Charlie Watts 6
Date: July 8, 2008 01:19
Charlie Watts in Modern Drummer
by Robyn Flans August/September 1982
Editor's note : The following articles on Charlie Watts are the result of over two year's worth of effort on the part of MD. There were numerous phone calls to record companies and management offices, where the answer was always the same: "Charlie Watts does not do interviews. "
Last fall, while the Rolling Stones were on tour in America, Charlie met up with his friend (and MD Advisory Board member) Jim Keltner, who persuaded Charlie to talk to us. (Thanks, Jim) He agreed to speak with MD's Robyn Flans in L.A., but it was only after Robyn followed him to San Francisco that he finally sat down in front of a tape recorder.
A month later, MD Managing Editor Scott K. Fish set up a meeting with Charlie and E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg. Again, Charlie agreed to let a tape roll. So here then is Charlie Watts who, although he actually spoke to us twice, began each session by saying, "I don’t do interviews. But we can talk if you want to . . ."
After spending six hours with Charlie Watts, it was clear that he just doesn't relish speaking about himself. I quickly realized that it would be necessary for me to turn to history books and others' accounts to fill in the blanks that Charlie takes little pleasure in recalling.
Everyone who has written about the Rolling Stones, from journalists to the Stones' own personal aids and cooks, has very little to say about him. This is not because Charlie is nondescript, but rather because he lives a very quiet life while off tour, keeps to himself and his family (his wife Shirley of seventeen years and their daughter) and does not partake in the much publicized activities of a "rock star. "
"I probably was a typical musician, but I wasn't, and am still not, a Rolling Stone. I mean, I am because that's what I do, but the other stuff is bullshit. I don't know what the Rolling Stones are. For that you should talk to someone else other than me. I don't know what they are. To me, they're friends of mine. They are whatever you've read and they're worse and they're better. I never read the bullshit in the papers and I don't have to hide in hotel rooms. I used to do that and I hated it. The worst time in my life was about the time the Rolling Stones became like the Beatles, I suppose. There were girls screaming and carrying on and I couldn't stand it because I thought it was silly. I loved it for what it meant and what the band was doing, but I couldn't stand not being able to do anything. I hated that.
That doesn't mean anything and I never wanted that. I'm just not interested in that.
The only time I love attention is when I walk on stage, but when I walk off, I don't , want it. For the band, I want everyone to love us and go crazy, but when I walk off, I don't want it. I guess I want both worlds. I never could deal with it and I still can't. I don't know how Mick does it. He's an incredible man. So is Keith—an amazing guy. I don't know how they do it, I'm serious. Like doing so many interviews. This is the only time I've so much as spoken to a journalist this whole tour and the reason I'm doing this is because drumming is something that I love. "
He refuses to acknowledge his own musical contributions, continually down-playing his abilities. In an interview with Rolling Stone (11/12/81) Keith Richards says, "I'm continually thankful—and more so as we go along—that we have Charlie Watts sitting there, you know? He's the guy who doesn't believe it, because he's like that. There's nothing forced about Charlie, least of all his modesty. It's totally real. He cannot understand what people see in his drumming."
Whether Charlie understands it or not, the fact remains that he is often considered the model of what a rock drummer should be. Pick up a copy of The Village Voice, for instance, and look in the back where bands advertise for musicians. Invariably there will be a couple of ads that say something like: "Charlie Watts-style drummer wanted for rock group." Journey drummer Steve Smith had this to offer about Charlie's drumming: "When I first listened to Charlie Watts as a kid, I didn't hear a whole lot there. It was because I was really unaware of what he was really great at, which is just an incredible feel. Now, I love the way he plays, especially after seeing him and doing those gigs with them. His time is really steady and really solid and his feel is the nastiest rock and roll feel I've ever heard. As a kid, I was totally into chops and I didn't appreciate just a simple feel. I was impressed by the flash, and I wasn't listening deeply enough. Now I have a totally different attitude. The bottom line is how it feels and what you can get across, emotionally."
Charlie disputes that he has his own style or that there is anything special about what he does. "They (the Stones) developed it for me," he told me. "I play as well as I can with this band and they happen to be very popular. But anyone can play like I do, yet that's what I love about it in a way. Anyone can do it, really. Maybe they can't do it the way I do it and it is no big deal to do it, but not anyone can play like Max Roach. You can't play like Joe Morello. Not many people can play like that guy and there aren't many people who can play like Jake Hanna. There are very few people in the world who can play that good. There are very few people in this world who can play like Louis Bellson. But there are a million kids who can play like me. They're not me doing it, but they can play like it. I can play like Al Jackson, but I'm not him doing it. But to play like Joe Morello is something else. There aren't many people who can play 5/8 time and 16/4 and all that, and I mean, play it. There are a lot of people who can play like Al Jackson, but they're not Al Jackson and never, ever will be. They'll never be as good as he is, but they can actually play those things. I think Al Jackson is as great as all those people I've mentioned, but what I'm saying is that he taught people how to play those things. I've heard girls play exactly like me and they can play everything. They're not me, but they can play everything. There are very few people in this world who can do what I'm talking about. You see, the audi-ence doesn't really want to hear me play 'Honky Tonk Woman.' They want to hear the song, primarily, with me doing it, because the song is more important than me."
Jeff Porcaro responded: "No. Wrong. Not anybody can do what he does. I know if I sat down and played with the Stones, I would be trying to play like Charlie Watts. I know myself as a professional drummer and I would sit down and say, 'Okay, now play simple here, be sparse and don't do that fancy fill because Charlie wouldn't do that.' But my snare drum wouldn't sound like Charlie's because that's a whole other unique sound.
"I think Charlie Watts is a great drummer for pretty basic reasons. I like his time I like his groove and I love what he plays with the Stones. When you look at Charlie and what he plays, it seems like some of those technical facilities that he doesn't have, makes for the sparseness that he creates when he plays and that you hear. There are no rules or anything and nobody plays like him but him."
