Remembering Charlie Watts: 12 Key Songs From the Rolling Stones Drummer
There are myriad moments in the Stones’ catalog, both studio and live recordings, that demonstrate just how vital Watts was — to the Stones and to rock ‘n roll in general — during the nearly 60 years he spent on the throne. As original Black Crowes, now Trigger Hippy, drummer Steve Gorman notes, “You could do a different [Charlie Watts] list every day, depending on what you’re listening to.” And that’s not counting Watts’ own big band, quintet and boogie woogie recordings. Here is a dozen of his best moments, in chronological order.
“Get Off My Cloud” (1965)
This prototype of psychedelic garage rock — the Stones’ second No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 — is filled with some of Watts’ finest fills, machine gun rat-a-tat-tats that drive the taut chord structure from one measure to the next. We’d have to go back in time to check, but here’s betting that air drumming started to become a thing thanks to this track.
“19th Nervous Breakdown” (1966)
There’s much that could have gone pear-shaped in the hands of the wrong drummer on the Stones’ follow-up to “Get Off My Cloud.” The song’s speed makes things tricky, and Watt wisely deploys just enough swing to its gait rather than a more straightforward approach that might have sounded stiff. He applies the glue to make sure there was no, well, breakdown during this long (for its time) rocker.
“Paint It, Black” (1966)
Brian Jones’ growing infatuation with Eastern rhythms and instruments brought some welcome new flavors into the Stones’ mix, and Watts rose to the occasion on this challenging, frenetic endeavor. And his four-beat kick into the song’s B section had the force of a howitzer salute.
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1968)
There’s a lot of dynamic sweep in this one, from the chiming opening to charging verses and choruses, then back to the trippy shimmer of the break. Holding down the fort, Watts alternates between muscular pump and delicate, detailed accents to give the song a variety of sonic dimensions.
“Stray Cat Blues” (1968)
The song’s lustful lyrics are so striking, even shocking, that it might be easy to miss the crucial drive Watts is providing to the song — on beat, fills in just the right spots, all laying a foundation you can build a skyscraper on, much less a song. We’d recommend checking out the slightly looser but equally definitive rendition on 1970’s Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! live album.
“Sympathy For the Devil” (1968)
The more that’s going on in a track, the more we appreciate Watts’ stolid dependability. Here he tucks into a polyrhythmic samba, surrounded by other percussion instruments (Watts himself provides cowbell), and a tricky dynamic that requires an anchor as it builds. Watts at once incorporates elements of South America and Africa, and he even sang some of the “woo-woos” that accompany Mick Jagger’s vocals.
“Honky Tonk Women” (1969)
The master at work in just over three minutes. The Stones’ arrangement leaves plenty of room and Watts plays it straight but with authority, kicking the verse into the chorus with force rather than flash and also holding his own against producer Jimmy Miller’s (admit it) annoyingly omnipresent cowbell.
“Live With Me” (1969)
Now pay attention, kids; There’s a part of the song, coming out of the first chorus, where Watts shifts from the double-time rhythm into four bars of standard groove, then back into what he was doing in the first place and propelling things that much harder because of it. A clever, but crucial, musical aside on Let It Bleed.
“Gimme Shelter” (1969)
The storm is indeed threatening as Watts channels the dark, foreboding mood of this Let It Bleed track with his menacing snare strikes and piledriving tom accents. Guitars cascade around the track but he steadies the course throughout — as he does on numerous live releases throughout the band’s career.
“I Got the Blues” (1971)
This Sticky Fingers deep cut is the epitome of what Watts does so well — understated restraint where most drummers would have felt, wrongly, that more was needed.
“Tumbling Dice” (live, 1977)
Producer Jimmy Miller famously played drums on the coda of the Exile on Main St. version, which was a top 10 Hot 100 hit as the album’s first single. But it’s all Watts on 1977’s Love You Live and, of course, all the performances at which “Tumbling Dice” has been a staple since 1972. The original’s great, but the live versions make it even better.
“When the Whip Comes Down” (1978)
If the disco opener “Miss You” caused a little listener whiplash on Some Girls, “When the Whip Comes Down” assured everyone the Stones were still rocking — harder than ever, in fact. Watts sounds super-caffeinated as he drives this thrashing, punky gem into CBGB territory, and it sounds as good on live takes (Sucking in the Seventies and Live Licks) as it did coming out of the studio.