There’s a great line in John Hiatt’s 1988 song “Slow Turning,” where the protagonist is in his car trying to listen to the radio but suddenly wheels around: “I’m yelling at the kids in the back seat/Because they’re banging like Charlie Watts.”
Hiatt’s growled lyric is filled with gleeful respect for the Rolling Stones drummer, who died Tuesday at age 80. But, of course, Watts was hardly a banger. In fact, he was the opposite of two thundering peers, The Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, whose kinetic kit work often overshadowed the songs.
Watts famously came to rock 'n’ roll from the jazz side of the tracks, a neighborhood he’d run back to time and again throughout his six-decade career. That background came freighted with meaning: You anchor and serve the beat, keep meticulous time and leave the histrionics to the dilettantes.
Indeed, one look at Watts’ unflappable face in any Stones video or documentary – especially compared with peacocking Mick Jagger – and you’d think the wrong drummer showed up for the session.
'One of the greatest':Paul McCartney, Elton John, more mourn Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts
But Watts was the perfect sticks man for the Stones, offering delicious fills and a hard-charging backbeat, from that first 1964 U.K. No. 1 hit, “It’s All Over Now,” to the 2020 pandemic tome “Living in a Ghost Town.”
Five songs that would not have rocked as hard without Watts on that drummer’s stool:
'Get Off of My Cloud' (1965)
This is the song that got a preteen me to beg my parents to say OK to drum lessons. Thanks, Charlie. “Cloud” starts with Watts setting the syncopated rhythm out of the gate, bass drum, high hat, snare all working in harmony followed by a rat-a-tat fill that brings in the band, then Mick.
Watts repeats that motif throughout the tune just about every other measure, keeping the song moving in a way that is utterly organic. Take the drums off many tracks, and the song often still largely holds together. Take them off “Cloud,” and you’ve got a rainy mess.
Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts dies at 80:Playing the drums was all he ever wanted
'Shake Your Hips' (1972)
This cover was a heartfelt tribute to blues pioneer Slim Harpo, who wrote the 1966 original and is name-checked by Jagger. The recording is deliberately steeped in minimalism, with Watts playing a stripped-down percussive shuffle that sounds like nothing more than wooden drumsticks on either a drum’s rim or some sort of wooden block.
And that’s about where it stays, with only the occasional accent on an actual drum thrown in judiciously to punctate a lyric. It’s all about feel; too mechanical and you lose the blues, too loose and the song gets sloppy. Watts, sounding like a man sitting on a porch, threads the needle to perfection.
'Beast of Burden' (1978)
Guitar chords open this track, but within a few measures, Watts drops in with his comforting bass-snare-and-high-hat lope that deservedly stays high in the mix throughout.
It’s difficult to overstate how important Watts is to both the sweetness and laziness of the song. At times, he seems just a fraction behind the beat, almost creating a stumbling effect that makes you want to kick back and take a trip into the still unexplained meaning of the tune.
“Burden” is at its core a delightful bit of soul music from Jagger and Richards, but it takes Watts to give it a laconic swing thatmakes it as indelible as some of the classic songs from Motown and Stax.
Admittedly, it’s the sheer depth of the monster groove in this song that keeps your toes tapping from first note to last, from Keith Richards' simple riff to Bill Wyman’s sensuous bass lines. But it’s Watts who keeps things funky, mixed in off-beat accents while keeping meticulous time. It’s here that the veteran drummer’s deceptive simplicity shines through, providing a sonic object lesson in “less is more.”
A less-confident performer would have been tempted to toss in myriad fills as Jagger yowls and guest sax man Sonny Rollins – a jazz titan Watts surely would have been chuffed to play behind – blows up a storm. Watts feels like he was present at the birth of the cool.
'Sad Sad Sad' (1989)
“Sad” is actually just one of many songs (cue “Mixed Emotions”) from the “Steel Wheels” album that sees Watts drumming like a steam engine pushing up against red line.
In a sense, it’s the classic Watts sound, that pile-driving four-on-the-floor beat that’s anchored so many rock classics through the ages. But Watts brings to that simple drum beat a percussive force and unimpeachable timing that literally propels Jagger & Co. to new heights.
Anyone who has spent even the slightest amount of time at the drums can tell you how hard it is to keep that beat going – physically if not also psychologically, given the rest of the band is depending on you to be unflappable.
Watts never flagged, ever, from first elegant bang to last.