So how did Charlie become involved with drums to begin with? "Blame it on Chico Hamilton, I suppose. When I was twelve, I heard Chico Hamilton with Gerry Mulligan playing 'Walking Shoes' and I played it on a skin of a banjo. I used to play brushes like Chico Hamilton. Well, not like him, but that was the inspiration anyway.
I’D LOVE TO HAVE SEEN SID CATLETT. BUT BUDDY SAID THAT CHICK WEBB WAS THE ONE TO SEE. CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT BUDDY THOUGHT CHICK WEBB WAS GREAT? HOW GOOD WAS CHICK WEBB?
IMAGINE HOW GOOD HE WAS, MAN, IF BUDDY THOUGHT HE WAS GOOD"
After that, I heard Charlie Parker and that was it. It was all over. It was the music really, that got me going, because I'm not a drummer. I'm not a drummer because I never learned to play the drums. I'm not like the people I admire. They learned and I never did. I just sat and played drums like they played them. Max Roach can play anything and I sat and copied it. When I heard Charlie Parker play, I would play like Max Roach or Roy Haynes. "
Charlie was so enamored of Charlie Parker that in 1962 he wrote a book called Ode to a High Flying Bird, which was in the vein of a children's book and illustrated by Watts. It featured Parker as an actual bird hunched over a saxophone so that the body blended into the head. Unfortunately, the book was never issued in the U.S...
"When I had the honor to go to New York, that was it! All I wanted to do was go to Birdland and I was lucky enough to get there before it closed and that was it for me. I still walk down 52nd Street. I know it's not the same anymore, but I do it. It's just something that really meant something to me as a kid, listening to Charlie Parker, and to think that he lived there and walked down that street and played there. I walk there, even now, at forty years of age. I can imagine being Sid Catlett, walking down that street with the drums on my arm, but it's just a dream world. But it's a dream world that I love, and if I ever lose it, I'll stop playing drums.
"Among my favorite drummers is Dave Tough. Nobody knows how great he was. There's a lot of people I admire and they are what I try to be, but I'll never be that good. In my life,- I'll never be that good because I'm not that good. Tony Williams is one of my favorite drummers. That's how someone should look when he plays the drums. He is a fine looking man and a fine looking drummer. He is one of the innovators as far as I'm concerned. To do what he did at the age of nineteen, he must be somewhere else. To me, some of the finest drumming came from Jerry Allison [one of Buddy Holly's Crickets]. He is on of the finest drummers and very underrated. He plays songs; he doesn't play the drums, and that's what I'd love to do. I can't do that, though, because I've got Max Roach, who is a drummer, inside of me. Yet I'll never be Max Roach and I’ll never be Jerry Allison. Jim Keltner, for' instance, can play the drums. Jim can read and he's a fine musician. I'm not a fine musician. I play the way I do and I happen to be lucky enough to be in a band that is' very popular, and that's all. If I wasn’t with a popular band, I'd be one of a million kids out there."
Jim Keltner disputes this: "Most drummers, including Charlie, feel guilty when they don't read music, and they feel that they're not real musicians. Charlie is one of my favorite drummers because of his simplicity, his sound and his time feel. The thing is, that Charlie is playing with virtual brothers, and it becomes second nature He doesn't know what he does. But he doesn't have to know what he does.
"If you listen to the old records, particularly, you hear rushing and dragging and you hear him play a fill and it just barely makes it. When you talk about a drummer and you say those two things about him right away you think, 'Wait a minute— that's wrong.' A drummer is about time and about playing with taste and fills and all that, and that's what the civilized musical world expects from you. With Charlie he's always broken those rules, but he's done it innocently and also with a magical band, and it works. He's had a chance to refine that up to the point where the last couple of records, it's just pure, out and out, great rock and roll drumming. "
"Drumming, to me, has always been fun," Charlie explains. "That’s why I couldn’t play with Doc Severinsen and the Tonight Show Band. I couldn't do that gig. I could not cover that gig and not read. It was always fun to me, sort of a hobby. It wasn't really a hobby, but something I loved and it still is a lot of fun. It's become something I love, more than when I was a kid, really. I was sort of dragged into it because it was fun and I was able to play for a living."
In The Rolling Stones—The First Twenty Years, his mother recalled, "Charlie always wanted a drum set, and he used to rap out tunes on the table with pieces of wood or a knife and fork. We bought him his first drum set for Christmas when he was fourteen. He took to it straight away, and often he used to play jazz records and join in on his drums."
"I was just a teenager when I first got interested in drums," Charlie said in the same book by David Dalton. "My first kit was made up of bits and pieces. Dad bought it for me and I suppose it cost about twelve pounds. Can't remember anything that gave me greater pleasure and I must say the neighbors were great about the noise I kicked up. They had a sort of tolerant understanding . . . 'Boys will be boys' kind of thing! I don't think I ever wanted to play any other instrument instead of the drums. I marvel sometimes even now at the way guitarists can get such tricky little phrases by just quietly using their fingers, but drums are for me."
Seated with me, he recalled, "I practiced a lot but I never had lessons. I hated playing to records. I used to try, but I could never really play to records. I can't overdub drums either. I hate doing that. Sometimes you have to, but I can't do it very well. I taught myself by listening to other people and watching. I'd go and see every American who came to England. To me, how an American plays the drums is how you should play the drums. That's how I play. I mean, I play regular snare drum, I don't play tympani style, although I know guys who play fantastically like that. I play march-drum style. Most rock drummers play like Ringo; a bastard version of tympani style. In reality, that's what it is because tympani style is fingers and most rock drummers play like that because it's heavy offbeat."
In Dalton's book, Charlie reminisced: "Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies were the stars of rhythm and blues in this country (England). If things were as they should be, Alexis would be right at the top.
