Charlie Watts: The Backbone of Rock n Roll
The passing of the inimitable Charlie Watts, the Wembley Whammer, is a huge blow to rock n roll and the music community at large. Charlie was the anchor of the world’s quintessential rock n roll band. (Arguments over The Beatles vs. The Stones will go on forever. Creativity, innovation, and cultural impact aside, The Rolling Stones are the definition of rock n roll). He had a long and storied career as the band’s backbone, weathering the chaos around him, and always finding a way to lock down the almighty beat. Who in the world is cooler than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards?? Charlie was.
Tributes are flooding in from musicians around the world. Perhaps the most apt description came from McCartney: “he was their rock”. In the coming days, there will be countless articles written about the quiet genius of Charlie Watts and the humble spirit behind that overbite smile. Let’s try to touch on the undeniable career-high points along with some overlooked gems. Here are just a few of Charlie’s best moments.
It’s All Over Now (1965)
They were starting to gain some serious traction by their second album. This Bobby Womack track was the band’s first #1 UK hit. It’s a catchy track with Mick and Keith’s vocals hitting some perfect imperfection with their harmony. Holding it all down is Charlie’s “THUMP, TH-THUMP” on the kick drum. A bouncy shuffle that defined their early rise.
Let’s Spend the Night Together (1967)
We’re going to group this one in with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and ‘Paint It, Black’ which will get plenty of well-deserved praise on other lists as two of the Stones’ ultimate hits and prime examples of Watts’ brilliance. ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ shares that hyped-up rhythm, brimming with the lurid excitement that comes with the snare hitting on every beat. Charlie Watts chops it up hard driving the anticipation to a fever pitch, rocketed by his signature machine-gun fills (possibly inspired by Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana’s ‘Hound Dog’ rapid fire). This is proto-punk, folks!
Love In Vain (1969)
Now we’re into pinnacle-era Stones. The band is firing on all cylinders, every song is a classic. Let It Bleed has some of the most iconic drum entrances of all time. Not for their grandstanding pageantry but for their undeniable earworm credentials. The haunting 40-second intro of ‘Gimme Shelter’ is broken by Charlie Watt’s uncomplicated yet powerful 1and2and to launch one of their best-written tracks. As Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield pointed out, the slightly startling slap that leads off ‘Let It Bleed’ and its meandering ramble deserves its own kudos. And of course, the accelerating freight train of ‘Midnight Rambler’ that climaxes with snare hits like gunshots in the night, was a highlight of the live show until the very end.
For ‘Love In Vain’, Charlie waits a full minute and seven seconds to make his entrance. No big fill, no cymbals, and yet the power of his snare reinforcing the 6/8 is undeniable. He gives Keith the sway to play around and it gives the track so much of its swagger. 1971’s ‘Wild Horses’ falls into this same category. Since they’re slow ballads, the drums are often overlooked but it’s Charlie’s beat that sustains you throughout. His sauntering plod is not 100% locked-to-grid perfect, and yet it is so in the pocket that it thumps you right in the ventricle.
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (1971)
A seven-minute riot that begins with one of Charlie’s slinkiest beats around Richards’ shifting riff and ends in a full-on free-form Latin jazz explosion. Watts’ love of jazz is well-documented. The Stones was dancehall music for the kids. Coltrane and Davis were the real art. ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ lets him explore his more elevated stylings while duetting with producer Jimmy Miller’s Santana-inspired percussion and pushing Richards and Taylor to go further and further down the well.
Tumbling Dice (1972)
Another track that sits in the pantheon as one of their greatest. Charlie’s beat is the ultimate “roll with the punches” groove. Hitting us with that syncopated 1-2 POP to launch the tune, the rhythm settles in like Rolls Royce limousine gracefully rolling out. Glass of champagne in one hand, beautiful woman on the other arm. You’ve rolled the dice and come out flush. The beat is creamy as all hell. Charlie’s hits smack right on the mark and the fills are bursts of spontaneity that land back home every time.
Ventilator Blues (1972)
A HIGHLY underrated track on the second side of Exile On Main Street. This song slaps hard with a half-time beat that’ll bring you to your knees. Charlie gets extra greasy on this sleazy blues masterpiece, delaying the downbeat on us, building up that tension. How an Englishman recording in the South of France can make a song sound so much like the sweltering deep American South, we’ll never know. Go back and revisit this track. It fucks.
Miss You (1978)
So, the Stones went disco. Why the hell not? In Charlie’s mind, this was all just dance music for the kids. Why not lean into the new craze? In reality, the Stones took certain trademarks of disco, the bouncing octave bass and the 16th-note hi-hats and warped it into their own twisted version of the genre. Instead of singing about the glitz and the glamour of Studio 54 (which they did enjoy frequently), the band decided to delve into the infamously seedy underbelly of New York in the 1970s. Pimps, drugs, hookers, muggings, and lunatics. Mick counted himself among them.
Charlie’s beat slides in like a key in a lock with Bill Wyman’s slithering bass line. Mood is crucial to this track and it’s Watts’ consistency that allows it to brood in just the right way. The mid-song breakdown is a prime example of his understated nature propelling a track to greatness. Live, he would get playful with it, gettin’ the shoulders moving (check out 3:11 for some prime Charlie moves). He keeps those hats rolling while Mick holds court with the crowd, slowly inching up that beat decibel by decibel till it erupts with Bobby Keys’ fantastic sax solo. Pure New York groove.
Start Me Up (1981)
It’s impossible to leave this one out of the list. The Stones staple track accomplished something amazing. It became their signature song nearly two decades after their beginning and a decade after what many considered their peak. ‘Start Me Up’ is a classic anthem and it revolves around the Stones philosophy of not playing the same thing but playing around the same thing. Noodling in sexually charged syncopation. Charlie’s lick seems simple…but is it? He’s bobbing and weaving around Richards’ riff like two sparring partners testing out strikes until they finally land punches on the uproarious chorus. Twitchy little fills accent the handclap-led rhythm.
Out of Control (1997)
Another chance for Charlie to get textural like on ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ supporting a song that plays like ‘Miss You’ Part II. They revisit the dingy New York underground with a tale about going off the rails. Charlie keeps the beat locked down tight as the ominous hums murmur in the background. This all builds to a maniacal freakout led by Watts’ shotgun fills and knee bangin’ beat.
Oh No, Not You Again (2005)
From their last album of originals, this song doesn’t feature any disco influences, Latin swing, or half-time blues. This is Charlie’s bread and butter. The four on the floor as only he could do it. Every drummer learns this beat early on in their career, Watts’ makes it recognizable as his own from the first measure. The rhythm leans forward, the hats are timed consistently but each hit rises and falls with dynamic. And of course, no hi-hat at the same time as the snare on the four! That signature move made the snare pop right out of your speakers and anchored so many classic Stones beats.
So there you have it, a tiny fraction of a career that shaped modern music. Just as Ringo has had his lifetime of being undervalued by the general public, so too has Charlie Watts. If you’re not flailing like a Moon or a Bonham, you can get overlooked and your importance downplayed. Yet no conscientious musician would do anything but bow to his influence. His bandmates surely did. Without drums, rock music is just a guitar recital. The rhythms are what bring it to life. Charlie Watts was that life-giving jolt of kinetic power.