A few hours after I posted this week’s Tuesday Tunes offering the news broke of the death of Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer, at the age of 80. I’ve been a fan of the band since their first record, all the way back in 1963, and whilst Charlie had recently undergone surgery this had been announced as being successful, so his passing came as a bit of a shock.
Charlie Watts was born in London on 2 June 1941, and was brought up in north west London, around Wembley, Kingsbury and Harrow. He developed talents for art, music, cricket and football, and subsequently studied at art college, briefly becoming a graphic designer before he joined the Stones in January 1963, making his first public appearance with the band the following month – unpaid, as they couldn’t afford to pay him! Their previous drummer was Mick Avory, who went on to become successful in The Kinks. As well as being recognised as one of the best rock drummers of all time, his artistic talents were also to the fore on many occasions with the band, designing posters and stage sets, as well as having a hand in their album sleeves. In my usual fashion when one of my musical heroes leaves us, I thought I’d share some of the band’s music, most of which is from their 1960s heyday, though there are one each from the 70s and the 80s. The common thread through them all is how much Charlie’s drumming drove the band, and became its heartbeat. Listen to these, and you’ll hear why I wanted to make this tribute.
I’m beginning with the 80s track, as its title is quite appropriate:
You may have noticed that Charlie is wearing a suit in that video. He was renowned for his stylish appearance and had been inducted into Vanity Fair magazine’s International Best Dressed List Hall Of Fame. One anecdote told of the band is that in the mid-1980s, an intoxicated Mick Jagger phoned Charlie’s hotel room in the middle of the night, asking, “Where’s my drummer?” Charlie reportedly got up, shaved, dressed in a suit, put on a tie and freshly shined shoes, descended the stairs, and punched Jagger in the face, saying: “Never call me your drummer again.” He expressed regret for the incident in 2003, attributing his behaviour to alcohol. This song was the lead single for the Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You, and often opened up their live shows. You may recall it being used as the background music for Microsoft’s campaign to launch Windows 95, the first time the band had ever licensed a commercial use for one of their songs.
Now for a run of their Sixties greats, in no particular order, either by preference or chronology. How could I choose between these, anyway? Up for an invitation?
This song was a #3 hit here in the UK, as a double A-side with Ruby Tuesday. In the US it only got to #55, as the prudes over there deemed its lyrics to be too suggestive for the morals of their youth, and it got much less airplay than might otherwise have been expected. Due to the way the US charts at the time gave both tracks a separate listing, Ruby Tuesday reached #1 there, so the plan to prevent these naughty lyrics from getting into too many homes seems to have backfired. On their Ed Sullivan Show appearance on 15 January 1967, the band was initially refused permission to perform the track. Sullivan himself is reported to have even told Jagger, “Either the song goes or you go”. A compromise was reached to substitute the words “let’s spend some time together” in place of “let’s spend the night together”; Jagger agreed to change the lyrics but ostentatiously rolled his eyes at the TV camera while singing them, as did Bill Wyman. As a result of this incident, Sullivan announced that the Rolling Stones would be banned from performing on his show again. However, the Stones did appear again and performed three songs on 23 November 1969. I guess even Ed Sullivan could see the sense in playing to his audience.
You might perhaps say that the Stones enjoyed some Satisfaction at this outcome, having got away with playing this one on Sullivan’s show the previous year:
This one was a #1 in 1965 in both the UK and the US, and in loads of other countries too. It was probably the song which got them marked by parents as being unsuitable for their kids, unlike those nice Beatles!
For a perfect example of how Charlie’s drumming could drive a song, how about this next one?
Note the still immaculate suit and tie – he rarely performed without them in those days. This was also a #1 both sides of the pond, and was released in May 1966. I still think this is one of the best pieces of drumming on a rock song, even after all this time: there is something about that rhythm that is so good.
In similar vein…
Charlie appeared in casual attire for this one, and appears to have got a job lot of polo neck sweaters with Brian Jones. This was released in February 1966 and by their standards it was a huge failure – it only reached #2 in both the US and the UK, though it was #1 in what in those days would have been West Germany. I know that last fact for sure, as that was the team we beat in the World Cup Final later that year.
Another of their run of huge hits in their early days is this one, also from a performance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Charlie almost didn’t make it in time for the start:
This was released in February 1965, and was a UK #1. However, it only reached #9 in the US, though its B-side, the excellent Play With Fire, made it to #96 there. I wonder what the combined sales would have done for the chart position? That always struck me as an odd way of putting the chart together.
This next one was a relative failure in chart terms on its release in September 1966, peaking at #5 in the UK and #9 in the US. I still think it’s great, and Charlie’s drumming is a part of that:
This is the last one from the Sixties that I’m sharing, and in my view I’ve saved the best for last:
Released in May 1968, this was yet another UK #1, though it only got to #3 in the US. This is a new official lyric video, which was released three months ago and will help clear up all those lyrics you haven’t been hearing correctly for the past 53 years. It is one of the band’s most popular and recognisable songs: it has featured in several films and been covered by numerous performers, notably Thelma Houston, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Peter Frampton, Johnny Winter, and Leon Russell. To date, it is the band’s most-performed song: they have played it over 1,100 times in concert. The Aretha Franklin version was recorded for the 1986 movie of the same name, which starred Whoopi Goldberg. It reached #21 on the US singles chart, and #58 in the UK. Much though I respect Aretha her version isn’t a patch on the original – she doesn’t have Mick Jagger’s air of menace!
I’ve also found a video of this song which focuses on Charlie, so at the risk of overload I thought I’d add it in too – you can never have too much of a good thing!
The uploader doesn’t say where and when this was recorded, but I know that Martin Scorsese did a documentary on the Stones in 2008 – Shine A Light – during which he kept a camera on Charlie for this song, so I think this may be an excerpt from that: I haven’t seen the documentary so I can’t be sure. This video does give a very good ‘Charlie’s eye’ view of proceedings, though, and shows his skills to good effect.
I’m closing this little tribute to Charlie with the Seventies song I promised. It was released in April 1971, as the lead single for the band’s Sticky Fingers album – the one with the zip on the album sleeve. Yes, it did work!
This was a US #1, but only got to #2 in the UK, where it spent three weeks behind Dawn’s Knock Three Times. Sometimes I despair of the British record buying public – how could we! But it is nevertheless a great way to close my selections.
Charlie Watts died in a London hospital on 24 August 2021, with his family (wife, daughter and granddaughter) around him. Variety stated on the day of his death that Watts is “universally recognized as one of the greatest rock drummers of all time”. His bandmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards paid tribute to him, as did Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Elton John, calling him “one of the greatest”, “a fantastic drummer” and “the most stylish of men.” We have lost a true great of rock music.