I PLAY THE WAY I DO AND I HAPPEN TO BE LUCKY ENOUGH TO BE IN A BAND THAT IS VERY POPULAR, AND THAT’S ALL. IF I WASN’T WITH A POPULAR BAND,
I’D BE ONE OF A MILLION KIDS OUT THERE."
I met Alexis in a club somewhere and he asked me if I'd play drums for him. A friend of mine, Andy Webb, said I should join the band, but I had to go to Denmark to work in design, so I sort of lost touch with things. While I was away, Alexis formed his band, and came back to England with Andy. I joined the band with Cyril Davies and Andy used to sing with us. We had some great guys in the band, like Jack Bruce. These guys knew what they were doing. We were playing at a club in Ealing and they (Brian, Keith and Mick) used to come along and sometimes sit in. It was a lot different then. People used to come up on the stand and have a go, and the whole thing was great. "
How did he become a member of the Rolling Stones in 1963, I asked. "Pure accident," he replied. "There were many bands in London and I happened to be free at the time I joined them. That's my opinion. Other people have another. I played with Mick and Keith when I played with Alexis and everybody knew each other. Alexis wanted a sort of Charlie Mingus r&b band and he's still the same. I love him. He never stops moving. Marvelous man. But I had played with Alexis for about a year or nine months and then gave up my chair to Ginger [Baker] because I thought he was a better drummer than I was. I played with three other bands and I was asked to join Mick and them. I've lived with them ever since, for twenty years. I was between jobs as a designer and I used to leave their apartment and go for interviews while I played with them. I did that for about six months. Then, all of a sudden, I made more money doing that than I could make being a designer and suddenly I became a professional musician, whatever that is. I'm still not, in my opinion, but I had to join the Union suddenly. "
In Our Own Story by the Rolling Stones, a book published in 1965, Watts had elaborated on the subject: "The scene was growing bigger week by week for Alexis. I loved the work, but it got to be too much of a strain after a while. So I sort of backed out and worked with one or two other groups, meeting up with Brian and Mick and Keith from time to time.
"So they asked me about kicking in with them. Honestly, I thought they were mad. I mean they were working a lot of dates without getting paid or even worrying about it. And there was me, earning a pretty comfortable living, which obviously was going to nose-dive if I got involved with the Stones. It made me laugh to think of them trying to get me in with them too.
"But I got to thinking about it. I liked their spirit and I was getting very involved with rhythm 'n' blues. I figured it would be a bit of an experiment for me and a bit of a challenge, too. So I said okay, yes, I'd join. Lots of my friends thought I had gone stark raving mad.
"See, the thing with me is that I'm not really much of a worrier. I do get involved on stage, of course, especially when I think something is going wrong, but that's all. I reckon tomorrow can look after itself.
"Only thing that had me wondering, once I'd made up my mind, was the fact that the Stones were so disliked inside the jazz world. I'd heard people talking about them - and it's true to say nobody had a good word for them. They were complete outsiders. Nobody wanted to know about the great sound they were making - because everybody was too busy looking on them as just a gang of long-haired freaks. And I certainly wasn't keen on letting my own hair grow at that time just for the sake of being a member of the group.
"But this bunch of outsiders, what people called 'lay-abouts,' struck me as having a pretty good future. I thought the atmosphere they got going simply had to make it big one day..." Of course, Mick and Keith go back to childhood. The story is that they met on a train on the way to school in 1960 after not having seen one another since they were kids. Under Mick's arm was an album by Chuck Berry, which sparked a stimulating conversation. Finding they possessed similar musical tastes, they began to experiment together. It was 1962 when they began to frequent the club in Ealing where they came across Brian and Charlie. Brian, more into jazz-blues than the Chicago blues that Mick and Keith favored, joined forces with them.
In an interview with Bob Greenfield in 1971, Keith said, "I'll tell you how we picked Charlie up. The R&B thing started to blossom and we found Charlie playing on the bill with us in a club. There were two bands on; Charlie was in the other band. We did our set and Charlie was knocked out by it. 'You're great, man,' he says. We said, 'Charlie, we can't afford you, man.' Because Charlie had a job and just wanted to do weekend gigs.
Charlie used to play anything then - he'd play pubs, anything, just to play, cause he loves to play with good people. But he always had to do it for economic reasons. By this time we're getting three, four gigs a week. 'well, we can't pay you as much as that band but...' We said. So he said okay and told the other band: 'I'm gonna play with these guys.' That was it. When we got Charlie, that really made it for us. "
In those days, the Stones were basically a rhythm and blues group, and their material was made up mostly of songs by such artists as Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Their first English single was Chuck Berry's "Come On," and their first single to do well on the American charts was Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." The Stones' first album was made up of a lot of the standard r&b favorites of the day, with only a few original compositions.
"The Last Time" was the first original Stones song to be released as the A side of a single. This was followed by "Satisfaction" and "Get Off Of My Cloud," also written by Jagger and Richards. These songs established the pattern for the Stones' style - they were written around a basic, simple riff.
One of the secrets to being a successful member of a group is to concentrate not on yourself, but on the requirements of the music. An often-heard comment about Charlie Watts is that: "He is the perfect drummer for the Rolling Stones." After observing the characteristic structure of Stones' songs, it became obvious how Charlie's drumming complements the music.
"I ALWAYS THINK THIS BAND IS GOING TO FOLD UP ALL THE TIME—I REALLY DO. I NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD LAST FIVE MINUTES,
BUT I FIGURED I'D LIVE THAT FIVE MINUTES TO THE HILT BECAUSE I LOVE THEM."
If a song is based on a sin repeating riff, the drum part must equally simple and repetitive. Busy patterns, fills, and subtle colorings are appropriate. Indeed, there is nothing subtle about the Stones. Their power come from their directness - basic chord progressions, basic rhythms, and even basic lyrics. Charlie provides basic drumming.
As the Sixties progressed, the Sones’ music gradually shifted from the influence towards a more pop sound, tunes such as "Lady Jane" and "As Tears Go By" finding their way onto album The group even experimented with "psychedelic" music, producing a rather unmemorable album called Their Sa Majesties Request.
