While I’m sure my fellow columnist Tony Hicks is probably writing about this same subject and doing a much better job—we tend to have the same idea pretty often—a titan of music deserves all the tributes he can possibly get. Even after recently losing Shock G, Biz Markie, Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, and Don Everly (among many others), this hits the hardest yet. Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, died the week.
There’s nothing I could say about his life and legacy that hasn’t already been said better, including on this very site by Sam Richards. But I also can’t let it go without acknowledging it and paying tribute. So here are five of my favorite Stones songs with a focus on Watts’ contribution, which actual drummers (Tony included) will probably rip to shreds for missing the point and being overly simplistic. Be gentle, I’m speaking as a fan here and pointing out what speaks to me.
The Rolling Stones — “Paint It Black”
It’s rare that the drums are the featured instrument in a rock song, but in this one it’s clear that the drumming controls the song and is accompanied periodically by Brian Jones’ sitar. There are presumably both electric and acoustic guitars in there, but you have to listen really close to get a hint of them. And it makes for a far better end result.
The most impressive part is how truly hard it is to make the drumming work as the song’s focus. If it’s too precise it gets boring; like basing a song around a metronome. If it’s too chaotic and too full of flourishes it becomes more solo than foundation. But Watts strikes that balance perfectly and makes it work.
The Rolling Stones — “Get Off Of My Cloud”
This one is rightfully known for the guitar riff and the vocal hook in the chorus, but rather than the standard steady beat, there’s a very memorable drum hook on the verses. Watts slides into the background in the chorus, but during the verses there’s basically a guitar riff on a drum kit repeating and almost drowning out the guitar itself, which gets its time to shine after the chorus and before Watts takes the spotlight again.
What makes it especially impressive to me is that it starts off with the archetypal early ’60s drumming before turning into something totally different and unique—to the point you don’t even hear anything like it now.
The Rolling Stones — “She’s a Rainbow”
I’m not here to defend Their Satanic Majesties Request. The Stones are not the Beatles and trying to be the Beatles was a terrible idea that someone should have stopped early. This was its high point and it only came into prominence when it was featured in modern TV commercials, which is an additional indictment of it more than anything since modern TV commercials aspire for a combination of nostalgia and blandness in their musical choices.
I’m also not here to trash the album—yes, I know I already did that anyway—but to point out that this song’s saving grace is Watts’ contribution. They’re obviously trying to go for the whole cinematic psychedelia vibe, evoking wide camera pans with the sounds, but the strings they incorporated for that purpose absolutely do not do that. What does is the drumming. It’s like Charlie Watts was the only one capable of pulling off their vision, which makes you wonder what would have happened if he and Ringo had switched bands.
Either way, the Stones realized they should stick to rock and roll and we’re all better off for it.
The Rolling Stones — “Honky Tonk Women”
While it does seem like my column is entirely vanity picks that don’t fit any sort of structure every week, that’s not strictly true. I try to be good and stick firmly to my theme for at least four of the five. I give myself one that’s only borderline related and included solely because I love the song. And while Watts is definitely brilliant on the track, this is it.
This was originally supposed to be a straight-up throwback 1930s country song. The story of exactly how changes every time it’s told, but somehow it turned into the Platonic ideal of a late ’60s pure rock and roll song. It’s got the swagger and the attitude, the rhythm driving the controlled chaos, everything that makes the era great wrapped up in one song. The Beach Boys and Beatles were inventing modern music with their experimentation, yes, but the Stones were perfecting the era’s contemporary music.
The Rolling Stones — “Gimme Shelter”
This is, by a wide margin, my favorite Stones song. It succeeds where “She’s a Rainbow” failed by creating a haunting atmosphere and epic scope using the tools they perfected rather than the ones the Beatles use. And I’m not gonna try to tell you Charlie Watts is the star here because it’s unquestionably Merry Clayton’s almost-supernaturally great backup vocals.
But despite Clayton’s greatness and the song’s endless virtues, Watts’ four strikes of the tom-toms and cymbal crash are what take it from “appears on Halloween playlists because it’s a little spooky” to the lofty realm of “it’s slow and a little spooky but will satisfy the crowd at an arena show and stands the test of time.” It doesn’t have the creative flourish of his performance on “Get Off Of My Cloud,” the starring role of “Paint It Black,” or the cinematic scope of “She’s a Rainbow,” but it shouldn’t. Watts clearly knew what was carrying the song. He added just enough to step it up to another level, kept it subtle but made an impact despite the minimalism. And if there’s one thing rarer than once-in-a-generation talent it’s rare talent combined with a willingness to use it to help others shine.
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