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25 August 2021

Charlie Watts was the quietest, and coolest, of the Rolling Stones

The late drummer almost never lost his temper; his humour was spare and dry; and he always dressed like a gentleman

By Bob Stanley

Here is my favourite Charlie Watts story, possibly apocryphal. In the freezing cold winter of 1962-63, both Watts and the bassist Bill Wyman joined the Rolling Stones. The three senior members – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones – thought it would be a good idea if the pair went out for an evening to make sure there was chemistry in their new rhythm section. Watts suggested a Chinese restaurant; Wyman said he had never eaten Chinese food before. When they sat down to eat their chicken and sweetcorn soup starter, Wyman picked up his fluted ceramic spoon as he usually would. Watts whispered, “Oh no, don’t drink it like that,” and told Wyman that the Chinese way was to put the soup on the spoon, then pour it down the fluted handle and into your mouth. “Thanks,” laughed Wyman, “I nearly made a right fool of myself.” Even before starting their meal, Watts had coolly got the measure of his new bandmate.

Over the years, the Rolling Stones drummer, who died at the age of 80 on 24 August, may well have gently taken the rise out of Jagger, Jones and Richards – each with egos big enough to think that the Stones was their band – without them even noticing. Drumming for the Stones was not his dream job, so he could detach himself. He could do things to amuse himself.

Watts was a modernist. He had worked as a designer for a London ad agency immediately before joining the Stones full time. His sharp aesthetic would always remain; over the years, he collected the drum kits of his heroes, first editions of PG Wodehouse and Graham Greene, and apparently bought sports cars not because he pined to appear on Top Gear but because he liked the interiors.

Cool is an overused word, but it suited Charlie Watts to a tee – he loved cool jazz; he almost never lost his temper; his humour was spare and dry; and he always dressed like a gentleman. He was no jazz snob either, and didn’t see the Stones’s work as inferior to that of his heroes, such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. He even, quietly, worked on set design for the band’s tours. Most visibly, his fame allowed him to buy as many Savile Row suits as he liked. Along with John Entwistle, he was the snappiest dresser of British rock’s first wave.

I love the idea that, although he was ever-present in the self-proclaimed greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, Watts wasn’t rockist in any way. The rock world didn’t particularly interest him. He was upset by Jagger’s butterfly stunt at the Hyde Park show in 1969, when thousands of (mostly dead) butterflies were released to commemorate the death of Brian Jones – Watts described the stage as “like the Somme”. When the Stones played Glastonbury eight years ago, Watts bluntly told the Guardian, “I don’t want to do it. Everyone else does. I don’t like playing outdoors and I certainly don’t like festivals.” It’s safe to say he would never have called it “Glasto”.

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Talking of the rock world in the same interview, he said, “The thing I find difficult is that 50 per cent of it is image.” Still, he took great pride in his work and so, early in his Stones career, he listened to Buddy Holly when Richards recommended he should, and learned to play around the melody at Jagger’s suggestion. He may have lived everyone else’s dream, not his own, but fame allowed him to have his own big band and small group jazz outfits as a side line, as well as to have books of his drawings published. Jagger and Richards appreciated that talent: his illustrations appeared on several early Stones records, most notably on the back of 1967’s Between the Buttons.

His style of drumming, like a true disciple of Le Corbusier, had no ornamentation. Originally, he had been smitten by the direct force and power of the saxophonist Earl Bostic, a pivotal figure who sat midway between R&B and jazz, but it was hearing Chico Hamilton play with Gerry Mulligan that persuaded him to become a drummer instead. His playing style drew on unflashy jazz drummers, ones who drove the music without you really noticing; apart from Hamilton, his drumming inspirations were Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Kenny Clarke.

What I love about Watts’s drumming was that he played exactly what was needed. “I don’t like drum solos,” he once said. “I admire some people that do them, but generally I prefer drummers playing with the band.” On a rare Stones ballad, such as “Ruby Tuesday”, his drum rolls on the chorus provided the grit in the oyster, countering and emphasising the prettiness of the cello and recorder on the verse. On “Get Off of My Cloud”, his relentless snare rolls mirrored the repetition and headbanging frustration of Jagger’s lyric. He leant their disco hits “Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue” an impeccable, irresistible laid-back propulsion.

In rock ’n’ roll, maybe the Crickets’s Jerry Allison was his closest musical ally. In stage presence, he shared the nonchalance of the British jazz drummer Phil Seamen. And as the “quiet Stone”, you could also draw a parallel between him and George Harrison. But where Harrison would fall out of love with being a Beatle, confused, almost seeming ungrateful for the position he had been given, Watts enjoyed the ride. He was always quick to describe himself as lucky. “Maybe it’s just an inferiority complex I’ve got,” he said in the 1966 film Charlie is My Darling. “Or maybe I am great after all.”

[See also: How I learned to love the Rolling Stones]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future