Beggars Banquet, in late 1968, marked the return of the r&b influenced Stones. Since that time, the band has stayed pretty close to its roots, although there have other influences. One important change occured in 1969 when Mick Taylor, replaced Brian Jones as guitarist. Taylor had a clean, jazz-influenced style wich contrasted well with Richards' raunchy rock sound. The difference is very obvious on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" from the Sticky Fingers album. The tune starts off with Keith Richards ripping off a few raw rock licks, before settling into the tune's main riff. Charlie plays basic,driving rock. The second half of the song turns into a jazz jam with a saxophone solo folowed by a Taylor guitar solo. Charlie accordingly turns into a cross between Tony Williams and Mel Lewis - maitening a quarter pulse on hi-hat, while pulling a variety of colors from his cymbals. As always, charlie produced exactly what the music called for.
In '75, Ron Wood replaced Taylor, and because Wood plays so much like Richards, the group has leaned more heavily on basic rock. One notable influence of the last few years has been reggae, and again, Charlie has successfully mastered the style.
When asked what bass player Bill Wyman thinks gives the Stones their characteristic sound, he answered in Guitar Player (Dec., 1978): We have a very tight sound for a band that swings, but in amongst that tight sound, it's very ragged as well. Every rock and roll band follows the drummer, right? If the drummer slows down, the band slows down with him or speeds up when he does. That's just the way it works - except for our band. Our band does not follow the drummer; our drummer follows the rhythm guitarist, who is Keith Richards. Immediately you've got something like a 1/100th of a second delay between the guitar and Charlie's lovely drumming. Now, I'm not putting Charlie down in any way for doing this, but on stage, you have to follow Keith... So with Charlie following Keith, you have that very minute delay. Add to that the fact that I tend to anticipate a bit because I kind of know what Keith's going to do. So that puts me that split second ahead of Keith. When you actually hear that, it seems to just pulse. You know it's tight because we're making stops and starts and it is in time—but it isn't as well. Sometimes the whole thing can reverse. Charlie will begin to anticipate and I'll fall behind, but the net result is that loose type of pulse that goes between Keith, Charlie and me.
"(It began) probably as a matter of personality. Keith is a very confident and stubborn player, so he usually thinks someone else has made a mistake. Maybe you'll play halfway through a solo and find that Keith has turned the time around. He'll drop a half - or quarter-bar somewhere, and suddenly Charlie's playing on the beat, instead of on the backbeat—and Keith will not change back. He will doggedly continue until the band changes to adapt to him. He knows in general that we're following him, so he doesn't care if he changes the beat around or isn't really aware of it. He's quite amusing like that. Sometimes Keith will be playing along, and suddenly he becomes aware that Charlie's playing on the beat, and he'll turn around and point like, 'Aha, gotcha!'and Charlie will be so surprised and suddenly realize he's on the beat for some reason, and he hasn't changed at all. And then he'll be very uptight to get back in, because it's very hard for a drummer to swap the beat. So it's a mite funny sometimes, but it does happen, especially on the intros. Some of the intros are quite samey sounding. I mean, if you're doing a riff on one chord with the inflections that Keith uses, and you're not hearing too well with the screaming crowds, you cannot tell if you are coming in on or off the beat. 'Street Fighting Man' is a tune that tends to happen on. He's got monitors, but in those circumstances it's very difficult to hear accents - the difference between the soft and hard strokes. The problem is that Charlie is often totally unaware that he's on the wrong beat, and he shuts his eyes and pulls his mouth up, you know, and he's gone. You can't even catch his eyes because they're closed. Someone has to go up and kick the cymbal. I don't think that happens too often with other bands. But I think that's a little of the charm of the Stones. They're not infallible, and we know that. Everybody else might as well know it, too. "
In Guitar Player (11/77), Keith Richards said he plays off of Charlie's accents. "We tend to play very much together. I have to hear Charlie and I think he has to hear me. I love playing with Charlie; he knocks me out every time. Sometimes I don't see him for six months or so, and we get together and he's better every time. He must practice so much."
"I do practice every day if I'm not playing," Charlie told me. "I sit and watch television and practice. I never did that when I was a kid, so I have to do it now. I've learned more about what I'm doing now than I did then."
As far as the recording end of it, Charlie explains, "We don't lay tracks. We always play as a band. We very rarely overdub drums and bass and such. I have all and nothing, as far as creative choice, which means, I just sit there and play the song. Mick or Keith will say, 'No, that's horrible,'and I think, 'Yeah, it is horrible and all I should do is nothing, just play.' You can't play like Max Roach over 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' so you just sit and say, 'You're right.' And then I'll do something and they'll say, 'That's great, keep doing that.' So it's all or nothing. I have as much say as anyone in what I do.
"A lot of the recording end for me is the engineer and mixer, which is often Mick. It's the engineer who makes my drum sound amazing. I don't do anything other than I do on a bad night and he makes them sound great while I just do the same thing. I never tune drums. It's one of the blind spots I have. I just hit them.
"I'm fortunate that I don't really have to stake a claim on anything because the claim has already been made just by everyone being there. It is what it is, with or without me, but it happens to be with me. I don't really have to make a point of making my impression. I don't ever think of it that way. I'll say the drums should be louder or that sort of thing, but if someone says, 'No, they're too loud,' I don't really care. I don't really have that sort of mind to carry the songs through either. I can't stand mixing. I stay around for it, but I can't stand it. It's boring and bloody hard work as well. I guess I don't understand it either."
When I mention how much more predominant the drums have been on recent recordings, he laughs, "The drums are awfully loud, aren't they? They make it sound like more than I am, but I've always been loud."
