Ode to a High Flying Stone, Part I: Charlie Watts Makes the Songs

Looking back at the legendary Rolling Stones drummer’s finest moments on wax

Charlie Watts Ya-Ya’s Variant 1 (Art: Ron Hart)

Charlie Watts created the most unique and immediately recognizable rock drum performances ever.

Yes, John Bonham’s thunderous groove was unparalleled and so central in driving Led Zeppelin’s heaviosity that the band simply couldn’t continue without him. Keith Moon’s frenzied brilliance similarly defined not only The Who’s explosiveness but became the archetype of the monster rock drummer, carried on by Animal the Muppet. The band simply couldn’t continue without him either, but have been attempting to ever since. Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, Dave Grohl, Stewart Copeland, Neil Peart, John Valley – all these and more are equally integral to the sound of seminal rock bands. 

But what puts Charlie Watts in a league of his own is not just his FIFTY-EIGHT-year career as the “the engine of the Rolling Stones” (Keith Richards), its “immaculate beating heart” (Roger Taylor), “the ultimate drummer” (Elton John), “a smooth brother” (Nile Rodgers), a “master of elegant simplicity” (Liz Phair). It’s also the absolutely unique way his playing swings – and yet is punctuated by the oddest of accents, notes that just wouldn’t work if anyone else tried them. 

In Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters, Mike Edison’s excellent explication of this masterful combination, the author writes: 

For now, let’s just be happy that the Rolling Stones were smart enough to hire a jazz cat who would always put the roll in front of the rock, a guy who didn’t measure his worth by how many notes he played, whose ego was tempered by the primacy of his job: to put the song over, to make the band sound great. While others battled their drums, Charlie finessed his. He knew when to swing, he knew when to stomp. Charlie didn’t play drum solos, not because he wasn’t good enough to play them, but because he was good enough not to have to.

I set out to write a piece featuring 10 of Charlie’s most unique performances, but after going back and listening to every song the Stones recorded in the studio I was compelled to start at the beginning and pick out a unique one from each LP. Thus, here is part 1, covering 1964’s The Rolling Stones through 1971’s Sticky Fingers.

 

“Mona (I Need You Baby)”, The Rolling Stones

Recorded January 3, 1964

AUDIO: The Rolling Stones “Mona (I Need You Baby)”

One of the first 3 songs the Stones recorded for their debut LP (they’d released their first single, “Come On” (Chuck Berry) / “I Want to Be Loved” (Willie Dixon) 6 months earlier, hated the A side and refused to play it live, despite manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s pleas), “Mona (I Need You Baby)” is a Bo Diddley cover. Their first two singles and all but 3 tracks on The Rolling Stones are covers. In fact, at the beginning the idea of writing their own songs was a revelation: 

“[Andrew Loog Oldham] locked us in a room about the size of a kitchen and said, ‘You’ve got a day off. I want to hear a song when you come out.’ ‘Who does he think he is? He’s got to be joking,’ Mick and I said. But in his own way Andrew was right. We walked out of there with a couple of songs.” ― Keith Richards

The song is centered on the classic “Bo Diddley beat”, a hypnotic 5-note syncopation that has its roots in African religious chants and is perhaps best known from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” (which the Stones covered for a single in February 1964).  

The reason this is a significant Charlie Watts performance is that it’s the epitome of his economy* as an artist: playing for the song by only playing what is necessary. Pounding out the Bo Diddley on a single tom tom is the perfect counterpoint to the equally mesmerizing tremolo effect on the guitar. Mick keeps up steady 8th notes on the maracas (with an occasional flourish), and rounding out the percussion are hand claps on the last two notes of the rhythm and a single tambourine hit on the penultimate. 

* RnRGlobe editor Ron Hart, in his beautiful ode to Charlie quotes Stones bass player Bill Wyman making this point in a unique way: “Drummers today have about 50 or 60 items. He’s got about seven. He’s an economist.”

“If You Need Me”, Five By Five EP

Recorded June 11, 1964 

AUDIO: The Rolling Stones “If You Need Me”

According to Bill Wyman, the Stones’ first U.S. tour, in June 1964, was a disaster: “When we arrived, we didn’t have a hit record [there] or anything going for us.” However, the band got the opportunity to record at Chess Studios in Chicago, the site of many legendary recordings that had inspired them to play music – including Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, whose records under Mick Jagger’s arm led to his meeting Keith Richards on a train platform in Dartford, Kent. The sessions gave them the opportunity to meet several of their idols, including Waters and Berry. In fact, Chuck Berry is reported to have encouraged the band, saying, “Swing on, gentlemen, you are sounding most well, if I may say so.” 

