Charlie Watts, who died yesterday in hospital in London with his family around him, was one of the greatest drummers in the history of popular music.
He was 80 years old, not a young man, but damn it sucks to be writing about him in the past tense. He was so curiously ageless – eternally trim, eternally dapper, grey-haired for so long you have to be a fair bit older than me to remember him any other way, and still a master of his craft – that it was hard to think of him as being old at all. Rationally, of course, he and all his generation of musicians are either in or approaching their ninth decade, but even so. When they go, it’s still a shock.
To talk about Charlie Watts as a musician is, inevitably, to rehearse the cliches. He was, as Alexis Petridis, wrote in The Guardian, the calm eye of the storm. He was, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the centre of gravity around which the rest of the band orbited. He was, as Rob Sheffield wrote in Rolling Stone, the man whose standards the other Stones always had to meet. He was, as TS Eliot might have put it if he’d ever given any thought to the Rolling Stones, the still point of the band’s turning world. He was the legendary rock drummer who would rather have been playing jazz, or watching cricket. The member of the ageing group of rock ‘n’ roll party animals who thought it was all a bit silly, really, and whose marriage stayed intact for 57 years.
Among rock drummers, he may not have been the most powerful, the most technically adept, or the most metronomic, but he was perhaps the one who swung the most. Watch Charlie play – all wrists. There was no shoulder, or scarcely even any elbow. The effort put in seemed entirely out of proportion to the sound coming out. Sometimes he could appear to be miming to the noise he was making, so easy did it look. Above all, though, he could make you move – maybe (whisper it) even more than his piratical colleague with the Telecaster.
Key Charlie texts are legion. The relentless repeated fills of Get Off of My Cloud. The pounding toms of Paint it Black. The party-starting intro of Honky Tonk Women. The dread-filled snare shots that announce his entrance on Gimme Shelter.
But his greatness doesn’t merely lie in these obvious highlights. It’s in how he single-handedly prevents the whole band careering off the road on Rocks Off and Rip this Joint, the furious one-two opening salvo of Exile on Main Street. It’s in the world-weary thump of his brushed snare on the Stones’ cover of Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain (the greatest brushed snare drum sound in popular music). It’s his shuffle-thump on Sweet Virginia, so laid back it’s basically horizontal. It’s his empathetic 12/8 on No Use in Crying, on which he could be Al Jackson Jr playing with Otis Redding.
Charlie Watts was a modest, self-effacing man, who was quick to play down his band’s importance and his own accomplishments. It falls to those of use who heard and loved his playing to sing his praises for him. Today, musicians who work in every genre of music you could think of have been doing just that. If you ever heard a Stones song and felt the need to move, Charlie was the reason why.
Few artists have straddled the worlds of folk, country, rock and pop as easily and gracefully as Nanci Griffith, who died on Friday 13 August, aged 68, with no cause yet confirmed.
The ubiquity of From a Distance, force-fed to me by the folk choir at mass every Sunday evening for a year or two in the early 1990s, soured me on Griffith for a while. I knew she’d recorded it; I assumed she had written it. To this day, I still don’t care for it, and it put me off listening to more of her music at the peak of her mainstream visibility – around the time of the release of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1993.
The song that made me get Nanci Griffith – why musicians from fields as far apart as Irish folk, stadium rock, bluegrass, indie, and mainstream country would come together to work on her records – was On Grafton Street. But it happened slowly, and without me knowing.
In 1994, my mum was into a record called Talk to Me by Irish folk singer Frances Black. I didn’t know who wrote the songs on the record (Griffith wrote or co-wrote three), but one of them struck me and stayed with me. Black’s recording of On Grafton Street was how I first heard that song, but when I heard Griffith’s reading of it – particularly a lovely live version from a New Year’s Eve gig in 1994 – Black’s version paled a little.
Something magical can happen when the right words meet the right snippet of melody and are sung by the right voice.
“Funny how my world goes round without you” – the opening of On Grafton Street’s chorus – is one of those. Whether that chorus was written by Griffith alone, by her co-writer on the song Fred Koller, or by the pair of them together is relatively unimportant – it’s the alchemy of voice, word and tune that makes the song what it is. It’s a fine song when Frances Black sings it. When Griffith sang it, it became transcendent. Now, if someone begins a sentence “Funny how…”, my brain will immediately add “…my world goes round without you”. The words belong to that melody now.