Charlie has always preferred Gretsch drums, although the first set his dad bought him was a Ludwig, which he used on the album he did with Rocket '88. He keeps his Gretsch set to the bare essentials, however, with just four drums, about which he says, "I don't use the tom-toms much. I'm not a virtuoso, you see. I just try to play the rhythm. I can't take fills and I can't play four-bar breaks and all that, but what I do I try to make as fine as I can make it. Oh yeah, I get it on occasion," he adds modestly, "But to play like Frank Butler... I don't have that finesse and I never will ever have it in my life. That's something else, and that, to me, is a drummer.
After twenty years, Charlie maintains a simple attitude about performing live and playing with the same people. "Every gig is neither bad or good. I always want it to be better than the last one. It's never the same any night. Even if you play a cocktail lounge or a Bar Mitzvah every night. It's never the same, really. You play 'Hava Nagila,' and I've done that, and it's never the same. If you do that four times a week, you get a good 'Hava Nagila' or a bad one, whatever band you're in. Sure, I'm sure if you've done eighteen Bar Mitzvahs in a row, it can get the same. I've done about four of them. But the songs we do now are never the same. Of course, in some ways it is, it's all three chords and all I play is two and four, but really, it's never the same to play them. I just want to get to the end of it and make it as good as it can be. If people have trouble keeping it fresh every night, then they can't like the people they're with or the music they're playing. It's probably both.
"I hate touring and I hate going on the road and my first reaction to this last tour was, 'How the hell can I go out there at forty years of age and do that?' I didn't think people would turn up to see it, but they did. I don't think they really see me, though. They see the whole thing and I'm lucky enough to be part of it. I'd love to play in a lounge with a trio, but this band, I think, is one of the best and it can't be beat at what it is and I'm lucky enough to be involved in that. But I'm only as good as the next gig I do. That's how I've always seen it and I think the band is only as good as the next gig it does. With the accolades and everything, it's very easy to sort of get comfortable. It's a lovely thing to have, but it doesn't really mean anything. It's your next stop that is important and then the next one. And you just try to enjoy yourself while you're doing it. But you don't get the accolades if you're crap, so that's what I mean about this band - they're damn good and I don't care if people say they're noisy. They are noisy. They make my ears hurt," he laughs. "But they're bloody good at being noisy and they're bloody good at whatever they do. What I try to do is make it better and I try and help out the best that I can.
"Musicians are the most selfish people in the world, actually," he states. "The world revolves around them and all you live for is that two hours on stage and that's all they have. A painter or a draftsman can work any time. It can be for five minutes or for a year. With musicians, it's also a closed shop. They're the most unwelcoming people, really. I'm not saying that they're not nice people or intelligent, but it's what they do. They aren't the most open of people. I think it's their attitude and I don't think it's ever going to change. So much for philosophy.
"As far as playing with the same people all the time, it's no different than playing with others. I think Bill Wyman is an incredible bass player. Some people don't know what he's doing, really, but it's right. You don't really hear him actually half the time, or I don't, but he's right and very rarely wrong. He's very comfortable to play with. I've never really sat and listened to the bass, though. We don't sit and work out rhythm patterns or anything like that like some bands do. He plays to a song that Mick writes and I do the same thing and it just fits. He plays with other drummers too, that are fantastic players, actually, like I play with others. Bill is very comfortable, but Jack Bruce is comfortable to me too. Anyone who plays well is comfortable. Pete Townsend is comfortable to play with. i'm not saying he's better or worse to play with than Keith, but he's comfortable also."
About his projects outside the Stones such as Rocket'88 and the recording with Nicky Hopkins and Bob Hall, he says,
"They're just fun, aren't they? The playing is no different, really. It's another gig, isn't it? That's all and you have to do that one as best you can also. You just play. They're all exciting. Rocket '88 is great because it has four saxophone players, a trumpet and it's lovely. It's a different thing to play and it has a different sort of quality of playing. I don't mean good or bad, just different. It's great in its way and it's fun for me to do, but it will never be that magic that happens. I have a great time with them, though.
"I had a wonderful experience not too long ago in London when I played with a band and the saxophone player was Eddie Vinson and it was the most wonderful thing I've ever done. It was amazing and that guy is incredible. But you have to be as good as Steve Gadd to really cut it if you're in that market. Luckily I've never been a market player. I've always played with a band. "
While that fact has been Watts' security he stresses that the public has become too secure with the likes of the Stones and there is a tremendous need for some new music on the scene.
"I thought this band would be together for five years. I don't want to leave them or anything, but after five years, I thought, "Great, ten years, okay." But it's gone on and on and on. For me, it's wonderful, but I'm just saying that I'd like to hear some more power. I still love Benny Goodman, even though music has changed, so it doesn't have to take away from what exists, but there needs to be something new. Eighteen-year olds must play something other than Chuck Berry because it's been done. You've got to have something for yourself. It's got to happen. I don't see it yet, and I don't know why, but it's going on and on like this. We've been going fo twenty-five years and kids are still copying us and the Beatles after all these years Honestly, there's got to be something to it and I hope to God there is. It's wonderful but there's just got to be something else. I won't take away from what we are because we'll still be the same.
"I love this band, but it doesn't mean everything to me. I always think this band is going to fold up all the time - I really do I never thought it would last five minute but I figured I'd live that five minutes to the hilt because I love them. They're bigger than I am if you really want to know. I admire them, I like them as friends, I argue with them and I love them. They're part of my life and they've been part of my life for a lot of years now. I don't really care if stops, though, quite honestly. I don't care if I retire now, but I don't know what I’d do if I stopped doing this," he ponders "I'd go mad."
The Charlie Watts Interview
By Bill Beuttler Down Beat, February 1987
Charlie Watts has drummed for the Rolling Stones for going on a quarter century-a dream gig for most drummers. But it wasn't until recently that Watts began living out his own dream gig. The 45-year-old rhythmic heartbeat of "the world's greatest rock & roll band", you see, grew up wanting to play jazz, inspired by such as Chico Hamilton, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Dave Tough. And now, having put together his own 32-piece extra-big band, he's getting a chance to do just that.
