Drummer Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, at a British concert and sporting a new David Bowie style feather cut. (Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Charlie Watts: an unlikely rock star

The drummer of the Rolling Stones — a man of rare class, wit and distinction — has died at the age of 80

Artillery Row

Drummers from the greatest bands of all time tend to be the wild men of the group. Keith Moon from The Who; John Bonham from Led Zeppelin; even, in his own way, Ringo. So it comes as something of a surprise that Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones, who has died at the age of 80, appeared to be the absolute opposite of the licentious decadents who pounded their drum kit on stage. A fastidious, gentlemanly man who seemed more at home in Soho jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott’s than in the world stadiums that his band habitually played in, Watts represented a different style of musicianship to many of his peers.

It seems entirely in keeping with his image that, when a drunken Mick Jagger once demanded to see “his drummer” after a night on the sauce, Watts knocked him down, before shouting, “I’m not your drummer! You’re my fucking singer!” The amusing coda is that an incensed Watts attempted another swing at Jagger the following day, and had to be restrained by his bandmates.

It was part of Watts’s carefully observed pose to appear to be the opposite of Mick Jagger

Yet Watts was, in his own way, every bit as much a rock star as Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood or the others who made up the Rolling Stones over the past half-century. He was an immaculately turned out, even dandified figure, who was seldom seen without a Savile Row suit and, latterly, a carefully groomed shock of white hair. (Not for him the recourse to the suspiciously dark hair dye that his bandmates seem to have been smothering themselves in for decades.) And it was part of his carefully observed pose to appear to be the opposite of the more public-conscious Jagger. One cannot imagine Watts ever shouting, “Ello, London, ‘ow you doin”, in the faux-Cockney banter of his lead singer.

Instead, he adopted a nonchalant disdain to the trappings of rock stardom, famously saying in 2013 of the Stones’s much-anticipated performance at Glastonbury: “I don’t want to do it. Everyone else does. I don’t like playing outdoors, and I certainly don’t like festivals. I’ve always thought they’re nothing to do with playing.” With a dig at his bandmates, he remarked: “Playing is what I’m doing at the weekend”, referring to an appearance with his boogie woogie group ABC & D in the less rarefied surroundings of the Pizza Express jazz club in Soho.

Yet he remained one of the greatest drummers in the history of rock music. Anyone who listens to the final cavalcade of percussion and noise in Paint It Black will be struck by his ability to create a wall of sound and fury that ranks with the most chemically excitable of his peers, but there are countless other examples of his technique and brilliance. The opening to Honky Tonk Women; the sheer intensity that he conjures on the finale of Gimme Shelter; even his adapting to a disco beat on Miss You with the calm aplomb that was a hallmark of his musicianship throughout his career. And, right up until the end, he remained a fastidious, charismatic presence on stage, concentrating on doing his job very, very well, rather than flashy showboating.

Watts grew up in London, in more straitened circumstances than his distinctly middle-class bandmate Jagger. He became interested in drumming at the age of 13, and, after a brief career as a graphic designer and moonlighting in various minor and unsuccessful groups, joined the nascent Rolling Stones in 1962. He was uninterested in the drugs and groupies that accompanied the band’s rapid rise to fame, marrying his girlfriend Shirley in 1964 and eschewing the libidinous activities that Jagger and Richards embraced. Typically, when the Stones were invited to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in 1972, Watts removed himself to the games room. He wryly commented, “I’ve never filled the stereotype of the rock star. Back in the 70s, Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted.”

Yet he did indulge occasionally in alcoholic and chemical delights, despite his almost professorial image, and this led to the rather unexpected development of his becoming an alcoholic and heroin addict in the Eighties. As he later said, “I had never done serious drugs when I was younger but at this point in my life I went, ‘sod it, I’ll do it now.’ Looking back, I think it was a mid-life crisis.” He hit it so hard and so consistently that he temporarily acquired the nickname “Dracula” and, ironically, the hard-living Keef found himself attempting to convince Watts to mend his ways, not least because the drummer had long been the go-between and peacemaker in the band. In the end, Watts got clean after the humiliation of falling down a flight of stone steps in his mansion while holding an expensive bottle of fine wine. As he said, with typical understatement, “I thought, enough is enough.”

Watts’ death has robbed the Stones of one of its central members, and it remains to be seen whether the band will be able to continue with any kind of artistic integrity — if, of course, it has possessed such a thing in the past few decades. No doubt well-paid session musicians will fill in for Watts on the lucrative tours that Jagger and Richards will continue to play, but it will not be the same.

While Watts was never a songwriter, and therefore missed out on the lucrative publishing rights that other members of the band enjoyed, he was a drummer, and man, of rare class, wit and distinction, a civilised and erudite figure in a profession that often prizes noise and attention-seeking above such skills. And it is perhaps the most fitting way to end an appreciation such as this by simply saying Charlie Watts — you rocked.

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