By any standards, Charlie Watts was an unlikely candidate for rock stardom.
He was quiet, drily funny and unfailingly modest, characteristics theoretically better suited to his initial profession as a graphic designer than the scream-rent world of 60s pop. Furthermore, by his own admission, he didn’t particularly care for rock’n’roll (“I didn’t know anything about it … I used to hate Elvis Presley. Miles Davis – that’s what I considered someone,” he told an interviewer in 1993) and had initially had to have the rhythm and blues so beloved of his bandmates explained to him: “I didn’t know what it was. I thought it meant Charlie Parker, played slow”.
At first, at least, the other Rolling Stones wondered if Watts was even capable of playing the music they wanted to play, rather than his beloved jazz. “Charlie swings very nicely, but can’t rock,” wrote a frustrated Keith Richards in a 1963 diary entry. “Fabulous guy, though.”
As it turned out, Richards couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing if not a quick student, Watts not only learned to rock, but came to be hailed as one of the greatest drummers in rock history – sometimes the greatest of all – although he certainly occupied a unique place within that particular pantheon.
He was not a flamboyant, risk-taking showman in the manner of the Who’s Keith Moon, nor an exponent of pummelling raw power along the lines of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, nor an expert in tricky time signatures like Rush’s Neal Peart. He certainly didn’t go in for the kind of elaborate equipment – gongs and double bass drums – that rock drummers frequently use to draw attention to themselves at the rear of the stage, preferring to stick with a 1957 kit that was tiny by modern standards.
There were moments when Watts’ drumming could be showy – as on his thunderous performance on 1966’s Paint It Black – but usually, Watts majored in less obvious skills: perfect timing, a swing to his playing rooted in the hours he’d spent drumming along to jazz records in his bedroom in the late 50s, a particular brilliance with shuffle patterns, an ability to provide a rock-solid footing regardless of whether they were venturing into psychedelia, disco, reggae or funk.
Occasionally, his bandmates deemed it necessary to remind the world how great he was. “Charlie’s good tonight, innee?” offered Mick Jagger, after a performance of Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie on the 1970 live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, while both Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood suggested the Rolling Stones simply couldn’t continue without him, a theory that’s presumably now going to be tested: “Charlie’s the engine,” said Wood in 2003. “And we don’t go anywhere without the engine.”
With the Rolling Stones in 2002. (L to R) Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, and Keith Richards. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
You could see why his fellow Stones felt the need to laud him. Certainly Watts – given to suggesting he was “not particularly talented” but “very lucky” – wasn’t going to draw attention to himself. But his brilliance as a drummer didn’t really need underlining: it was already apparent to anyone with ears. Listen to his playing on 1968’s Jigsaw Puzzle, which simultaneously drives the song along and punctuates it with a series of apparently effortless drum rolls.
Sometimes, his playing seemed almost counterintuitive, at odds with everything else that was happening in the song. On the dark, waning-of-the-60s masterpiece Gimme Shelter, he offered a masterclass in restraint while Mick Jagger and the backing vocalists wailed about rape and murder: the eye at the centre of the apocalyptic storm.
And sometimes, his playing seemed to show an innate understanding of what the song was about. On Get Off Of My Cloud, he plays exactly the same fill every two bars throughout the song’s verses: there’s something relentless about it, which fits perfectly given Get Off Of My Cloud is about frustrated anger.
1983’s Undercover of the Night, meanwhile, is laden with then-hip studio effects, in one of the latterday Stones’ regular bids for contemporaneity, but Watts’s playing cuts through it all. There was something very telling about that. Since the early 80s, the Rolling Stones’ increasingly sporadic new albums have been desperately uneven, their recording frequently riven by personality clashes and furious disputes about which musical direction the band should take. The one thing about them that no one ever seemed to criticise was Watts’s drumming: he seemed to remain completely unflappable, musically reliable when his bandmates were anything but.
His reticence also worked in his favour. Married since 1964, he seemed largely uninterested in the kinds of excesses that his fellow Stones tended to revel in, whether chemical or sexual.
One famous story from the early 70s involved the band being invited to party at the Playboy Mansion: Watts slipped away and sequestered himself in the games room for the entire night. You can gauge the rest of the band’s sense of shock when he did, briefly, succumb to drug addiction in the early 80s from the fact that Keith Richards – of all people – felt impelled to intervene and tell Watts to stop it.
The most legendary story about Watts – the possibly apocryphal one about him losing his temper when Mick Jagger referred to him as “my drummer”, punching him in the face and telling him he was, in fact, Watts’s singer – is legendary because it seemed so utterly out of character.
Eventually, his reticence became something of what would now be called a brand, his unruffled, beautifully tailored calmness and detachment as characteristic in its own way as Richards’ dissolution.
In the 80s and 90s, as the Rolling Stones’ tours became ever-more extravagant son-et-lumière displays involving pyrotechnics, huge inflatables and cantilevered bridges, the vast screens at the side of the stage would occasionally focus on Watts.
Almost invariably stone-faced as he played, he seemed to give off an ineffable air of slightly aloof bemusement, as if he thought it was all completely ridiculous and might have been more content pursuing his love of jazz, something he confined to downtime between grossing hundreds of millions in the world’s arenas and stadiums.
It made for a perfect contrast with Mick Jagger’s showboating, even if the truth was that Watts clearly didn’t find it that ridiculous, given that he was always heavily involved with the stage and production design for the Stones’ tours. Perhaps he was a more complicated man than his low-key public image suggested. Either way, it’s hard to see how the Rolling Stones will ever be the same without him.