Watts big band-three drums (including Charlie),seven trumpets, four trombones, 10 saxophones, a clarinet, a piano, two vibes, two basses, a cello, and two vocalists - features many of the biggest stars of British jazz, including players whose style range from the traditional to the avant-garde, among them free-jazz tenorist Evan Parker, ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce (on cello), Watts' boyhood buddy Dave Green on bass, and fellow drummers Bill Eyden and John Stevens. The band debuted at Ronnie Scott's, London's preeminent jazz spot (which Watts had rented for the week), in November 1985, then reassembled the following March to shoot a video (produced by fellow -Rolling Stone Bill Wyman) at the Fulham Town Hall. The just-released album Live At Fulham Town Hall (featuring six standards recorded that night-Stomping At The Savoy, Lester Leaps In, Moonglow, Robbins Nest, Scrapple From The Apple, and Flying Home) followed, as did invitations to jazz festivals in England and Berlin.
Since then, Watts has brought his big band to New York for its American debut. While in town laying plans for that debut, Watts discussed his big band and his own jazz roots with down beat, having granted us one of his very rare interviews. The interview took place in a large, cluttered conference room at Columbia Records, in which posters of CBS artists like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Young covered the walls. Watts arrived wearing a stylish blue suit and tie, the jacket of which he removed before sitting with his interviewer at one corner of a long conference table. A gracious and unaffected man, Watts spoke in a pleasant blend of cockney and King's English, pausing occasionally to sip from a bottle of Heineken or to puff a Kool cigarette.
What is your history as a drummer? I've read that you started out drumming on a banjo with its neck twisted off.
Yeah, I bought a banjo, and I saw all these dots in a book-did you ever see a banjo book or a guitar book ? I couldn't have done that. Oh dear, all these little dot things. So I took the neck off, and about the same time I heard a drummer called Chico Hamilton. It was a record called Walking Shoes by Gerry Mulligan and I fell in love with the sound of the brushes. So I bought a pair of wire brushes and used the banjo, the skin of it - now it's probably worth more than a snare drum - as a drum. Luckily it wasn't double-backed-you know some banjos have got backs on, wooden backs or metal backs; this was just an open one. So I made a sort of wire stand-I was 12 or 13, I think.
How long before you actually had a set?
My dad bought me one off a friend of his. I suppose a few years, a couple of years-and then the noise started in proper. I mean. they're the worst thing you can get a kid. They're an awful lot of fun, but they're the worst instrument to actually learn to play, noisewise. They've got all these practice pad-type things, but there's no point in playing them, because half the fun when you first start is the sound of the drums. And the noise is unbelievable, it just shakes an apartment. That's part of the horror of playing them-controlling the volume.
How were you trained as a drummer? Did you play along with records? Did you have lessons?
No, I never had lessons. Used to try to play to records, which I hated doing. Still can't play to them. I know guys who can, kids as well-they put on a record, sit down and play with it, every lick. I could never do that. Even at the age of 14 or so it seemed synthetic-it wasn't the same as playing the thing. And I hate playing with cans [earphones] on, too-I always play with one on and one off.
Do you read music at all?
How do you manage to get through your big band's charts?
Well, you don't have to read if you've got someone to hit the shots for you. That's Bill Eyden. He's someone I used to see at the bar a lot when I was very young. He's played with everybody. He's a great reader, the ultimate pro. You need a good reader in that band, because it takes John [Stevens] a long while to read the charts and it takes me a lifetime. This way I can do them-the only thing is remembering them all. Readers don't have to remember all this stuff. It must be great for them. You know, when you go on stage and your adrenaline gets going you always-well I always do-forget arrangements. Those guys don't even have to think about it. They can have a few beers and they're covered, because they can read it. That doesn't mean to say they're going to play it exceptionally well, but they will know where they are. You need to read with that many people, the discipline of it all.
You've got what, 30-some people ?
Three drummers, including yourself. What's the idea of having such a large...
I just wanted a band with them in it.
How did you pick the players?
All my favourite players. I mean if I'd have been living in America I'd have had a whole different set of players. These are people I've admired for years. I've always wanted to play with them.
Do you spend a lot of lime in the clubs in London?
Not really. I go to them occasionally. I saw Chet Baker recently. If I'm in London for a week I'll go to Ronnie Scott's once. He gets the best players - Buddy Rich was just there. I usually go to clubs here, to see Tony Williams play for example.
Have you seen his new quintet?
No, I haven't seen Tony for I don't know how long. He said hello to me once at the Village Vanguard, I think. It was when he played with Ron Carter and Hank Jones, just a trio. The next day he introduced me to an English guitarist, Allan Holdsworth-he had a band with Allan then. I saw Tony when he was 19, in England with Miles, and he was incredible. I immediately asked Gretsch to send me a kit like his.
That's the kit he had at the Vanguard; the next night he had these two bass drums, and he was into something else. A marvellous player, one of the best actually. Still so young-it must be very difficult for Tony Williams to know what to do next. With Miles Davis at 17, taking the drumming world as well as the musical world by storm at 19 - and there you are, you've got to make your living from that level up. You know what I mean? It's very difficult. His Lifetime band was great. I saw them.
I've read about the Stones going to check that out
Mick Taylor took us; this was when John McLaughlin and Larry Young were with Tony. He was fantastic then. And then I saw some things that he did with Jack Bruce. Hopefully, Jack's coming over with the big band. I haven't even spoken to Jack-he's one of those guys who you ring up and if he can make it, he'll make it. Lovely bloke, Jack.
Who are some other drummers that you listen to?
I listen to them all. I don't know why, but David Tough is someone whom I've always loved - the recordings of him with the Herman First Herd, Northwest Passage and Countdown. He did some great stuff with Benny Goodman I try to listen to a lot. There's so many - especially young players. There always has been.
Do you listen to rock as well?
