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Thursday 26 August 2021

Charlie Watts

On Tuesday night someone on Twitter said they'd always thought The Rolling Stones were immortal but the death of Charlie Watts aged 80 puts paid any notions of that. Charlie was the engine room, the provider of the backbeat, a cool and collected presence with a minimal, four piece drumkit who always seemed to treat being the drummer in The Rolling Stones as a job- a healthy attitude in that particular group maybe. Turn up, do your bit, go home. Simon Price commented, also on Twitter, that 'he had the jazz chops but he always kept it unfussy, just holding things down. And I always appreciated his quietly tolerant expression of ''These idiots...' '', which nails Charlie's onstage facial expression perfectly, sitting at the back keeping time while the others did the showing off at the front. Either that he was mentally making a list of what he needed to buy from the 24 hour garage on the way home...

This interview with Charlie backstage somewhere on the road in the USA during their 25th anniversary tour is priceless, Charlie deflecting any rock 'n' roll cliches with a remark about the reality of being in the band- 'work five years and twenty years hanging around...'

Back in 1989/ 1990 The Rolling Stones were both everywhere and dinosaurs. Sympathy For The Devil was heard all over the place, the congas and the rhythms part of the sound of the times, the woo- woo backing vocals slipping into indie- dance and acid house, the danger and glamour of the song seeping in alongside house music, De La Soul, Happy Mondays, 808 State, Soul II Soul and all the rest. On the other hand, they were old men (or seemed to be to us aged twenty), millionaire rock stars with no idea of what was really happening. When they announced the Steel Wheels/ Urban Jungle tour I remember debating with a friend about whether we should go. They had dates at Maine Road in July 1990 (it being Maine Road could have been a factor against it). We decided not to go, possibly fired up on the spirit and cheek of Ian Brown's comment- when asked whether his band would support The Stones he replied, 'The Rolling Who? They should be supporting us'. I recall thinking that paying over £20 to watch some old men play their hits in a football ground was ideologically unsound, especially with so many other younger bands to see and clubs to go to. There's a lot to unpack there in retrospect, not least the fact that in 1990 Mick, Keith and Charlie were in their mid- to- late 40s i.e. a little younger than I am now. 

A month ago The 1968 Rolling Stones Rock 'n' Roll Circus was on TV. I switched over as it started and there it was. It was famously unreleased when it was recorded, Mick unhappy with the Stones performance. A few decades later, when watched again, they weren't as bad as he thought at the time and the CD and DVD box sets kept the cash registers ringing. The Stones went on in the early hours of the morning, playing in a big top after Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, a paint stripping performance by The Who and some gritty, dirty blues from an all star band put together by John Lennon, but there's nothing poor, tired or under par about this and while the camera is all about Mick, it's Charlie locked in with Keef who are doing the work and dredging up the voodoo (and playing through a PA smaller and less powerful than most modern pub tribute bands use).

The Stones with Charlie on drums made some superb mid- 60s pop singles, brittle, bright, amphetamine songs like 19th Nervous Breakdown and Get Off My Cloud and some wonderful trippy but spiky psychedelia (Citadel, She's A Rainbow, 2000 Light Years From Home). Citadel sounds like an 80s garage band, flanged guitar, feedback, three chord riffs and Charlie's drums, slightly behind where you think they should be- dislocating psychedelic rock. 


Then there are the four albums the made between '68 and '72, are the stuff of legend- Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street, albums dripping with sticky, grungy, murky, sweaty, arrogant but ultimately life affirming rock 'n' roll, with some huge dollops of country and blues and pop stirred in. Street Fighting Man. No Expectations. Let It Bleed. Gimme Shelter. Live With Me. Monkey Man. You Can't Always Get What You Want. Wild Horses. Moonlight Mile. Dead Flowers. Rocks Off. Torn And Frayed. Happy. All Down The Line. Shine A Light. Charlie Watts was never just the drummer. He was the backbone and the backbeat. This song was an outtake from the Sticky Fingers sessions, unreleased until Allen Klein put it out a cheap cash in compilation several years later.

I'm Going Down

It sounds like Keith on guitar, sounds like him all day long, but the internet says it's Mick Taylor (who also wrote it and wasn't credited) and Stephen Stills. Charlie's gear changes at forty five seconds and one minute forty two drive the song and the band on, Bobby Keys' sax squawking away on top. And you think, 'this was one they decided to leave off the album...' 

This one too, a Stevie Wonder cover also from 1969 and apparently recorded the night news came through that Brian Jones had died. 

I Don't Know Why

I could go on but I think that's enough. Charlie Watts, gentleman, snappy dresser, drummer, Rolling Stone. RIP. 


Charity Chic said...

An excellent post Adam

keepingitpeel said...


Brian said...

I also grappled with whether to see the Stones on the Steel Wheels tour, but I decided to go. This would be with a bunch of high school friends, quite a few with whom I would never see again as graduation had been a few months earlier. Glad I went, but I remember thinking the band was way too old to still be out there. That was more than three decades ago, obviously. In summation, I would take five small indie shows from that era over this bloated concert at the same price.

Swiss Adam said...

The irony for me Brian, with the benefit of hindsight, is that I decided not to see the Stones (too old, too expensive, stadium gigs ugh) but 30 years later paid 3 times what I'd have paid to see the Stones to see The Stone Roses, in a football stadium (who themselves scoffed at the Stones in 1989 etc).

londonlee said...

Terrific post Adam

Winstoninparis said...

An excellent post. I also semi regret missing Steel Wheels