obsessed with the Master Musicians of Joujouka. The Master Musicians of Joujouka, are a thousands of year old group of Sufi drummers from Morocco, comprised of drummers who are descended from previous band members, all of whom have the same surname: Attar, meaning perfume maker.
This rich scent, this intoxicating beat from the Morrocan sufi mystics mixed its seductive aroma into the liquid of the Stones sound. There is nothing that sums up Charlie’s central position in the Stones, more than the Sympathy for the Devil banging on those drums of the ancients, bringing forth the Joujouka spirit, that wild goat boy in the fresh skin, running through the town waking up the people to the possibilities that lay beyond the veil of mundanity, and shared this love for their ancient primal shamanic power with Watts.
The Joujouka drummers are the oldest rock band in history, they have been around even longer than The Stones, in fact, they have been going on for thousands of years longer than the Stones! They found the secret to the ultimate longevity of a band that replaces itself and replenishes as time moves on. They hold the pulse of the universe. The beat of life. If the Chicago Bluesmen played to the beat of the trains and the rain, and the crossroads deals, the Joujouka drummers hold the secret of the heartbeat of this Earth in their hands. When the Stones found the Joujouka drummers is when it all got Goats Head Soup interesting.
Let It Bleed is a Charlie Watts showcase: from the opening bars of Gimmie Shelter to the closing bars of Monkey Man it is the ultimate drummer’s album. It might be the greatest straight rock and roll album of all time. It is in the stilted and stuttering swagger of Midnight Rambler that Charlie gets the opportunity to shine. That smack of the drum to emphasize and bring alive the drama of the lyrics, and keep Jagger’s lyrical posturing in check, that inventive drive that pushes forwards Keith’s Chuck Berry twisting of the traditional guitar licks, and then powers the band into spiraling mystic pure testosterone in the key of E, culminating in an orgasmic shimmer of beat and pulse and pure unadulterated piratical swagger. Charlie is no Midnight Rambler, but he can summon him up in the thrust of his drumming, in the shattering of the beat, in the keeping time, and then playing with time, until we are waiting for the sexual demon to appear on the stage, ready to stick his knife down our throats, baby. That ‘cold fanged anger’ not just dramatized, but made to be brought to life within the sacred pagan circle of the Stones ritual. Charlie is the shaman with the drum sticks. Charlie brings the magick.
The world is so much less rich for losing the wattage of Charlie’s drumming behind the greatest rock and roll band still rocking. Draw the curtains. Pour the wine. Cuts those lines. The honorary perfume maker has gone to join the wide blue yonder, to rejoin the beat of the universe. Of course, the Stones will carry on forwards missing him, filling the hole left in the genius with Steve Jordan, who covered for him during his illness. Jordan has got it, no one expects him to be Watts, just like the Master Musicians of Joujouka, who pass on their knowledge to the next generation of drummers, Watts has passed on the secrets of the conjuring, the incantations, the just behind the beat magic of syncopation that makes even the most nervous of us feel sympathy for the devil, that jumping Jack Flash wild and wreckloose, that bad boy energy, that power from the depths of the earth herself.
Watts the Master Musician of the Rolling Stones will never leave us. His magick is there forever on the discs and the celluloid. Long Live The Rolling Stones….after all…it is only rock and roll…but we know we really like it….Miss you already, Charlie! Who is gonna keep Keef in order now!