I can’t claim encyclopaedic knowledge of Griffith’s music. I’ve heard Flyer*, Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Last of the True Believers. But even that much – two albums of mostly original songs, one of covers – is enough to know that we lost a major songwriter when Griffith passed last week, the kind that don’t come along that often.
*It’s not easy to hear Flyer. You’ll look for it in vain on Spotify. If anyone needs an object lesson in why Spotify is the enemy, not just of dedicated archivists but anyone with more than a passing interest in music history, well, there you are. A Grammy-nominated album by a substantial, major-label artist – not available, presumably because of rights issues.
I’m hoping to finish up a short post on the late Nanci Griffith in a day or two. In the meantime, here’s something.
When The Fisher King was released, I mentioned in a post that while most of the songs on forthcoming album Mermaids were written by Yo and subsequently sent to me as voice-and-guitar recordings to build arrangements upon, there were a couple of songs that began as demos I sent to Yo for him to write melodies and lyrics.
Our new single, Wait and See, is one of these Palmer/Zushi compositions.
Wait and See started off several years ago as a song called Spring Like November. As sometimes happens with me, during the process of tracking it, I began to have doubts about its fundamental worth as a song. I liked the recording I was building on a musical level, but the actual top-line melody and lyric weren’t really all that thrilling to me. So I let it go. But I kept a rough mix of the instrumentation and actually listened to it from time to time, hoping that the dam would break and I’d get the inspiration I needed to reshape the song into something better.
It never happened, so when Yo suggested last summer that if I had any music lying around that he could write to, I should send it over to him, what was then still called Spring Like November was the first piece that came to mind.
The difference between Wait and See and Spring Like November is that Yo took advantage of the slow tempo to write something lyrically dense. At times, particularly the second verse, the vocal feels like it’s in double time relative to guitars. I really like that effect – it makes the vocal feel a little like a stream of consciousness, and moves the song away from the sad-core kind of thing it was before Yo worked on it. It also gives the song an extra rhythmic push that it lacked before, which I tried to compensate for with a double-time shaker to partial success.
A guitar solo with a bit of a country rock feel was also part of Yo’s vision for the song – originally I’d gone for something more based around the vocal melody, slow and clean. The solo we went with in the end has more of an overdriven tone for a contrasting texture, and was a good call on Yo’s part.
One interesting note is that, at this point, i have no memory of how I played the main electric guitar riff. I’m thinking it had to have been a G-based tuning with a capo on the 4th fret, but whether it was straight open G, or had a C bass, or was my favoured acoustic tuning of CGDEAD, I honestly don’t know. It was several years ago now, and I kept no notes. That’ll learn me.
Listen to Wait and See below:
Mermaids, our debut album as Watertown Carps, is out on 9 September on Rose Parade Recording Co.
Apologies for my elongated absence. I’ve started a new job and have been busy with stuff for our wedding next month. Busy times! Today, the debut by a band that should get more love. I’ll be taking on their second and third albums in subsequent posts.
Way early on in the life of this blog, I wrote about Never Going Back, an underrated country-rock song from the post-John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky lineup of the Lovin’ Spoonful. (It’s not very good but you can read it here.) I commented at the time that the band seemed underrated and quasi-forgotten to me, and were ripe for reassessment. Well, nothing has changed in the eight years that have passed and, since no one else has done it, I figured I’d do it myself.
So, this week I’ve been listening to the first three Spoonful albums, recorded and released within 12 months of each other, along with a soundtrack album to What’s Up Tiger Lily. That might seem like an extraordinary bout of productivity, but it was in fact pretty common practice in an era where labels assumed bands would have a short shelf life, and needed to be milked dry while people were paying attention.*
In the case of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the band’s not-quite-readiness as a songwriting unit is apparent on its debut, Do You Believe in Magic, which leans heavily on folk-blues warhorses and features only four solo John Sebastian compositions, with the blues instrumental at the end of the album credited to all four members equally.
The album does feel a little slight, it’s true, but it’s hugely charming. The fact that it starts with the title track – one of the greatest of all pop singles – certainly helps in this regard. Key to Sebastian’s art was his seemingly total sincerity. Granted, he was only in his early twenties himself, but few men in rock could write lines like “Believe in the magic of a young girl’s soul, believe in the magic of rock ’n’ roll” without coming off as unattractively cynical or disgracefully lecherous. Coming from Sebastian, such sentiments seem neither. It is instead utterly disarming.
