Without Charlie Watts on the drums, the Rolling Stones can never be the same again

The passing of Charlie Watts (1941–2021), “one of the greatest drummers of his generation”, effectively brings to an end the music of the Rolling Stones as the world knows it.

Published : Sep 18, 2021 06:00 IST

Members of the Rolling Stones, from left, Charlie Watts, guitarist Ron Wood, singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, pose for photographers in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on February 2, 2006.

Members of the Rolling Stones, from left, Charlie Watts, guitarist Ron Wood, singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, pose for photographers in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on February 2, 2006.

HE sat like a stoic philosopher behind the drum kit on stage oblivious to the hysteria around him, his sleepy, insouciant eyes gazing into nothing, his face impassive, his drumsticks held delicately in his hands like paintbrushes. Charlie Watts was the unlikeliest member of “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world”. Yet without him, the Rolling Stones would not have been the Rolling Stones—the age-defying, genre-transcending, monolithic cultural pillar—for the very sound that has defined it for the last 58 years (from the point Watts joined the band in January 1963) would not have existed. His death on August 24 brings down the curtain on the music of the Stones as the world knows it and on an era in the history of popular music. Even if the Stones roll on with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, things can never be the same without Watts on the drums.

Watts was 80 and ailing at the time of his passing and is survived by his wife and daughter. A statement from the band read: “It is with immense sadness that we announce the death of our beloved Charlie Watts. He passed away peacefully in a London hospital earlier today surrounded by his family. Charlie was a cherished husband, father and grandfather and also a member of the Rolling Stones, one of the greatest drummers of his generation….”

The fact that the statement refers to him as “also a member of the Rolling Stones” is apt for Watts always gave the impression that the music he played was more important than being a Rolling Stone. When the Stones burst upon the music scene that was already being dominated by the Beatles, their young manager Andrew Loog Oldham cleverly marketed the group as the antithesis of the cute and wholesome Fab Four (“Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” was one of his brilliant ideas for a publicity campaign).

While Jagger, Richards and Brian Jones, who revelled in their identity as the original British bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll, went about the job with as much diligence and dedication as they applied to their music, Watts and bassist Bill Wyman were most conspicuously ill at ease with all the publicity and mass hysteria surrounding the group. As Jagger, Richards and Jones, the three frontmen of the group, went about their wild, drug-fuelled hell-raising ways, the quiet and shy Watts preferred to stay at home and listen to his jazz records and collect antique silverware and American Civil War artefacts. “Charlie hates going on the road…. He only carries a holdall with a change of clothes in it because he likes to pretend he’s going to go home the next day,” Richards said in 1979.

Even appearance wise, Watts did not seem to fit in. In a group that was anti-establishment and a symbol of youth, Watts only began to look his age when he was in his mid forties and, in his expensive Savile Row suits, looked more like a conservative industrialist than a rock star. All the Stones were fashion icons in their own way—Richards with his casual hang-loose look, Jagger with his androgynous style—but Watts was the most dapper of them all. While wild tales of sexual conquests, glamorous partners, even a scandal with the wife of a head of state abounded as the Stones kept rolling relentlessly down the ages, Watts remained married to Shirley Ann Shepherd from 1964 until the end of his life. “I wouldn’t want my wife associating with us,” he had once observed wryly.

But for all their rough and rowdy ways, the Stones were always completely dedicated to their music, and that was where Watts fit in completely with the rest of the gang. He was an integral, intrinsic and inseparable part of the Rolling Stones sound. With Jagger as the singer, Richards, Wyman and Watts formed the rhythm section and the heart of the music. It was not as though the other guitar players (first Jones, then Mick Taylor and finally Wood) did not contribute and enhance the music with their genius, but the tight synergy and the seemingly telepathic musical understanding between Richards, Wyman and Watts formed the kernel of the Stones’ music, which not only stood the test of time but was also the key factor behind the group’s unprecedented longevity.

Quintessential band man

Just as the Beatles needed Ringo Starr to complete the group, so it was with Watts and the Rolling Stones. But whereas the Beatles broke up after 10 years at the top owing to musical differences, the Stones continue to fill stadiums after nearly 60 years, their personal differences rendered immaterial by their commitment to the music they were making. It is what made the Rolling Stones one of the greatest live acts ever. “We carry on doing it because we love doing it more than anything. You can call it a habit. You can call it addiction,” said Richards.

In an age that saw the rise of virtuoso musicians in rock music, including drummers such as Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and John Bonham, Watts belonged to the tradition of the quintessential band man, one who understood the bigger picture and worked quietly to attain the musical goal. Like fellow legends Ringo Starr, Levon Helm (the Band) and Johnny Densmore (the Doors), Watts understood his vital role in creating the sound of the group and never put himself above the music.