And swing they do on this cover written by Wilson Pickett (who sent his demo to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records only to find that the latter promptly gave the song to Solomon Burke to record). The foundation is Charlie putting the roll into the rock with his sped-up blues beat, and Ian Stewart layers in soulful organ on a Hammond B-3. Notable, too, is the significant improvement in recording quality – a far cry from the cramped Regent Sound Studios in London, which Andrew Loog Oldham chose to fit their budget and about which Keith quipped, “It was easy to make that kind of sound but hard to make a much better one.” 

 

“Under My Thumb”, Aftermath

Recorded March 6-9, 1966

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “Under My Thumb”

Aftermath is the Stones’ first album of all original songs, which Mick cited as “a big landmark”. Other than “Doncha Bother Me” and “It’s Not Easy”, which are derivative of Chicago blues and Chuck Berry, respectively, it’s also a major departure in the band’s sound – the first foray into developing the style that would become iconic and produce perhaps the greatest string of classic LPs by any rock artist. 

Aftermath also in certain ways represents “the Brian Jones sound”, as his influence was huge – despite not writing any of the songs. The album’s styles run from rock to blues and R&B to country, classical and even Baroque, and some of this came from the variety of instruments Brian played on it: slide and 12-string guitar, harmonica, dulcimer, harpsichord, bells―and on this track the marimba that gives it such a unique tonal quality.

“Under My Thumb” is a classic Charlie Watts performance that is a sign of the rhythmic experimentation and influence the Rolling Stones would soon be identified by the world over. From the solo snare that Charlie opens the song with on a 2, 3, 4 (which foreshadows the driving snare in the chorus) to the first ghost note before his hi-hat cymbal kicks in, it’s clear that we’re experiencing a new era of the Stones and Mr. Watts is going to take them all to a new level. The syncopation of Brian’s marimba and Charlie’s ghost notes on the snare (the very light hits right after a hi-hat, creating 16th notes from what are otherwise hi-hat 8th notes the rhythm rides on). 

He also plays a simple fill throughout the song at the end of lines, four 8th notes on snare then tom tom (which is beautifully tuned, despite Charlie saying in an interview he never tuned his drums). And then he drops out completely for the guitar lead, coming back in with that same fill for the “under my thumb” refrain. 

Another wonderful aspect to this track is Mick’s syncopated vocal ad lib during the outro. Mick’s musical genius is right up there with Keith’s and Charlie’s; it’s obviously the interplay between the three that makes the Stones what they are. Not to deny Ronnie Wood’s talents and especially his ever-present energy and infectious enthusiasm for the band, nor the brilliant bass playing by Bill Wyman for 31 years, but the Glimmer Twins and their “engine” are the tripod foundation of the band around which weave myriad other brilliant musicians, from Mick Taylor, whose lead guitar was integral to their early-70s sound, to pianists Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston and Ian McLagan, to Merry Clayton, whose backing and co-lead vocals on “Gimme Shelter” are one of the single greatest enhancements to a legendary song ever. (Check her out on Queen Latifa, telling the story about getting a call in the middle of the night to come down to the studio and record the lyric, “Rape, murder / It’s just a shot away”.) 

 

“My Obsession”, Between the Buttons

Recorded August 3-11, 1966

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “My Obsession”

“I was invited to the Rolling Stones’ studio the night they mixed down “My Obsession”. I almost passed out with excitement. It was the most unbelievably groove of a record I’ve ever heard in my life.” ― Brian Wilson “On the Record” for Rhapsody

Wilson also said of the experience: “I felt as if the Stones had knocked me on my ass. I just didn’t see how the Beach Boys were going to compete.” Compete they did, though, via Wilson’s soon-to-follow masterpiece, “Good Vibrations.”

What’s at the core of the groove that blew Brian Wilson away? The simplest beat Charlie ever recorded, repeated over and over for three minutes sixteen seconds – with several pauses to increase the drama of the solo beat starting up again. It’s this simplicity that provides the foundation for Keith’s fuzz guitar, Ian Stewart’s eery piano and haunting vocals by Mick and Keith. 

Between the Buttons got another contribution from Charlie, the back cover comic he drew, as well as the album title, a result of misunderstanding Oldham’s remark that the album title wasn’t yet decided. The Stones tapped Charlie for input on early album covers, as they’d lured him away from his job as a graphic designer for an advertising agency. He’d also written and illustrated a book in 1960, Ode to a High Flying Bird, a tribute to jazz great Charlie Parker.

 

“Street Fighting Man”, Beggar’s Banquet

Recorded March – May, 1968

 

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man”

Beggar’s Banquet begins one of the most impactful series of LPs in rock history and marks a major departure for the Stones – into the iconic band, sound and era they are most identified with. 

Along with “Sympathy for the Devil”, the LPs lead track,  “Street Fighting Man” is both iconic and a reflection of the annus horribilis that was 1968: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June, riots and unrest in more than 120 American cities – a larger number than any other year in history – spurred by division over the war in Vietnam. 

For a such an era-defining rock anthem, it’s interesting that the only electronic instrument is the bass (played by Keith, as Bill Wyman wasn’t around at the time). The initial track was recorded in a studio but on Keith’s portable tape recorder, which he’d realized acted like an electric guitar pickup if he played acoustic loudly enough to naturally distort. Charlie plays what is essentially a toy kit – a London Jazz Kit – which consisted of two small drums like tambourines and a small hi-hat, all of which folded up into a suitcase for easy transportation. Later, Charlie overdubbed a kick drum and snare, and Dave Mason (guitarist from Traffic) also added a bass drum. 

Layers of acoustic guitar, sitar, tambura, shenai, maracas and piano create a sound that is completely unique. In the musicians’ own words: 

“Charlie stuck with me on this track. I’m the rhythm player. I’m not a virtuoso soloist or anything like that. To work together with the drummer, that’s my joy. This record, to me, is one of the examples of what can happen when two cats believe in each other.” ― Keith Richards

“’Street Fighting Man’ is a funny song to play onstage in an era when you don’t fight in the street anymore. To play the song is fantastic, but the lyrics are very much about the events of 1968 in Paris, which is when Mick wrote it. It was political: not that it was going to change the world, but it was extremely influenced by what was going on; a very strong song about what was happening at the time.” ― Charlie Watts

“One of my favorite Stones songs is ‘Street Fighting Man.’ Mick and Keith were writing good songs then. They still are, but they were working a lot closer together then because they were a lot hungrier to still achieve things, which you are when you’re young.” ― Mick Taylor

 

“Monkey Man”, Let It Bleed

Recorded June – July 1969

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” featured in Goodfellas

Their eighth UK LP, Let It Bleed was the last Stones record of the 60s, as well as the last with Brian Jones, who only plays on two songs. It includes the classic tunes “Gimme Shelter”, “Let It Bleed”, “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, along with the ripping “Live With Me”, the Robert Johnson cover, “Love In Vain”, Keith’s acoustic “You Got the Silver” and “Country Honk”. 

Charlie’s performance and drum sound on “Monkey Man” is simply stellar – as good as on any Stones song. After a haunting intro of piano, bass, vibraphone (played by Bill), tambourine and guitar feedback resolving into classic Keith riffs in the right channel, Charlie rolls in with a simple tom to snare fill and then proceeds to lay down a perfectly funky groove that features a kick drum as fat as John Bonham and ringing snare cracks graced by syncopated ghost notes. Throughout the song he switches to the ride cymbal for two measures, letting it ring on 2 and 4 (with each snare) – which creates the swing – and in the guitar interlude and lead he offers mostly simple two-note tom tom accents, interspersed with a few half-measure 8th notes on the snare. 

That section ends with Charlie pausing as Mick shouts, “I’m a monkey!” Then he rolls into a kick and hi-hat accent/pause, adds two notes that drop in like a ball bouncing, and then builds back into the beat with two measures of stripped down kick – snare/hi-hat accents. Only in the last 25 seconds of outro are there slightly more busy (for Charlie) fills. 

A classic 4 minutes and 11 seconds of rock and roll – and an excellent choice by Martin Scorsese for inclusion in the soundtrack of his gangster classic, Goodfellas. Here’s a cool live version where the camera stays on Charlie the whole song. Notice the power as he leans into the snare and tom fills. Oh, what I would pay for whole concert films of this kind of access to his prowess. 

 

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, Sticky Fingers

Recorded May, June, July 1970

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones perform “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” live at Madison Square Garden 2003

The Stones kicked off the 70s in rare form, with their new lead guitarist (the inimitable Mick Taylor), their own record label (after realizing that someone else owned all the masters to their previous recordings) and an album cover designed by Andy Warhol. It was also the debut of the mouth and tongue logo that has been their trademark icon ever since. 

And what a fucking brilliant record it is. From the opening riff of “Brown Sugar” (written by Mick and perfected by Keith: “I’m the riff master. The only one I missed and that Mick Jagger got was ‘Brown Sugar’, and I’ll tip my hat there. There he got me. I did tidy it up a bit, but that was his, words and music.”) to the circular time-destroying groove of “Sway” to the acoustic loveliness of “Wild Horses” to the fuzz knock swagger of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” to the acoustic blues of “You Gotta Move”. And that is only side A. 

Side B kicks off with the “hard bitten rocker”, “Bitch”, slows down for another slow blues number (“I Got the Blues”), rolls on with the haunting slide guitar-laden “Sister Morphine”, picks up for the sardonic country of  “Dead Flowers” and closes with Mick’s highly personal ballad about life on the road, “Moonlight Mile”. 

While it’s been hard to limit this story to one song per album, with Sticky Fingers it becomes impossible. Nevertheless, in the interest of space I’ll force myself to pick just two. 

“‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ came out flying – I just found the tuning and the riff and started to swing it and Charlie picked up on it just like that, and we’re thinking, ‘hey, this is some groove’. So it was smiles all around.” – Keith Richards

One can hear the swing inherent in the main guitar riff and background guitar accents, and Charlie just takes it all to another level with 16th notes on the hi-hat and double snare accents in the verse (interlaced with crushed ghost notes), which are totally locked in with Wyman’s bass line. Then he adds the two 16th-note accents in the chorus, mimicking a knocking sound. The bridge expands on the song’s energy, with Charlie first hitting the snare on every beat for two measures but then switching to the ride cymbal and the beat from the verse. 

And it gets even better, as the song is really two for the price of one. Originally intended to be a 2:43 song, the impromptu jam was captured on tape and the band knew how special it was, particularly with the spectacular Carlos Santana-inspired guitar lead by Mick Taylor and Bobby Keys’ classic saxophone performance. With Rocky Dijon’s congas laying a foundation, Charlie layers in a counterpoint rhythm on the ride, including accents on the bell, and starting in the song’s 6th minute adds in rolls around the toms for extra flourish. At 6:00 there’s a segment of tom/crash accents aligned with the sax, and then the song ends with a build up and final crash cymbal. Listening to this song never gets old, as one picks up new things each time (e.g., listen closely at 0:06 and you hear someone yelling, “yeah!”). 

 

“Sway”, Sticky Fingers

Recorded October 21 – November 1970

AUDIO: The Rolling Stones “Sway”

Musician, rock explicator and superfan Rick Beato has a line he often delivers in his inimitable charming way when sharing a particularly awesome part of a song (accompanied by his wide-eyed stare): “Who does that?” If you’re not already a fan of Rick’s “What Makes This Song Great” series, start with episode #73 on “Angie”, and be sure to watch his heartfelt personal reflections on the day of Charlie’s passing; he plays “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” first.

“Who does that?” is a good question to apply to a lot of Charlie’s work (answer: only Mr. Watts), and it particularly applies to the opening fills on “Sway.” Deceptively simple, the second one (after the 4 accents counting off the song) is so unusual – both where it’s positioned at the end of the line just before the vocals, as well as where he puts the accents. Many an excellent drummer would be hard pressed to play it correctly, and it’s doubtful that any would have quite the feel Charlie brings to it. 

“Sway” is also unique in that Charlie adds a fill after every single line (except in the first chorus, which is curious; my guess is he felt that the song needed to establish the chorus once without fills), and while they’re all quarter and 8th notes – mostly triplets – there’s also far more variety than in any other Stones song. Perhaps he allowed himself the indulgence of improvisation he so admired in jazz. Or perhaps it’s his percussive interpretation of “flinging tears out on the dusty ground”. 

In fact, the bridge is almost all fills, aside from the snare accents accompanying “there must be ways”; they  return to bring the song back in from the first guitar lead, this time to Jagger’s “hey, hey, hey now!” From that point on, Charlie stays on the ride cymbal, and we’re treated to a rhythmic and sonic feast. 

And it’s fitting that “Sway” is such a unique drum performance, as Charlie clearly identified with the song’s message: 

“I don’t actually like touring, and I don’t like living out of suitcases. I hate being away from home. I always do tours thinking they’re the last one and at the end of them, I always leave the band. Because of what I do I can’t play the drums at home, so to play the drums I have to go on the road, and to go on the road I have to leave home and it’s like a terribly vicious circle. And it’s always been my life.”

 

Thank you, Mr. Watts, for blessing us by allowing drumming and the road to be your life. We are all richer for it, and there will never be another high flying bird quite like you.

 

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John Packel

John Packel is a fintech entrepreneur who has also played drums for various bands, including The Lilacs, Circles, Driving Kim Crazy and The Bloomingfields.

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