Drummer Charlie Watts
He’s not a flashy drummer at all, he never played any magnum opus drum solo in the middle of the song like John Bonham. Had not been full of versatility like Keith Moon or complex rhythm patterns like Neil Peart, yet his stylish, artful way of drumming is what defined Rock and Roll.
Charlie Watts was the silent and reserved Stones, both on and off stage; much like the quiet Beatle George Harrison, who loved to engage with his own instrument, unlike the flamboyant and showbiz personalities like most of the rockstars of that era, let alone the vocal Mick Jagger.
Nobody else have played Rock and Roll like Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts! There have been monsters on the drum kit over the years but the influence of these two drummers on the rock and roll drumming was definitive. For more than half a century, nothing has influenced the music scene as Rock and Roll. And Charlie Watts, the drummer for The Rolling Stones for over 50 years, has been one of those who shaped the rock and roll drumming.
Charlie claimed himself a jazz drummer rather than a rock musician. His reverence for the Jazz drummers and their technical ability wondered many as his mastery of the drums had been captured in the precise playing.
As Steve Gadd once said, “Fills give you the chills, but the grooves pay you the bills.” Influenced by the Jazz pattern of drumming, Charlie always worked on the grooves, the steady backbeat even the syncopated one that fits in with the song. No flashy monstrous drum fills, no showbiz things, his steady groove and backbeat along with the drums sounds is what gave the song the pulse, kept it moving.
Jagger’s voice and Richards’ bluesy guitar riffs and licks are what rock is all about, but it’s Charlie who got the songs to roll. His ability to swing the groove even with keeping the strictest of time has amazed the drummers for years. In the 60s you could find poster ads in the streets saying “need a drummer like Charlie Watts”, that’s his definition, Charlie Watts is not a drummer, he’s a genre, said Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg.
Be it Rock, Pop; be it Delta Blues or RnB or Rock and Roll, Charlie provided the solid rhythm base on which Jagger and Richards would rock. Richards rightly quoted the words, “Charlie has always been the bed to me that I can lie on musically.” His tweeter post of a picture of drums with the tag closed expresses the respect he has for this humble and stylish drummer.
He’s always served the song, rather than himself. His longevity, passion and love for music are what made him play for the Stones for over 50 years and that made him one of the most revered rock and roll drummers of all time. On 24th August, Charlie died at the age of 80 but he left behind a whole legacy of rock drumming which would inspire and teach the drummers for generations to come.
Top Ten Charlie Watts tracks
Here we revisit the top ten Rolling Stones tracks where Charlie Watts took his drumming to an artistic level:
1. Paint It Black
This is one of the greatest Stones hits of all time from the album Aftermath, with the dark lyrics it’s often referred to ‘Satanism’. It’s one of the tracks where Charlie played outside his signature style. The up-tempo track, famous for the Brian Jones sitar intro, is where Charlie puts his limbs all over the drums, with fast beats and fills all over the drum set. With all the arrangements (Sitar, Organs, guitars) you could still pick the upbeat and drum fills of Charlie, the sheer power of the song. That’s what defines him.
2. Sympathy for the devil
One of the greatest tracks of all time, where each of the members reach the peaks of their musicianship. This vibrant Stones track is basically a samba rock fusion and that is where Charlie differentiates himself. His knowledge of jazz drumming made him play exactly what was needed to play in this Samba track. It’s always challenging to play a fusion genre on drums, and Charlie played it wonderfully. Check out the live versions, he played with a different groove.
3. Gimme Shelter
Charlie who was always concerned about the strict time of the song and the steady backbeat, plays this outstanding Stones number from the album, Let It Bleed in a syncopated way which fits in perfectly with the dark tone of the song and the blues licks of Richards. For many instances, Charlie’s drums and Richards’ guitar played in a syncopated pattern, and this is one of the instances. Just hear the snare tune, the hits on the tom between the phrases overall the shift in the feel; perfect!
4. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
As I said earlier, Charlie was into precision rather than showbiz, he played only that what was needed, neither more nor less. His high hats and snare playing were distinct from most other drummers. This is the track from the album Sticky Fingers where he uses some beautiful ghost notes on the snare drums with a swinging hi-hat pattern. The snare tune with the bass is just what was needed in the song. The drumming is nothing extraordinary but when you take the drums out you notice what the song is missing.
This heartbreaking ballad written by Jagger is one of the finest ballads in rock history and you know what Charlie nailed in that too! Most of the listeners listen to it for the touching lyrics and Jagger’s extraordinary voice along with the emptiness created by the organ; what’s missing is the drumming here. Charlie Watts starts where it exactly needed to, and the subtle high hats works in the song (Check the hi-hats open-close when Jagger whispers Angie) and the strict backbeat is what keeps the pain of the song alive.
6. Brown Sugar
Charlie played this wonderful classic rock and roll track from the compilation album Hot Rocks 1964-1971 with classic fills and tom works. It’s kind of a beginning of the song with an opening riff and the shift between the Tom guided backbeat and the hi-hats guided one; shifts the stress and the power of the song along with the song’s melody. Check the drum fills between the phrases and the Tom guided beats in the saxophone part; the classic rock drumming.
7. Miss You
Charlie was a versatile drummer and this track shows the testimony of that. This wonderful blues-pop track from the album Some Girls is basically disco-pop where Charlie’s drumming was just what the song needed to make the audience dance. The strict steady backbeat at 2 and 4 of bars, does really give the song a dance vibe. Check the subtle hi-hats changes with the shifts in the song and Jagger’s voice.
8. You Can’t Always Get What You Want
This wonderful serene track from the album Let It Bleed, is just another piece of wonderful ‘Charlie’s piece of drumming’. The drumming starts at 2:00 min of the song with precise fills; just the perfect start you would want at this rock and roll track. Check the small fills in the middle of the song and the syncopated style of drumming with the organ solo.
9. Start Me Up
This radio-friendly track from the album Tattoo You, is a fine rock track. Charlie plays here beautifully, much like his signature precise style. Just listen to where he puts the starting note of drums with the hi-hats and bass drum; with the bass drums giving the que for the band. The drum fills give the vibrant feel of what rock is all about.
10. Jumpin’ Jack Flash
This fast-tempo Stones track from the compilation album Hot Rocks 1964-1971 is a definitive rock track. Charlie’s drumming here is pitch-perfect, just playing the backbeat and keeping the time, he doesn’t even play a single drum fills! His keeping the beat straight is what gives the track a rapid feel.