Charlie Watts probably wasn’t quite the best drummer the world has ever heard, but he was one of the best, and he may even go down as the greatest – which isn’t quite the same thing. Imagine what his life must have been like, spending as he did pretty much three quarters of it as a member of the greatest rock and roll band in the world. He wasn’t an exhibitionist and he wasn’t an ego. He didn’t bother with drum solos and his kit wasn’t some ludicrous circus side show; it was just a drum kit. And that’s what he was, a drummer. That’s all. And yet so much more. If anything he held The Rolling Stones together more than any other member. He might not have been keeper of the flame as Keith Richards is, or the face of it like Jagger, but he was almost certainly the heart and the conscience of the band and without him they’re not quite The Rolling Stones any more, whether they like it or not.
So Charlie Watts is undoubtedly up there with the greats: Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, John Bonham, Buddy Rich, Bernard Purdie, Levon Helm, Richie Hayward, Tony Williams, and the list goes on, but no matter where you go with it he will definitely always be there. What he perhaps lacked in blatant flare and showmanship he made up for with precision and snap. He snapped at the heels of the rest of the band and, going back to the glory days, when he and Wyman and Richards locked together into a groove there was nothing else like it. Nothing. And if he was a great player he was also a great man: modest, witty, charming without being unctuous, gentlemanly and always beautifully turned out – I have never seen a bad photo of him, and I have seen a lot of photos of him. He was of course really a jazz man and that may account for why he preferred to be at the back more than some rock and roll drummers. It also gave him more swing than most and given how much his band relied on feel and rhythm rather than power it all makes perfect sense.
I could happily write a list of his best moments but he wasn’t that kind of drummer either, because he was always good, always solid, always reliable, always played exactly what needed to be played at exactly the right moment. I suppose for little snippets just listen to how he turns up at the start of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?’ and immediately puts some drop shouldered slunk underneath Richards’ startling bone dry riff, or the way he jazz punches his way into ‘100 Years Ago’ after it all slows down in the middle. He just had a knack of feeling the moment, as when he punctuates ‘Gimme Shelter’ with gun shots or wrestles back control towards the end of ‘Monkey Man’. And if you want speed and fills just listen to the entirety of ‘Rocks Off’ where he has to contend with layers of grubby overdubbed guitars, a sleazy horn section and some exquisite piano playing and still probably steals the show, driving the whole song along with masterful flicks, fluster and flurry; the band cooking up a fabulous soup of noise – this was at their peak, and he was their drummer.
I saw them play live a few years ago and they were past their best. Good, slow cooking, but not like they used to be (and why should they have to be?). When The Who lost Keith Moon they carried on with pretty dismal results (but not always – the first few minutes of ‘Eminence Front’ is exhibit A in that defence) and when Led Zeppelin lost John Bonham they folded almost immediately because they knew it wouldn’t have been the same without him (they were quite right to do so). Charlie Watts is somewhere in the middle of that. He is very likely replaceable because The Rolling Stones are too ruthless to just let go of what they do and how they do it, but no matter who takes his place they won’t be Charlie Watts and so it just won’t be the same Rolling Stones. In the end it is better and more right to mourn the beautiful man than the impact he had on the band – they’ve not been quite themselves since Mick Taylor left in 1974 anyway, but that was never Watts’ fault. The fact is that Charlie Watts is no more and what he leaves behind is a legacy unlike any other drummer: the only drummer in the rock and roll band that invented the rock and roll band; that’s quite something to write home about. If he hadn’t been great then they wouldn’t have been great. What the rest of them do is up to them but I won’t be coughing up to see them in a hurry. Charlie Watts was a special kind of magical, a magical you won’t find anywhere else. Go, get busy, listen to him. RIP.
G B Hewitt. 25.08.2021