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.