Drummers, timekeeping and Charlie
By Trevor Moore
There has been much comment over the last week about the death on 24 August 2021 of Charlie Watts, the Rollings Stones’ drummer. Most of this commentary confirms a popular view that he was a brilliant drummer. He was. Perhaps you, Gentle Reader, have a favourite piece of Charlie Watts’ drumming. I have two: the fill at the end of each verse in Satisfaction and the drumming during the verses of Get Off Of My Cloud. Listen to these pieces: what Charlie could do so well was not to get carried away. It is the drummer and the bass player that together hold a rock ’n’ roll band together. They are the platform on which everyone else sits. A really good drummer knows that less is more … too much at the wrong time and a song can go pear shaped. Charlie held back: for the Stones that’s what was needed. Another great drummer was Keith Moon of The Who (a member – just, by a few days - of the “29 club”). He was the opposite - if that’s possible - of Charlie Watts. Charlie’s kit was paired back: a bass a tom, a snare and a couple of cymbals. Keith’s kit included several toms (all, apparently tuned to A). While Charlie played his fills when Jagger wasn’t singing, Keith would be doing a fill underneath Daltry’s vocal. In fact, Moon was sometimes the lead instrument: listen to Happy Jack (1966).
Charlie: 1963 One of life’s great experiences is playing in a band, although just at present these pesky COVID restrictions prevent any rehearsal, much to the detriment of my mental health. It is a consistent and common theme from all the bands I have played in that the drummer is always late. When everyone’s ready to go it’s the drummer who says, “hang on a minute.” This may be because there’s a whole lot more to setting up a drum kit than there is to setting up most other instruments. But the drummer is responsible for keeping time. This is not a straightforward task. We must all have been to shows - even with well-known bands - where the tempo changes (usually it speeds up) during a song. It’s really hard if you are playing a lead instrument to slow things down. But according to Jackson Browne (Rosie from 1977’s Running on Empty) “when they walked off stage, the drummer swept that girl away” so maybe drummers have all the luck. I must say the drummer in my current band has impeccable timing and is never late. Well, not usually. Maybe, sometimes.
But Charlie Watts is not the only drummer of note to have died this month. On 17 August 2021, Gary "Chicken" Hirsh died. There’s a cultural reference here: we have heard over the last few days comparisons between the US withdrawal from Saigon in 1975 and the US (and its Allies) botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. Well, as I am sure you all know, Gary "Chicken" Hirsh was the drummer between 1966 and 1969 for Country Joe and the Fish. If you are of a certain age, and I am, you will have memories of Woodstock in August 1969, almost exactly 52 years ago. And one of those memories will be Country Jo himself on Day 2 of the festival, unaccompanied by his band, leading the crowd - according to Joni Mitchell’s eponymous song (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970) - “half a million strong” - in his legendary "Fish" Cheer before plunging into his anti-Vietnam protest song I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag. In the third verse he sings that “there's plenty good money to be made by supplying the Army with the tools of its trade”. Plus ça change. But I am digressing.
Country Joe MacDonald: Woodstock 1969 Stewart Copeland, the Police’s drummer, commented that Charlie’s “death is devastating and shocking partly on the account that Rolling Stones are not meant to perish.” I mean, let’s be honest, if you are a child of the 1960s then you cannot imagine that Keith Richard is ever going to die. In his wonderful book about the Rolling Stones, Rich Cohen tells of an interview with Keith. At one point Keith interrupts and asks, “what year were you born?” “Nineteen sixty-eight,” replies Rich. Keith says: “I can't imagine that. For you there's always been the sun the moon and the Rolling Stones.”
Charlie’s death is more than just the death of a rock star. It’s like when Lennon was shot or when Bowie died … it’s chipping away at your cultural underpinnings. We knew Charlie was unwell, after all he wasn’t going on the forthcoming Stones’ tour. But there’s a finality about it all that brings home one’s own mortality - at least if you are a child of the 1960s which is when all the good bands were playing (though I did not see the Stones until 1974 - in Paris of all places).
To be a standout drummer, as Charlie Watts was, you need to stand out against some pretty serious competition. The Stones’ direct competitor in the 1960s were, of course, The Beatles. Like Charlie, Ringo was older than his bandmates. It used to be popular to knock Ringo, yet his drumming was exactly what the Beatles needed. Ringo reckoned his best drumming was on Rain but I still think that the drums on I feel fine are masterful, starting with a fast right hand ride pattern and then jumping into a straight rock groove with awesome precision. For sheer spectacle, given that Moon is dead, you can’t go past Rush’s Neil Peart - he’s good too: listen to him in 1984 on their Grace Under Pressure tour. Listen to Nigel Olsson on Curtains on Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975). Then there’s Russ Kunkel. Like Lee Sklar (see the Beagle) - with whom he has played many times including in The Section (listen to Fork It Over (1977) - he’s a session musician who’s played on albums by Jackson Browne, Herb Alpert, Bob Dylan and, of course, Warren Zevon. These are serious drummers.
Charlie: 2010 So, Charlie was up against some serious competition. Was he “better” than any of them? Possibly, possibly not. But he was the best drummer that the Stones had and for them he was absolutely right. He shone most when he was playing the jazz that he loved - listen to the Charlie Watts Quintet and the Charlie Watts Orchestra. You have to pay attention when you’re in a jazz band - at least I do - it’s much harder to cover up your mistakes.
So, yes, he was a great drummer, and he was one fifth of one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands ever. Listen to the opening bars of Little Red Rooster, close your eyes, and mourn one of rock’s greats.