Until today, the last time a member – or former member – of The Rolling Stones passed away was well over 30 years ago. He was Ian Stewart, who’d been the casualty of Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham’s brainwave to package the Stones as the ‘Anti-Beatles’; a six-piece was too close to a jazz ensemble, whereas five worked on the pop scene (as Dave Clark had already proven). And if anyone clearly couldn’t be moulded into the image Oldham had in mind, it was the tall, burly Stewart. It helped that a permanent keyboard player was deemed a superfluous luxury; besides, it was quickly evident the band’s sound didn’t need augmenting on stage, for the volume of screaming that began to greet each performance once the Stones progressed from R&B club to provincial theatre drowned the sound out anyway. However, Ian Stewart was no Pete Best; he was shifted sideways to road manager and remained a permanent member of the band’s entourage up until his death. I recall his passing provoked one of the all-time great so-tasteless-it’s-brilliant headlines in Melody Maker, ‘Key Stone Cops It’.
Behind the scenes, Ian Stewart was an important figure; but as far as the public were concerned, he was a footnote in the Stones story. Not so Charlie Watts, whose death at the age of 80 has been announced. Watts was the urbane jazzman who somehow found himself the drummer in the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band when his detached demeanour often implied he’d have been happier playing before a few hundred punters at Ronnie Scott’s rather than thousands in some vast arena. If Mick Jagger is the celebrity salesman for the band and Keith Richards is the keeper of the musical flame, Charlie Watts has always been the solid rock outside of the spotlight, the Stones’ equivalent of the old Arsenal back four.
In the middle of the 1970s, when the band was beginning to make serious money for the first time thanks to the growth of stadium rock and astronomical album sales, they were actually on the brink of collapse. Mick Taylor, replacement for Brian Jones, had quit; Jagger had joined the coke-snorting jet-set with Bianca; Keith was sleepwalking his way through the day doped-up to the eyeballs; and Ronnie Wood had yet to become a permanent member, still being best known as Rod Stewart’s sidekick. The band’s public image as decadent tax-exiles provided the best excuse for the arrival of Punk Rock, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, the drum ‘n’ bass team keeping the train on the tracks, chances are the Stones would’ve been derailed for good around this time. The two of them were that important.
Bill Wyman earned his eventual notoriety during another fallow period in the 80s and finally departed the band in the early 90s, whereas dependable Charlie Watts was always there whenever the remaining members reconvened for a tour or album. As the decades flew by and the Stones adapted to their advancing years by fleshing out the sound on the road with additional musicians, Charlie Watts’ reserved parking space behind the drum-kit was as vital to the band’s composition as Jagger’s breathless gymnastics and Keith riffing away with a fag hanging out of his mouth. It may have taken his impressive staying power for his long-term contribution to the band to be belatedly recognised, but Charlie keeping time at the back, just as he always had, was as necessary a part of what made the Stones work as any of the more celebrated factors. But then, a man who was married to the same woman from 1964 until his death was evidently in possession of something special his bandmates lacked.
The manner in which hit records were recorded in the early 60s often relegated the rhythm section to a place so low in the mix that they seemed to emphasise the hierarchy within a musical unit. Improvements in the recording process and the high profile afforded the likes of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker both on record and on stage dramatically changed all that by the end of the decade, yet Charlie Watts – not unlike Ringo Starr – remained defiantly un-showy; one could never imagine Charlie indulging in a ten-minute drum solo, for example. He knew what his job was and he did it. Only when listening closely to the classic run of Stones singles and albums from the mid-60s to the early 70s can one really discern just how quietly inventive a drummer Charlie Watts really was. Following the lead of their genre-crossing rivals from Liverpool, the Stones flirted with a wide range of sounds and styles during this invigorating period; the eclectic musical gifts of Brian Jones helped expand the band’s horizons, presenting Charlie Watts with constant challenges in finding the right rhythm; but he always managed it.
Watts and Wyman appeared content to concentrate on the music and let their more extrovert bandmates dominate the spotlight for the first 20 years of the Stones; but whereas Wyman finally made his way onto the front pages in a way that didn’t necessarily reflect very well on the bass-player, Charlie continued to shy away from the gossip columns. Even when he unexpectedly developed a serious drug habit in the 80s, he didn’t do so in the tabloid glare, keeping it within the family and successfully getting through what he himself referred to as his midlife crisis. He certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the rock star that Keith Richards had copyrighted as a public image – even if Keith eventually allowed his considerable erudite side to become more well-known; instead, Charlie Watts’ laconic, self-deprecating humour helped keep the band as grounded as it was possible for such an institution to be. Rock scribes might still like to experience a vicarious thrill telling tales about the on-the-road excesses of old, but without Charlie heading up the rear, the whole circus could easily have disintegrated into an almighty mess.
Like many of those belonging to the generation of Brits whose creativity shaped the 60s, Charlie Watts was from a working-class background (son of a lorry driver) and benefitted from the-then educational system by progressing to art school; his post-college career as a graphic designer ran parallel with his sideline drumming for jazz and blues combos, though even after joining the embryonic Rolling Stones as their permanent drummer at the beginning of 1963, he continued to dabble in art. His cartoons could be seen on the back cover of the 1967 Stones LP, ‘Between the Buttons’, and he later helped design many of the band’s stage sets. He also stayed loyal to jazz and blues, regularly playing with musicians specialising in such sounds whenever the Stones took one of their extended sabbaticals. These sabbaticals have become ever more extended in recent years and Charlie even had to admit he wasn’t physically capable of fulfilling another touring schedule pencilled-in for the back end of this year and had pulled out. His health had previously been a concern in the mid-2000s when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he went into remission and the band resumed business once he was well again.
A uniquely sharp dresser even when other members of the Stones were succumbing to some of the worst sartorial crimes of the 80s, Charlie Watts’ distinctive visual style remained rooted in the sharp-suited jazz era that was always his first love, and his wry detachment from the tiresome mythologizing that goes hand-in-hand with the heritage rock industry was always a breath of fresh air. In the best British tradition, he never took himself too seriously; but when it came to his profession he was, in the words of a friend on Facebook tonight, ‘a pro’. Damn right he was.
© The Editor