- 14 Feb 20
Charlie's Good Tonight
“I can never say enough about Charlie Watts… I never have to worry where the backbeat is.”
– Keith Richards
As anyone with ears should be able to tell you, The Stones wouldn’t be half -quarter - the band they are without the contributions of Charlie Watts. He is, as Mike Edison, a drummer himself, as well as the author of 28 “adult” novels, points out, the roll in rock n’ roll. Music fans, sitting in the pub, might point at John Bonham or Keith Moon as rock’s greatest thumper but Edison reckons Moonie wouldn’t have lasted ten seconds in The Stones, and it’s difficult not to agree with him.
In order to successfully lay out what makes Watts so important, Edison takes us through five decades of performances and records – including the four years when The Rolling Stones – and let there be no argument here - made the greatest rock n’ roll records of all time. We are introduced to a litany of the Gods, from Chico Hamilton to Charles Connor to Philly Joe Jones to Fred Below, a man who “could bang a nail into a two-by four and people would line up to buy drinks”, to trace the origins of Watts’ sound, a drummer who’s “good enough not to have to play drum solos.” A life spent worshipping at the altar of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker has imbued Watts with a jump and swing that other drummers, intent perhaps on imitating the previously mentioned Moon and Bonham, don’t have. The likes of Buddy Rich might have thought that a drummer should wail, but Watts always felt it was more important to play the song.
Drop the needle anywhere in this book and be informed. When Charlie joined the Stones, Keith pointed him towards the great Earl Phillips, who, as well as playing with John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf, also featured on Jimmy Reed’s best recordings. Watts played Reed’s ‘The Sun Is Shining’ at Altamont after ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ collapsed as havoc raged about it. Edison also points out the influence of Charles Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond on the "impossibly swank shuffles" of ‘Midnight Rambler’ and the “loosest bits of Exile”.
Dig, again, the maracas in ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Gimme Shelter’, the famous set of toy drums that drive ‘Street Fighting Man’ and The Stone’s Ya-Ya’s live version of ‘Little Queenie’, the first time, Edison reckons, they smoked a Chuck original.
The book is worth its cover charge for Edison’s breakdown of Watts’ magic on ‘Loving Cup’ from Exile On Main St. – the pinnacle of all human achievement – as he switches time signatures throughout.
“Everything that Charlie had learned from Earl Palmer, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Miller, and Mingus’s free-spirit of a drummer, Dannie Richmond, had been sown into this field of R&B, gospel, and outer-space kung fu. Notwithstanding the funky, New Orleans-style soul groove and the killer outro, Charlie’s incredible rock ‘em, sock ‘em tattoo when Mick hit the chorus was the real highlight of the show. It was modern dance on the drums, mixing time signatures by adding a beat… before falling back into the groove.”
Edison even manages as succinct a definition of The Stones’ magic as is possible to conjure – Keith’s syncopation is usually ahead of the beat, Charlie’s left hand is slightly, almost imperceptibly behind it. A marvellous, snare-crack of a book.