February 01, 2014

The Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts: A Very Different Drummer


Clip above: Not only Rock and Roll but Jazz, Boogie Woogie and Swing.
Multi-talented Charlie Watts performing "Lover Man" with Bernard Fowler on vocals as seen on comedian Dennis Miller's Show - 1992. 

Charlie Watts seems to be the "quiet" Rolling Stone, rather like the late George Harrison who was always portrayed as the "quiet" Beatle.

NOT surprisingly, Charlie Watts has quite a few drum kits in his possession, most of them pretty old. There's one that belonged to Duke Ellington's sideman Sonny Greer back in the day, another formerly owned by bebop craftsman Kenny Clarke, yet another given a beating in a previous life by American jazz cat Sid Catlett. The Rolling Stone has a few he bought new as well, mainly his trusted Gretsch kits that have been a fixture throughout his playing career. Watts doesn't play them much, though, at least not in his London home or at the property he owns in Devon in the south of England. He saves his energy for when he needs it - like when the Rolling Stones are about to embark on another tour.

"I do mild exercises and I do play with a pair of sticks on my legs," says the 72-year-old in his soft-spoken, matter-of-fact manner, "but not very often ... just to keep my hands going. That's why I like rehearsing for a while before we go on tour, because it brings all the muscles and the calluses up for when you hit the stage."

Watts has been summoning his calluses of late as the Stones prepare for another short period on the road that includes their seventh visit to Australia, beginning in Perth on March 19. The On Fire tour is nowhere near the scale of their last full-on assault, 2007's A Bigger Bang world tour, as Watts, never one to enjoy travelling, happily recognises.

"We've done half of this one already," he says cheerily. "This is short compared to what we've done before, but it needs to be, I think, at our tender age. The thought of doing 50 shows, which was normal at one time for us to sign off on, that is quite daunting. Now we're doing that in little bits. If we don't do any more I'll be quite happy with that."

It's not the first time a band member has hinted that the next Rolling Stones tour will be the last, but still the juggernaut rolls on, albeit with more toilet breaks. The On Fire tour takes in parts of Asia as well as Australia and follows their exploits at the end of 2012 and in 2013 to mark the band's 50th anniversary, culminating in two of the biggest shows of their career at England's Glastonbury Festival and in London's Hyde Park.

Watts made it known in the media prior to Glastonbury that he didn't want to do it, a dislike of festivals in general his main beef. He admits now he enjoyed it. "That was wonderful," he says, "although you should have been there when I didn't like the idea of doing Glastonbury in all the mud and everything. We had three weekends in England in July where we had fantastic weather and the crowds were great and I had a really good time in both places. I've got to learn to shut up about things. That's typical of me."

Part of the entourage for their Australian trip is Mick Taylor, the guitarist who replaced Brian Jones after his death in 1969 and who in turn was replaced by Ronnie Wood in 1975. Taylor also played the 50th anniversary shows. Watts says he's happy to have the guitarist back in the ranks, for the time being at least, and that the full-time guitarists Keith Richards and Wood have made him feel welcome.

"Mick was great in the shows we did in America," Watts says. "So he's gone now from doing the 50th to being a special guest star. The good thing is that Ronnie and Keith have embraced it. It's all right me liking him as a guitar player, but I don't have to play with him in the same way as they do. It's great that they have done that. It's different to what me and Mick see. That's a little world that belongs to guitar players."

This latest line-up, also featuring Darryl Jones, Bill Wyman's replacement since 1993, will be performing a different set in Australia from the ones they did last year. They like to mix it up. With such a large catalogue behind them the difficulty is whittling it down to fit a two-hour performance.

"Usually we would rehearse anything up to 100 songs for a tour," says Watts. "For this one there will be 60 songs. We've got about 600 without the new ones. We'll rehearse the 60 and then whittle that down to 20 or so. But you need to do the 60 to get your hands going and all of that."

Is he vocal at rehearsals about what should be included? Is he adamant about Sympathy for the Devil or selections from his favourite Stones album, Exile on Main Street?

"No," he says. "I'm usually mumbling in the background, which is my forte. That's what I did when it was suggested we play Glastonbury. The thing is, nobody takes any notice of what I say anyway."

IT'S no accident that the drum kits in Watts's collection belonged to jazz players from its golden era. Growing up in Kingsbury and then Wembley in northwest London in the 1940s and 50s, Watts developed a liking for jazz through 78rpm records. He loved Jelly Roll Morton, Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan and the drummers they employed. His first drum was made from the head of a banjo he dismantled and put on a stand when he was 12. His parents bought him a drum kit when he was 14.

"When I first started playing there were a lot of great drummers," he says. "There was a Scottish drummer who I used to love, Jackie Dougan, who moved to Australia actually, and the best guy in London was another Scottish drummer called Bobby Orr, who backed Dizzy Gillespie. I loved them, but I also loved New Orleans music and I still do. Now it's even further away and less people are interested in it but I still love big band swing as well."

Swing and boogie woogie are two genres that Watts has explored regularly outside of the Stones. He has recorded and performed with his own big band and has been part of boogie woogie ensembles Rocket 88 and the more recent the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, both of these outfits also featuring his childhood neighbour and best friend, bassist Dave Green. He'd be just as happy playing in a pub with them as traipsing around the globe with his day job. "It's two pianos and my friend Dave on bass and it's great fun," he says. "There's no other band like it really. And it's piano heaven, which is kind of nice for me because there are no guitars."