Musically, Do You Believe in Magic shows Sebastian’s magpie tendencies. He adapted the intro chord sequence from Martha and the Vandellas’ Heatwave, with Sebastian explaining that, since that song’s intro was so exciting, taking the chords and changing them twice was quickly would make it twice as exciting.** It worked, and illustrates what the Lovin’ Spoonful were at their best. Hugely versatile for such young players, they took elements from the folk revival, blues, country, jug band music, Motown and the British Invasion beat groups, and melded it all together. They had an ability to play any of those genres (except perhaps Motown-style pop-soul), basically straight, or – as with Do You Believe in Magic – blend them together, while always sounding like themselves.
For me, they tended to work least well while playing straight rock music. Steve Boone and Joe Butler were a more-than-competent rhythm section, able to turn their hand to pretty much any style of music, but aggression didn’t come naturally to the band – just on a temperamental level, and none of them had a voice that suited heavier material. Consequently, On the Road Again sounds pretty unconvincing compared to the Beatles’ rock ‘n’ roll material, or Creedence a year or so later.
But, that said, they could do a creditable cover of a folk-blues warhorse like Sportin’ Life. Sebastian was an adept blues harmonica player, who’d learned from the very best – his father, also called John Sebastian, played classical harmonica and the younger John Sebastian learned to play blues harp by sitting in with Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry in Greenwich Village. By the time he wailed all over Fred Neil’s Bleecker and MacDougal in 1965, he was already a practised veteran at the age of 21. He sings it well, too. The band might not have been able to double for Fred Below and Willie Dixon on a Chess side, but they’re not callow young boys either.
As one of the finest white exponents of folk blues, Fred Neil is a key influence on the album, and not just in the group’s choice of covers. The band actually recorded a Neil original, Other Side of this Life, and while Sebastian had a lighter, less authoritative voice than Neil (who doesn’t?), his phrasing and note choices on the bluesier material bears a strong resemblance to Neil’s vocal approach.
As much as Sebastian is key to the Lovin’ Spoonful, though, they were a band – not a frontman and three other guys. Zal Yanovsky is crucial to the arrangements of the folk rock material, his guitar bubbling away joyfully through Do You Believe in Magic and Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind. He and Butler were a very useful pair of harmony singers and occasional lead vocalists, too. And as I say, the rhythm section were able to move from one style to another seamlessly and allowed Sebastian the freedom to write in whatever idiom he chose.
A brief glance at Do You Believe in Magic’s tracklisting suggests it’s – Do You Believe in Magic, Younger Girl and Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind apart – a warm-up for bigger and better things to come. It’s actually a hugely likeable record in its own right, far stronger than any debut album of white kids playing Jimmy Reed and Brownie McGhee songs should ever be. It’ll surprise you.
*In a recent interview with Richie Unterberger, bassist Steve Boone had this to say about their treatment by label Kama Sutra: “So we were a) worked to death and never had the chance to really breathe deep and spend time on the cuts, and b) the label and the way they got records on the air had nothing to do with somebody sitting back and putting on FM 101.7 and smoking a joint and listening to eleven, twelve, ten cuts, maybe with some kind of a sequential order to them. That was so alien to them that I don’t think they could even handle it if they were asked to experience music that way. All they could think was wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Get it on the air, get it in the top of the charts, get it off the air, and get the next one up there.”
**Sebastian’s public good humour and commitment to good-time music can make him seem a bit of a bumpkin, which I suspect is a knowingly created facade. Nonetheless, some have taken him at face value. Witness this Robert Christgau review: “So what happened to John Sebastian, anyway? […] Figure the reason no one was better at translating the flowery optimism of the middle ’60s into folk-flavored pop song–“Do You Believe in Magic,” “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” “Daydream,” “Summer in the City,” “Rain on the Roof,” just look at those titles–was as much spirit as talent. Figure he was so eager, so well-meaning, so fun-loving, so warmhearted, such a simpleton, that when the times demanded cynicism this John–unlike natural-born reprobate Phillips or designated reality principle Lennon–didn’t have it in him.”