Charlie Watts: a drummer with an invaluable lesson in the rock and roll of life
If there was ever a band that possessed a larger beat than the Rolling Stones, I think of it as a unit that could have vibrated the starts out of the cosmos. The young Stones were quite the sonic admixture. Blues, rhythm and blues, feral, hoodoo rock, all went into their particular stew, with a huge helping of heathenism. The guitars rumbled and strafed like something let loose from a jungle, but there was an impeccably controlled element to that music, and it went by the name of the drumming of Charlie Watts.
Think of the early, world-beating Stones, and you think of that riff in “Satisfaction.” It has a horn-like quality, which abets its volume, but the song doesn’t work without the beat that is its tonal center, which is pure Watts.
He had the chops of a jazzman, rock’s version of Elvin Jones, rambling and rolling with these over-loud, ostensible ne’er-do-wells who also happened to provide the musical panacea—or so it felt—for whatever it was that ailed you in this world.
The Who’s Keith Moon was more mercurial, and Ringo Starr of the Beatles served a composition like no rocker ever had, but Watts was the lynchpin of his band. Keith Richards played a hybrid style of rhythm and lead guitar, with bassist Bill Wyman often chasing those same scalar runs, and someone had to rudder this ship. In the Stones, that also meant asserting yourself, taking no gruff off your fellow musicians, and surging into the lead.
Look at any Stones hit from the mid-1960s. It’s always the drumming that we fundamentally return to, what the ear wants to hear. Everything else is addition—glorious, raving, triumphal addition—but the drumming is the root of the endeavor, even as it takes off in directions that rock drummers who were not Charlie Watts wouldn’t have dared.
Consider, for example, “Get Off of My Cloud,” 1965’s follow-up to “Satisfaction.” The drums are the riff. Who on earth did that at the time? This wasn’t just ballsy, it was classy. Primal, but urbane.
Listen to recordings of the Count Basie band from the 1930s, when swing was the rage in America, and yet no one swung any harder than these British boys did—in large part because of their singular drummer.
Props to Watts for refusing to be hemmed in. These days, we celebrate the niche of the niche of the niche. Not just the specialist, but the person who is so localized in one area as to be almost a ghost of a human. A speck. Watts, in effect, said, “Down with being a speck, up with being your own world,” which is how he conducted himself from the drum chair.
As a result, his band became not just as big as any has been over the last sixty years, but the band you need for a reminder of the potency, the brilliance, of blended worlds, and detonating prescriptive boundaries. Which isn’t just about rocking in a band, it’s how you rock in life. How you’ll always rock in this life, even after you’ve left it. Call it the transcendent beat of beats.