He did not provide just a rhythm and a backbeat. His jazz background gave him the versatility to adapt to the various phases the Stones’ music went through in six decades: rhythm ‘n’ blues, rock, reggae, pop, disco, and so on. His art was so atmospheric that it practically encapsulated the spirit of a song and enhanced the overall effect of the music. It was that understated, menacing rhythm he played in “Sympathy for the Devil” that created the mood for the song, as Lucifer in Jagger’s voice presented his case like an urbane, sophisticated lawyer and Richards’ sneering, sardonic guitar mocked and jibed the imagined audience. His insidious, relentlessly escalating groove in “Midnight Rambler” and “Terrifying”; his defiant beat in “Satisfaction”, “Street Fighting Man”, “Stray Cat Blues” and “Mixed Emotions”; the propelling, furious drive in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Brown Sugar” and “Paint it Black”; his nuanced, delicate touch in “As Tears Go By”, “Love in Vain” and “Girl with the Faraway Eyes”; his dancing, swaying lilt on the skins in “Factory Girl”, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Prodigal Son” and “Dead Flowers” ; and his dark, soporific, almost death-anxiety-ridden rendition in “Sister Morphine” showed the immense range of his powers that could take great songs and make them immortal.

Magnificently consistent

While he had that loose feel of a jazzman, his playing also had the muscles of rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll. His rhythms could take the music to the brink of anarchic freedom, but his supreme control would always ensure that it never soared too high to burn itself or come crashing down in chaos. But what was most important was that it was exactly what was needed to complement, support and validate the outrageous guitar riffs of Richards and the bass playing of Wyman and complete the musical vision of the Rolling Stones. It was not as though Watts did not have his dark moments of stardom with addictions and waywardness (though he would soon pull himself together and move on), but it never affected his playing. He was magnificently consistent throughout his life, making the group sound credible even when it was at its most frivolous.

His sound was so distinctively unique that generations of drummers growing up on the music of the Stones would try and emulate it, some would even come close, but no one could ever sound like Watts. Stewart Copeland, the drummer maestro of the Police, wrote in a tribute to Watts: “Technically, what it is, is that he leads with his right foot on the kick drum, which pushes the band forward. Meanwhile, his left hand on the snare, the backbeat, is a little relaxed, a little lazy, and that combination of propulsion and relaxation is the technical definition of what he’s doing. But you can try it yourself, all you want, and it ain’t going to sound like Charlie.” The great session drummer Max Weinberg, best known for his work with Bruce Springsteen, described Watts as a “genre”. “Every beat I play there’s Charlie Watts in there somewhere,” he said.

Born on June 2, 1941, in Wembley, Middlesex, Britain, Watts got his first drum set at the age of 14. As a child, he was a good student with a flair for literature and art and was passionate about jazz. His hero was the British jazz drummer Phil Seaman, but he did not restrict himself to playing jazz. He would sit in with rhythm ‘n’ blues bands and play at weddings and bar mitzvahs, wherever he could get the opportunity. After graduating from the Harrow School of Arts, he started working as a graphic designer in the advertising business, but he did not give up playing, nor did his love of jazz wane in any way. In fact, in 1961, he wrote and illustrated a small book on the musician Charlie Parker, which was later published in 1964 as the Stones began to get famous under the title Ode to a High Flying Bird . In 1992, he released a jazz album dedicated to Parker—“A Tribute to Charlie Parker with Strings”—with his own group the Charlie Watts Quintet. Besides his work with the Rolling Stones, Watts released 10 solo albums, including of several live shows, as the leader of his own jazz ensemble.

It was while playing in Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated—that remarkable breeding stable for some of the great musicians of Britain—that Watts met Richards, Jagger and Jones, all of whom would often sit in with Korner’s band. In January 1963, Watts formally joined the nascent Rolling Stones, though he still kept his day job as a graphic designer at Charles Hobson and Gray. Throughout his life he remained a modest man who hated drawing attention to himself, but behind that deadpan, quiet exterior, he had a wry and sometimes withering sense of humour. He once summed up his life with the Stones as “Four decades of seeing Mick’s bum running around in front of me.” On another occasion, when asked what he would have been had he not been a Rolling Stone, he said: “I’d call myself a designer because I couldn’t be a painter.... I’m not talented enough.... Maybe it’s just an inferiority complex. Maybe I’m great after all.”

No pEven though he was self-deprecating and shy, Watts was no pushover. He once even punched out Jagger when he made the mistake of referring to Watts as “My drummer”. “Never call me your drummer again,” he said as he delivered a vicious right hook. Right up to the end, Watts was nobody’s man but his own. Neither the madness of 50 years of mega stardom nor the constant presence of the iconic Jagger-Richards duo made any impact on him. He preferred to stay in the back and do what he had to do, while Jagger and Richards manipulated the frenzied crowds like magicians controlling the elements.

A fan remembers

Anandaroop Ghosh, a long-time fan of the Rolling Stones, remembers the times he saw Watts on stage: “I am fortunate enough to have seen Charlie Watts in the flesh three times... on all three occasions he was content to sit hidden behind the triple cymbals of his sparse drum kit, quietly working skyscraper-sized grooves, and had to be coaxed out by his more outgoing band mates to take a bow before tens of thousands of adoring fans. Each time, his reluctant amble to the front of the stage was greeted by deafening roars of approval from the audience, and each time he responded with an awkward wave and a bemused expression, as if saying: ‘What? Don’t tell me you haven’t heard any real music.’”

Perhaps, Richards summed it up best when he said some time in 1979: “Charlie’s always there, but he doesn’t want people to know. There’s very few drummers like that. Everybody thinks Mick and Keith are the Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out that Charlie Watts is the Stones.”

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