There will never be a world without Charlie Watts, because his backbeat changed how the world sounds. The Rolling Stones’ legendary drummer got away with nothing but boss moves, for just about 60 years. For me, the Charlie mystique is all there in his five-second drum intro from “Let It Bleed.” It’s one of the Stones’ best tunes, yet it’s nothing but the band listening to Charlie play. Mick just tries to keep up with him, while the guitars try to keep up with Mick, but Charlie is the guy everybody else is working hard to impress. He made the Stones great by conceding nothing to them.
The other Stones found Charlie impossible to dazzle. Charlie wasn’t even impressed by himself, let alone his bandmates. Keith told Rolling Stone in his 1981 cover story, “As far as I’m concerned, I’d just say that I’m continually thankful — and more so as we go along — that we have Charlie Watts sittin’ there, you know? He’s the guy who doesn’t believe it, because he’s like that.” The interviewer finds it hard to believe. But Keith insists, “There’s nothing forced about Charlie, least of all his modesty. It’s totally real. He cannot understand what people see in his drumming.”
Charlie is why you still hear “Start Me Up” on the radio, and why it never gets faded out early, even though the ending is Mick yelling, “You made a dead man come!” Nobody notices the dirty words, because you can’t take your ears off Charlie, and he’s driving every second of the groove to the final seconds. (As far as some fans are concerned, there are certain Stones recordings where making dead men come is Charlie’s job description.)
He died on the 40th anniversary of Tattoo You, the Stones’ 1981 mall-rat classic. For Eighties kids, the Tattoo You Charlie was the one we grew up with — keeping his stone face in the videos for “Start Me Up” and “Hang Fire,” utterly unfazed by the rock stars posing up front. At one point, he shakes his head in bemusement at Mick’s dancing. He was a no-bullshit non-rock star, holding it down behind the Glimmer Twins.
The glamorous life meant nothing to him. His marriage to Shirley lasted longer than the combined marriages of most bands. Charlie took pride in being a jazz fan, not a rock fan. “It’s dance music,” he told Rolling Stone in 1978. “But it hasn’t really progressed musically. Progression was Miles Davis playing modals. You can’t do that in rock. Progression was Coltrane, but you can’t do that in rock.” It was only rock & roll. But he liked it, yes he did. “Heavy backbeat, that’s what it is. That’s what the Beatles did and that’s what we did.”
Rolling Stone’s great Chet Flippo followed the band on their epic Seventies tours, so he got an inside look at Charlie on the road, as chronicled in his classic It’s Only Rock & Roll. Brace yourself for a typical decadent scene from the 1978 tour: “The Watts family sat down with me. Shirley tried a screwdriver for the first time. Seraphina [their young daughter] was reading a paperback of Jaws 2. ‘I was against it,’ said Shirley, ‘but you have to let them do these things.’”
Tattoo You is a perfect Charlie record — even when the song is nothing but Charlie motorvating forward, he takes care of business. “Neighbours” is a great example of a fantastic song where everyone breaks a sweat keeping up with Charlie. When Sonny Rollins steps in for his sax solo, it’s one of the only moments where you can almost hear Charlie blink in surprise.
One of my favorite Charlie records is Their Satanic Majesties Request, just because he’s often the only one in the band playing rock & roll. While the Stones dabble in psychedelic drivel (this is the album where Mick wears a wizard hat on the cover), Charlie keeps blasting everyone forward, as in “Citadel” or “2000 Light Years From Home.” He made sure the flower-child Stones wouldn’t get lost in the incense — like when he slams into the chorus of “Dandelion.”
I saw a couple shows on the Stones’ 2019 tour, and Charlie was an absolute monster to the end. He made every night’s “Midnight Rambler” an epic, though the song doesn’t begin to happen without him. (As with a lot of Stones songs, Charlie is the reason nobody else would dream of covering it.) Watching Mick Jagger and Ron Wood run all over the stadium, I could see why they were there. Keith Richards hitting his riffs, anchored by the drum kit — easy to see why he was there. But Charlie was the one I couldn’t figure out. Why was he still pushing himself so hard? Why was he even doing this? The answer came during “Midnight Rambler.” It was his groove, and he couldn’t walk away from it.
At every show, there was that moment where it was just the four of them on the lip of the stage, stripped down to a raw quartet. Nobody to hide behind, answering to nobody but Charlie. It was a moment where an entire stadium could sense it: For the other three, Charlie was the man whose standards they had to meet.
There are entire Stones albums — Black and Blue comes to mind, so does Emotional Rescue — where the concept is the Stones just listening to Charlie play. That’s enough concept for any album. That’s why Charlie was the ultimate rock & roll drum god. Keith Moon and John Bonham were street brawlers, but Charlie was the silent hit man you’d never notice until he put you away. He didn’t want the spotlight. He was there to do a job, which was knocking people off their feet, night after night, year after year.
We could talk all day about “Connection” or “Sympathy for the Devil.” Or “Let Me Go” or “Dirty Work” or “Rocks Off” or “Stray Cat Blues” or “Ride On Baby.” But let’s send him off with the Exile version of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips.” Charlie simmers, refusing to let the band break loose, until that one moment at the 55-second point where he gives up one shattering “bop!” And then goes back to his simmer.
That’s the moment you realize: Charlie was the only one on earth that the Stones took orders from, for 58 years. Here’s to the drummer who made them the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band. Ride on forever, Charlie Watts.