I know about Stewart Copeland because I am a huge fan of The Police. I know about Buddy Harmon because I’ve studied country music. I know about Charlie Watts because, well, it’s the bloody Rolling Stones. Charlie is not the first great drummer to die of late but he’s the name YOU KNOW.
And with his passing I was playing the double CD compilation, Forty Licks on my weekly walk to the Tuesday farmer’s market and it became clear that; Mick, Keef, Ronnie Wood, and Bill Wyman were all the “rolling” part of that band name. Charlie was the STONE. I mean over the last 20 or so years they started calling themselves The Stones. Maybe it was shorthand. Maybe it was coincidence. But Charlie Watts was definitely the rock in all that roll. And maybe his passing made him stand out more today but I doubt it. I’ve always been a rhythm/drum man. I was supposed to play drums in a band with my brothers that never panned out because nobody had time to practice or money for drums. But I can feel a beat anywhere and Charlie knew how to keep one at any tempo you needed. And the way he kept the beat meant he didn’t play mean or dirty. He just played. He did the job he was supposed to do and got on with it. And that is a skill that I think is vastly underrated. Especially in today’s world of everyday prodigies and spectacle.
Listening to a song like, “Paint It Black” or “Let’s Spend The Night Together” I believe Charlie Watts could have easily been a member of Motown’s funk brothers. It is straight up rhythm ‘n’ blues timing/phrasing. “Start Me Up” is basically a slowed down version of Archie Bell and the Drells’, “Tighten Up”.
In fact, The Rolling Stones were labeled a rhythm and blues act for years in the UK and by actual R ‘n’ B acts until US labels/promoters felt the need to segregate music for both racial and monetary reasons.
Many people better suited to writing about Watts’ legacy (and music in general) will leave their words; people with a knowledge of music theory, actual drummers, music historians… So I write this merely as a music fan based I what I have heard over the years and how the music has affected me.
My history with the Rolling Stones starts with my father who passed on mostly the 60s material. Then “Start Me Up” being an early MTV staple and local radio station KFOG playing them on regular rotation like it was a daily prayer was where I got my next schooling. The hits were around. I saw The Rolling Stones at Candlestick Park in the very late 90s and we were so high up it was like watching a flea circus. But I was glad I went, so I could say I saw the (mostly) original lineup. But arena shows were never my thing in the first place. For me it has always about the records & radio. About hearing songs alone or in crowded bar where everyone joins in on the chorus (and the dance floor). That to me is the true testament to how music unifies and the way it most deeply affects me.
As the 90s rolled on into the 00s many of The Rolling Stones catalog entered overplayed territory. And that is when it became clear to me that all the lyrical wizardry and the licks of the guitar where just fat and grease on top of the meat Charlie was tenderizing underneath it all. He made the music as it were, “melt in your mouth”.
Just take a listen to what I consider one the top 3 greatest pop songs of all time, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, released at the apex of British invasion acts in June of ‘65. The opening guitar riff gives it icon status alone but it is Charlie’s back beat chugging along underneath the melody line like an itch you can’t scratch that suited the songs theme so perfectly and helped cement it’s legacy as maybe the greatest “rock song” of all time in my opinion. I know the song has it’s roots in the blues, sure, but every rock song that came after owes it’s leather covered legs in part to this three minutes and forty-four seconds of male hormone fueled angst.
I should note for transparency’s sake when it comes to the British invasion acts of the 60s my favorite band is The Kinks. They were off brand. Punk before punk, with a bit of bite in the witty lyrics. I found The Who to be like a demolition team bringing the apocalypse and Led Zeppelin was trying to fry my brain and melt my face off with sheer volume, screams, and solos. Meanwhile, The Beatles were… The Beatles.
While I like all of them for various reasons what I LOVE about The Rolling Stones and what they did better than all those acts was rock ‘n’ roll that you (and your mama) could straight up dance to; Brown Sugar, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Get Off Of My Cloud, Mixed Emotions, Tumblin’ Dice… And the reason you could shuffle so well to all them was because you had Charlie (the stone) holding it all in place like the player’s in James Brown’s backing band The Famous Flames.
But there is one song in their catalog that has a special stool at the my bar as it were. See, I grew up in the kind of small town where rock ‘n’ roll was the colloquial language; Steve Miller, CCR, Bad Company, Boston, Lynard Skynard… these were not just bands but rights of passage. So on Saturday at around 10 at the local night spot somebody would hit the jukebox- and first there was the cowbell then Charlie’s iconic opening drum fill rang out and then all the halter tops would rush the floor (followed by the wolf packs) drinks raised high.
We’re only 4 seconds in to, “Honky Tonk Women” but everyone in the place knows the local ordinance and what is supposed to go down.
And Charlie certainly knew what was going down. The famous story of Mick Jagger drunkenly referring to him as, “my drummer” and Charlie cold-cocking him in full suit, tie, and cologne correcting him with, “Don’t ever call you’re drummer. You’re my singer,” says it all, really.
The Beatles have been called the most influential band of all time but I will testify the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. No other band, second to AC/DC, stayed so steadfast in their chosen lane from the outset (and maintained a mostly original lineup). Yeah they hopped on disco for couple songs. But those songs are pretty damn groovy compared to what some other rockers did with the genre. That harmonica on, “Miss You” with Charlie’s 1-2 rhythm- Name another rock song that makes you feel both alone and like strutting the sidewalk in full peacock. And, “Emotional Rescue” opens with drums because let’s be honest the drummer is what saves the rock song from the train wreck EVERY TIME.
On this latest tour Charlie has had a stand in. And sure, you can get get a guy who is technically proficient, you can even get somebody who brings the level of emotion needed to the songs but you will NEVER replace the history. Charlie has seen and knows every chicken dance Jagger has done on stage and in studio and when he will do it again. So while it’s great bands like the Rolling Stones and Queen still go for it and bring the music to the fans, when a piece of your band history dies it changes the musical energy on stage and in the universe forever.
We may have a glut of options on today’s musical internet buffet and people can argue that quality is up or down on the whole but The Rolling Stones are mythologized icons because greatness on some level can be quantified. We do it all the time with our own ears. And enough ears have heard; “Angie” and “Wild Horses”, “Gimme Shelter”, “Stray Cat Blues”, “Moonlight Mile” and said, “Yup!” this music is definitely above average.
And there I was on my walk, listening to these played out songs again. And hearing Charlie’s drums resonate stronger I found myself getting emotional over a music that isn’t even in my top 20. I think it’s less about the band and more about my deep connection of love for music on the whole. And reflecting on the passing of one of the mighty gods in the rock pantheon and their contribution to this magical sorcery we call music reminds me, even those we swore would live forever pass on and we will too. But let’s be real, when I pass I’m leaving behind a stack of cookbooks I’ve collected and few recorded music streams not, Exile On Main St. or Sticky Fingers. And the gift Charlie and by extension the Rolling Stones will leave behind no matter how few come cross it in the coming years makes every cell in my body swell with joy and hope. This music will always be there for SOMEBODY to discover, possibly be rescued by, or just crank loud and dance to.
And I did just that (cranked it loud and danced) as I went my way to the farmer’s market. All the songs sound ripe as ever but today, “Street Fighting Man” was the one that got me up to 11. It’s just so macho and hedonistic and male that I swear it could boost your testosterone levels with each listen. Sometimes you just need that kind of no nonsense energy in your life.
That song and “Beast Of Burden” kept me coming back to the image of Charlie being the stone. And the more intently I listen now the more I believe it was Charlie’s band and everyone else was just merely carving their initials on his rock.