Rock & Roll? Sure.
Do you how any favorite R&R drummers?
Not really, because I don't really know a lot of the guys' names.
How about bands?
I don't really know. I know Max [Weinberg]. He did the best book on drummers written. I love it because he didn't give it to somebody else to write; he actually wrote it, which really knocked me out. He wrote some very nice things about me as well. He actually had me, all his influences-the one on Ringo's very good. They're actually little articles written by someone who knows drummers.
How about yourself? I've heard you've written a book about Charlie Parker
It's a kids book. I did it when I was 20.
Is it available anymore?
Anymore? It was only available for a year, and no one would stock it at the time. It came out when the [John] Lennon book, In His Own Write, did-the same publisher that did Lennon's book did my book. But the stores wouldn't take mine because of what it was. A lot of people ask me about it. It's got all of Parker's life in it, all wrapped around this fictitious bird. It's written for kids, you'd get through it in a minute; it's not like Max's book.
When you were growing up, who were the main people that made you want to play jazz?
Well, on records it would be - there's so many aren't there? I suppose Charlie Parker, which would be Max Roach, wouldn't it? Buddy Rich, but Buddy Rich's greatest achievement is the actual amount of people he's played with. Some of his best recordings Ella & Louis, the control that he has on that record is beautiful. He did two, I think, with bands led by Count Basie. There's one of them where he does an intro just on the hi-hat-amazing, it's all there in just eight bars.
One of the few drum solos I'd actually like would be Skin Deep, Louie Bellson's thing. He's an amazing player. He and Ed Shaughnessy were the first ones with two bass drums. Do you know that? Shaughnessy was the first one, I think, when he used to work with Jackie Cain and Roy Kral, two singers-that was in the Charbe Ventura band, 1947 or '48. But over the years, Kenny Clarke I suppose. Just finesse. And in that tradition, for touch, would be Billy Higgins. They're lovely players to hear. The guy who used to play with Dizzy Gillespie, whose name I've forgotten for the moment. All those people: Sid Catlett, Charlie Persip, Art Tatum...
And it was your intention to become a Jazz player yourself?
I always imagined so. In England, really, the biggest hero was a man called Phil Seaman. There's a tradition of players that look and play like him - John Stevens is one. And the sad thing is that Seaman never got to America. But an amazing player, totally unique. First guy I ever saw play timp-style - he invented it. You know, instead of playing like that [demonstrates], which is chop-style, he played with his fingers, like you actually play a timpani drum. When you roll with timps you fan, and he'd be playing like that.
Ginger Baker's another one that I Wanted to play like. One of the first good bands I got in was Alexis Korner's band - Jack [Bruce] was in that band, he played upright bass and cello. Ginger used to play in a jazz octet, the best band in London at the time. Ginger had a kit that he actually made, the first plastic kit I'd ever seen. Those were the days when you had calf heads, but his were like real African drums-which are actually animal skins, shaved off - so they were about a quarter-of-an-inch thick. He's the only guy I've ever seen get any sound out of his tom-toms. I borrowed them off him one night he was on the first act, the Stones were the next band on, and then Ginger with Alexis - and couldn't get anywhere. Broke about four sticks. I don't break drum sticks normally, but Ginger's chops are so strong. They still are. I tried to get him to play in this band actually, but I couldn't get a hold of him.
How old were you when you joined Alexis Korner's band?
I was 21, I think. I was working in Denmark, came back, and he asked me to join his band. That was the first time I ever played with a harmonica player, and that was Cyril Davies. He was a Chicago-style blues player, and that was what he wanted the band to be like-I'd have to play like Francis Clay or Freddie Below.
How did you adjust to playing the blues?
I listened to the records, and Alexis taught me. And Keith [Richards] and Brian [Jones] taught me, through constantly playing Jimmy Reed. Reed and his drummer, Earl Phillips, were as sensitive as Paul Motian with Bill Evans.
Motlan, with Scott La Faro and Charlie Haden, was one of the most sensitive drummers - the rhythms would just go around and inside each other. In a different way from how the rhythms would turn inside each other for another great drummer, Dannie Richmond, under the direction of Charlie Mingus, who I saw an awful lot of. I don't mean in the same way as another brilliant player - who I suppose as a kid I always wanted to look like and play like - Joe Morello. Morello would play time sequences, whereas Dannie's time would be more out in the air. It'd turn around, because Mingus would make it do that. He'd build up the time and it wouldn't matter, because it would just lead into this amazing burst, or it'd stop - but it'd be stop shuffle and ad those things. A lot of those Mingus albums on Atlantic are quite incredible.
Like the Changes albums and Cornegie Hall?
That is one of the great records. That's what I'd like my band to roar like. I mean, it would never sound as precisioned as Basie's band, but that takes 40 years of being on the road. But I'd like it to surge like Mingus'. Use it as a vehicle, and use every great player in it. It's that knowledge like Miles Davis has, that knowing when to stop the thing and when to start, who to point to. Duke Ellington had that, his bands were just Its arms, like Mingus' band was just his arm. If he wanted it to sound like a boogie band, he'd just play those ticks. Or he'd sit at the piano- on one of the great Mingus albums he played piano. It's an incredible record, a better fusion of boogie music and what you might call contemporary jazz than a lot of actual boogie piano players - that's what it's like having Pete Johnson do it with Albert Ammons. That's what Ian Stewart was his best at.
Anyway, when Mingus did shift a gear he knew who to have there. Miles Davis is the same. Miles Davis has never had a bad band in his life. The last one I saw was with Al Foster, and it was incredible. Art Blakey's another one who can pick players, can't he? Look at the people who have gone through his band.
And he is in his mid-60s now, still playing great
The guy is something else. Buddy Rich is one of those people. I don't like drum solos, to be honest with you, but if anybody ever told me he didn't like Buddy Rich I'd right away say go and see him, at least the once - just to see him sit at the set of drums and play. That is remarkable just to see it. Blakey's the same way. One of the loveliest record that Blakey's made, I think, is with Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis-I think Autumn Leaves is on it. Make you cry, that one.
