Gentleman, legend and consummate musician. At The Barrier was greatly saddened by the news of the death of the one and only Charlie Watts
I was upstairs, changing after a walk, when my wife came in to bear the sad news. Charlie Watts, Rolling Stone since January 1963, jazz aficionado, dapper gentleman, legend, consummate musician and all-round good guy – the Stone that EVERYONE likes – is no longer with us. He passed away in London on 24th August 2021, aged 80, after several years of illness. Just about everyone with any liking for our music is saddened by the news and the tributes – including from his Rolling Stones colleagues Mick and Keith, as well as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend and many, many more have poured in, and, no doubt, the mainstream music press will be fulsome in their praise of a true musical legend. At The Barrier would like to add our own scattered thoughts to the deluge.
Of course, when Charlie joined The Stones all those years ago, it was unthinkable that he would still be a Rolling Stone in 2021 at the age of 80 – people of 80 in 1963 were ancient and none of them were rock musicians. But today, 80 doesn’t seem so old anymore and I can’t dispel the impression that we’ve lost Charlie too soon.
There’s no doubt that Charlie Watts changed music, just as there’s no doubt that his band changed society, and both changes were very much for the good. There was no template, back in 1963, for musicians who eschewed dress conventions, who took raw Delta and Chicago blues and developed it into something danceable and saleable to the masses, who wrote their own songs with lyrics that were not about moons in June, but about not finding satisfaction, having multiple nervous breakdowns, Ruby Tuesdays and, most shockingly, spending the night together. All that innovation needed an innovative bedrock, ably provided by Charlie Watts, a drummer not content to sit behind the behind the band’s sound, but to to propel the riffs, strange instruments and black/white vocals from the driving seat.
It’s often suggested that The Stones’ entitlement to their self-awarded epithet The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World, ceased sometime during the 1970s – perhaps after Exile On Main Street or, at the latest, when Mick Taylor left the band, but, nevertheless, their legacy is comparable only to that of The Beatles and none of it would have happened without Charlie Watts. His outstanding contributions to the Stones’ unique sound are too numerous to list, but personal favourites include the bang/crash/perfectly timed drum intro to 1965 party favourite Get Off Of My Cloud, the sublime cymbal work that sharpened the sinister edge to the Sticky Fingers track Dead Flowers and, of course, the iconic cowbell/snare/bass drum intro to Honky Tonk Women. And that’s before we get into the details of his ground-breaking work on that terrific sequence of albums that stated with Beggers Banquet, through Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers to Exile. All magical!
Charlie was a reluctant rock star. He certainly had his moments with the drugs and booze that go with incessant touring, but we won’t go into those here. I always sensed that he felt more bemused than anything about the hysteria The Stones generated during their 60s and 70s pomp and he always seemed able to ignore the distractions and concentrate on the music – to the massive benefit of the band’s sound, and not easy in arenas like Hyde Park, Knebworth , Copacobana, Glastonbury and, particularly, Altamont.
And let’s not forget, The Stones weren’t the only string to Charlie’s bow. His extra-mural activities included Rocket 88 – his 1970s boogie-woogie venture with co-Stone Ian Stewart, his 1980s Big Band with Courtney Pine and Jack Bruce and his jazz quintets that performed club gigs around the country during the 90s and 00s. He remained accessible in a way that few contemporary megastars would feel able or safe to do.
We’re all familiar with the anecdote dating from a 1980s tour, when Mick Jagger allegedly called Charlie in his hotel room to ask “Where’s my drummer?” The story goes that Charlie got out of bed, washed, shaved, dressed – in suit and tie and freshly shined shoes – went down to Mick’s room and punched the singer in the face. Allegedly he told Jagger “Never call me your drummer again. YOU’RE my f**king singer!” I don’t know if the story’s true, but it’s a good tale and it says such a lot about the justifiable self-esteem of an otherwise unassuming man.
Perhaps the last words should come from Charlie’s singer who, after a flurry from the drummer, captured for posterity on the excellent Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out live album (the cover of which, incidentally, featured Charlie in a co-starring role with a donkey…) said “Charlie’s good tonight, inee!” Yes he was Mick. And I know that you realise how lucky The Stones were to have such a competent, innovative, rock steady guy on the drum stool for all those years.
Rest in Peace, Charlie – you’ve deserved it.
Enjoy Charlie’s drumming once again in this clip from The Stones in the Park – Honky Tonk Women: