When I was a kid in New Jersey, if you were looking for work, there’d be ads for musicians. In the mid-60s and 70s, they would invariably say: “Wanted: Charlie Watts type drummer” — Max Weinberg
Since Charlie Watts passed away last month, tribute upon tribute has poured in to celebrate his style, his austere simplicity, his role as the calm, steady eye of the Rolling Stones’ roiling storm. “Drumming is often ugly,” Amanda Petrusich wrote at The New Yorker, “but Watts looked so beautiful when he played … His posture alone suggested a preternatural elegance … there is always poetry in restraint.”
This is the way Watts’ playing looks to non-musicians, and most Rolling Stones fans are not musicians, and do not listen to rock drumming alone. “It’s possible to find Watts’s isolated drum tracks online,” Petrusich writes, “If you’re into that sort of thing. They’re not always perfect in the technical sense, but they are deeply perfect in other, less quantifiable ways.” Watts himself described his drumming as non-technical and decried his lack of training. It was all about the band, he said repeatedly.
But ask other drummers to quantify Watts’ perfection and they’ll do so happily. Watts taught himself to play by listening to his favorite jazz drummers, writes Max Weinberg, “among them the great English jazz drummer Phil Seamen, and Dave Tough, an American drummer who even looked like Charlie: a fastidious dresser, apparently with the most incredible groove and sound.” Weinberg, who incorporated Watts’ influence on Springsteen songs like “Born to Run,” elaborates further.
One way Watts commanded a room, he says, was as a proponent “of a style of rock drumming popularized by the late, great Al Jackson, the famous Stax drummer, where you deliberately play behind the direct backbeat. The way you do that — which is a little technical — is not by focusing on the two and the four beat, but the one and the three. Another example is James Brown’s music, which is heavily focused on landing on the one. It takes a long time to be able to do that.” He developed the skill as a blues and jazz drummer even before Mick and Keith seduced him to the Stones.
Another drum celebrity admirer, Stewart Copeland, writes about Watts’ unique dynamics. As a rock drummer trained on jazz, he “went for groove, and derived power from relaxation. Most rock drummers are trying to kill something; they’re chopping wood. Jazz drummers instead tend to be very loose to get that jazz feel, and he had that quality.” While Mick strutted and dripped across the stage, Charlie “hardly broke a sweat.” From this, Copeland learned that “you can actually get a better sound out of your drums, and a better groove, if you relax.”
In the classic drum tracks here, listen for some of Watts’ distinctive, subtle moves, and read more about his technique in Copeland and Weinberg’s reminisces here. It’s fair to say that every rock drummer who came after Charlie Watts learned something from Charlie Watts, whether they knew it or not. But while “you can analyze Charlie Watts,” Copeland writes, “that still won’t get you to his feel and his distinct personality. It’s an X-factor, it’s a charisma, it’s an undefinable gift of God.” Petrusich concludes her tribute with a similar expression of non-technical awe: “Watching Watts play is still one of the best ways I know to check in with the riddle and thrill of art — to witness something miraculous but not to understand it.”