Let's get back to your big band. Is this a short-term project for you?
I don't know. It was originally, and people have asked us to do this. I'll fit it in with my life and if we do anything with the Stones. My band - they're all bandleaders, so it's hard to get them all together. They're booked so far in advance; it's not like me- I do a stint with the Stones, and then I won't do any more. With those guys, the phone's always ringing.
Do you sit in very much at Jazz clubs?
Hardly. No, it'd scare the life out of me. I'm not very good at that.
How do you keep your jazz chops up? Do you practice?
No, not really. It's just in me I suppose. It's the same thing to me as playing rock & roll. You have different roles to fill, but it's the same sort of work. You've still got to be there all the time.
Does the big band rehearse much?
No. Berlin was the first time we'd played in three months. That's why it's good to play a set that you sort of know. It takes that sweat away. But we're going to rehearse to come over here. We' ll be doing five original things that two of the guys have written, and we're going to have to rehearse them.
Who's writing for you?
Bobby Wellins, the tenor player, has written three things, and a trumpet player, Jimmy Deuchar, has written two - he's probably the best writer in the band.
What sort of rapport do you have with London and American jazz players? Do they resent the amount of money you've made with the Stones?
I have no idea. I suppose I would feel like that if I'd done something for 20 years, if it was my life's career, and I got $10 for turning up, and someone else.... I don't know if it actually would affect my opinion of either their ability or what they're like as guys.
Sonny Rollins played on one Stones album. Did you enjoy doing that? Was it recorded live?
No, that was overdubbed. That's one of the things that's happened with the saxophone, in rock & roll anyway. It's either just an eight-bar overdub, or it's just a section to play through onstage. I think Bruce [nods toward a Springsteen poster] has got a guy, hasn't he?
Yeah. He's probably more involved in the actual show than most rock horn players.
There was one tune on the album with Rollins, called Slave, with a bass line just like a Miles thing, from around the Big Fun period. It goes [sings seven-note lick]. Was that deliberately lifted?
God, I'd love to hear that. Yeah, I know the track-it is the same, isn't it? It might have come through in a different way, but it wasn't a conscious lift. I might consciously try lifting something that Tony Wilhams would do, but that's because I listen to him; Bill [Wyman] doesn't listen to Miles Davis, or I doubt he'd ever listened to that album.
As far as the big band's concerned, most of the stuff you seem to be going toward is swing stuff. . .
Well, it should all swing, Chuck Berry swings, doesn't he?
But the band also includes free players like Ewan Parker ...
Yeah that was the idea. Half of the band [laughs], 10 out of 30, are free music players. Simon Phillips - he's not on the album but he's coming over with us - Evan, Paul Rutherford, Dave De Fries. There's a whole crowd of people that John Stevens plays with. I always think of Evan Parker as being a bright new star; Evan's about my age, actually. He, like John, has been playing free music for 20 years. You'd think free music was this new sort of thing. It's got a hell of a lot of nuances, that-bloody amazingly complex things.
Do you want these players to move the band away from swing and more toward free music?
I want this band to do both [laughs]. I want a mixture of players. Somebody asked me who I'd want if I had an American band. I'd choose as diversely - I'd ask Anthony Braxton, and I would love Paul Quinichette, although I think he might have died a couple of years ago. But you know, that sort of thing. They all actually play. It's just that a lot of people won't listen to one and then listen to the other. If you lock the doors they've got to listen to them all.
Charlie Watts uses Gretsch drums, primarily because of advertisements he saw in down beat while a fledgling drummer. "I've always used really old ones." he explains, 'and they're usually rented ones that I find - I say, "These are nice, I like these". I did that, with a guy in L.A., I was doing an album with Ronnie Wood, and a guy I met had this pet drum kit - this is the old Gretsh and I fell in love with it. I said : "Can I have this ?" And I think he was a bit choked to lose this one that'd he'd done up [Laughs] but he sold it to me. But I've always used Gretsch. because of the adverts they used to have in down beat, I've still got all those down beats. I' got the drum issue of '56-Max Roach is on the cover. But they used to do marvellous adverts. I mean, obviously I took no note of the Conn or Selmer ads, but there used to be great photo of Lee Morgana or somebody sitting there. When I was a kid we used to dress like Shelly Manne, because of the adverts. He used to have those Ivy League jackets on, and we used to go out and try to get those at import shops in England, with button-down shirts - there was a whole style".
Watts kits are standard four-pieces setups, largely for the same reason. "I still use the same one that Max Roach advertised you should buy, which was the soft tom-tom, bass drum, deep tom-tom, and a snare drum". He isn't fussy about his cymbals. "I pick them up from anywhere" he says. "They are mostly Avedis [manufactured by Zildjian] and they're quite old ones."
Watts has yet to embrace electronic drum himself, but he recognizes certain advantages to them. "I'm not interested in it, inasmuch a I wouldn't particularly want to do it, but I am interested in what other do with it, it saves a lot of mic-ing up if you are doing that rock & roll sort of thing - if you are in middle of the Astrodome or New Orleans' Superdome you have to send somebody up with a walkie-talkie, and he'll say, "can you hit the bass drum a bit harder ?" Well yeah, but only up to a point - then you begin losing balance and touch. The pads take all that [hassle] out. because they pick it up direct.
But Watts is quick to point out that electronics, for him, will never replace the real thing. "For me, it's not the same as seeing Steve Gadd of Buddy Rich sit down and play. The real ability of playing a drum kit is the ability of playing with different instruments at different volume - a tenor solo is different from a bass solo. You have to have volume under control, but it's a volume that you have from your wrists or your fingers". That, says Watts, is challenge enough for him. "It's been years and years and years I've been playing the drums, and they're still a challenge. I still enjoy using drumsticks and a snare drum".