That last comment is a throwback to his youth, when he taught himself to play while listening to jazz records on which guitar wasn't a main feature.

After attending art school in the late 50s, Watts became a graphic designer in London and combined that with drumming in a number of bands in the early 60s, including Alexis Korner's much acclaimed outfit, Blues Incorporated. It was while he was in that group that he became friends with Jones, Jagger and Richards, who all hung out at the same clubs, including the Ealing Jazz Club in west London. Wyman joined the Rolling Stones in December, 1962 and Watts a month later.

In the band's 60s and 70s heyday, Watts was the one wearing a look of mild bemusement; a jazz man through and through who, by a twist of fate, found himself in the greatest rock 'n' roll band In the world.
 It's a demeanour that has stayed with him, as video of recent shows demonstrate, but it's more than a look. Fifty-one years into his Rolling Stones tenure, Watts remains one of rock's great characters, first because he is a talented and unorthodox drummer, and also because of his sartorial elegance (he likes a sharp suit), but also because he has a healthy disregard for the medium in which he has made his name.

It is often said Jagger, the most business-minded member of the group, is the one driving the others to keep going, while Watts, the oldest, is the one most likely to bring the Stones' monumental touring career to an end. He acknowledges the former, but denies the latter.

"Oh, that's not true," he says. "I mean, I've said that at the end of nearly every tour, because I don't really like touring to be honest. I don't like suitcases and moving around. I quite like being in different places, but getting there and packing up drives me up the wall. Famously, I've quit all through our career ... but if you're a drummer what do you do? Sit at home practising? The drums particularly are a sociable instrument. When they are played properly they are for dancing and accompanying other instruments, so you can't just sit in your living room all your life."

Certainly, it's easier to imagine the veteran drummer performing to thousands of adoring fans with his band than it is to picture him sitting alone on the end of the sofa knocking out paradiddles on his thighs, but Watts, as a drummer and otherwise, has never been what you would call conventional in a rock 'n' roll sense. He doesn't play drums the way other rock drummers do. He used the jazz chops he learned as a teenager to invent his own style of playing rock 'n' roll, which is why he is so revered and why he has been so influential. Also, but for a short period in the early 80s when he admits going slightly off the rails, Watts has never subscribed to the excesses and celebrity-courting gestures readily associated with his profession.

He's happy collecting drum kits and rare books, or playing music with his jazz-oriented buddies, or spending time with his wife of 49 years, Shirley, at the Arabian horse stud farm she runs in Devon.


"It's my wife's passion, not really mine," he says. "I've learned about horses having them around me a lot and having people from the horse world around me."

Such points of difference from his work colleagues, after more than 50 years as the groovemaster of the Rolling Stones, make Charles Robert Watts an outsider within the musical force he helped create - and he doesn't mind admitting it.

"To be honest I never think about the Rolling Stones," he says. "From the time I joined them ... when I put my drumsticks down I'm something else. I've never followed the things they do. I've always been outside of it anyway. That's just what I do. I'm a drummer and I try to do the best that I can for the band and so far that has worked, but after that, the rest of it, I don't take any notice of it."

DESPITE the travel, Watts is looking forward to his time in Australia next month, but his experiences here haven't always been cherished ones. He's particularly disparaging about the Stones first tours here in 1965 and 1966.

"Australia was a very different place in the 60s," he says. "I hated it the first time. I was 20-something and it was miles away and I wasn't very interested. I just didn't like it. It was like 50s England. The next time ... I think it was during the Whitlam government ... that was better. I don't know what he did. I know nothing about Australian politics, but it was better and he seemed to have made a difference. I've loved it every time since then."

Watts is ambivalent about crossing the band's 50-year landmark. "We're still trying to do it properly," he says. On the group's 30th anniversary, the drummer declared it was "more like five years of playing and 25 years of waiting". Now, he says, "it's 10 years with 40 years hanging about".

He wouldn't change that, however, and he has no regrets about the band's recording career, even if their popularity in that vein has diminished while their live appeal has flourished. "I'm not ashamed of any of the product that we've done," he says. "Some of it is not as good as others obviously, but the songs are the thing."

Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and had two operations to treat it. He's in good health now, though he says: "I've had five years of observation and it's fine, although one never knows, does one?"

So, health permitting, as long as there are people out there buying tickets, the Stones, it would appear, will just keep on rolling.

"The audience keeps you there because without their enthusiasm you soon start to wonder if it's worth it," Watts says. "That's not being egotistical about it. The best time is when you finish a show and they all applaud. It's the same if you're playing a club with just a bass player and drummer. If they all clap at the end it's gratifying. We've been lucky in the Rolling Stones that our audiences have grown from that to huge things and it continues. That's the glue that keeps it together. Of course we get on. I do like Mick and Keith and Ronnie, you know what I mean? It's not that that isn't there. But I think we'd still do it with two people in the audience.

"We have done that."

The Rolling Stones On Fire tour begins in Perth on March 19 and travels to Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, Hanging Rock, Victoria, and Brisbane.

By Ian Sheddon

With many thanks to The Australian
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