‘Not just a drummer – a genre’: Stewart Copeland and Max Weinberg on Charlie Watts

I’m an early-period Stones fan, and not so much because of losing interest in them, but because when you’re 16, music is 100 times more important – and the Rolling Stones were right there when I was 16. Humans are sort of like ducks. A duck comes out of the shell, the first warm thing it sees is mama; for adolescent teenage humans, the first raucous sound of rebellion, that’s daddy. And in my generation, that sound was the Stones.

Charlie’s death is devastating and shocking partly on the account that Rolling Stones are not meant to perish – they’re indefatigable. They’ve outlasted everybody, which is ironic, because they’re the bad boys who stay out late and have three sugars in their tea. The libertine, rakish lifestyle they celebrated should have taken them down for their wretchedness, and yet they’ve survived everybody, so when we lose one it’s quite shocking. Finally the Grim Reaper has called, for probably the most virtuous of them all!

Prior to his death, the Rolling Stones had already found a replacement for their next tour, but you would have noticed the difference. All the drummers are saying: “No, Charlie was the Stones, there would be no Stones [without him]” – which is going a little far. But looking at it from the other angle, you sure will notice him when he’s not there any more. It’s sort of like the bass. People don’t listen to the bass, but you take it away, and wow, you really notice something’s missing. And that will certainly be true of Charlie. Every human has a distinct personality, some more distinct than others, and in musicians, that really comes to the fore. You can analyse Charlie Watts, but that still won’t get you to his feel and his distinct personality. It’s an X-factor, it’s a charisma, it’s an undefinable gift of God.

I can tell you about the technique, though. Drummers will argue about this long into the night: either how did John Bonham get that mountain of sound, or how did Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts get that feel? Technically, what it is, is that he leads with his right foot on the kick drum, which pushes the band forward. Meanwhile his left hand on the snare, the backbeat, is a little relaxed, a little lazy – and that combination of propulsion and relaxation is the technical definition of what he’s doing. But you can try it yourself, all you want, and it ain’t going to sound like Charlie.

He has caused a lot of damage out there, in the same way Jimi Hendrix came out with a wah-wah pedal – it was the ruination of many guitarists who didn’t get it and ruined their guitar playing with a wah-wah pedal. Similarly, drummers attempting to get that laid-back feel just sound lame. Behind the beat, that’s not good – you’ve got to do it in such a way, like Charlie. And there’s a synergy with those guitar riffs, and also with Mick Jagger, who is extremely rhythmic with his vocals – he, in that band, more than most, was part of the rhythm section. It’s a combination of those elements that makes it what it is.

Charlie described himself as a jazz drummer, but they all do that – in rock’n’roll, that’s sort of like saying “classically trained”. Rock musicians aspire to have jazz credibility – even Ginger Baker called himself a jazz drummer, for God’s sake. I’d say it was a futile enterprise: a member of the Rolling Stones denying being rock’n’roll is not very convincing! But one thing you can see of the jazz influence on him is that he went for groove, and derived power from relaxation. Most rock drummers are trying to kill something; they’re chopping wood. Jazz drummers instead tend to be very loose to get that jazz feel, and he had that quality. The jazz factor in Charlie wasn’t in the use of the ride cymbal going ting-ting-ti-ting, it was his overall body relaxation. It’s also why he hardly broke a sweat while driving the band to light up a stadium.

The biggest thing I learned from him is volume – he plays very quietly. Very early on, he discovered this wonderful device called the PA system: five billion watts of PA means that the drummer doesn’t have to work all that hard after all. When I was a young drummer, I was out there trying to kill every drum in sight, and it’s through watching Charlie that I realised: you know what? You can actually get a better sound out of your drums, and a better groove, if you relax.

As far as individual songs go, I’d pick out his work on Satisfaction: stripped down and simple, it just drives forward, nothing fancy. If you try and write that down, it’s like one bar repeated; four on the floor, and with the snare doubling. Then there’s Get Off My Cloud, which is the definitive drum intro to a track – that’s just iconic. And Jumpin’ Jack Flash, where the riffs, the drums and the vocals just come together. That’s the highest quality of a drummer. Buddy Rich, you go to see for the drum fills and the flashy stuff; you go to see a band, and they’re great or not due to the synergy, not due to the star quality. I’m afraid I’ve been slow to learn that lesson! I did learn to relax from Charlie, but I’m still a show-off, still too full of nervous energy.

When I was a kid in New Jersey, if you were looking for work, there’d be ads for musicians. In the mid-60s and 70s, they would invariably say: “Wanted: Charlie Watts type drummer”. Charlie is not just a drummer – he’s a genre. Every beat I play, there’s Charlie Watts in there someplace.

What he did that was unique with the Rolling Stones, was that while it was rock’n’roll, it was really blues. I have an opinion that the Stones have lasted because they’re essentially a blues band as opposed to being a pop band; blues is timeless. Of course, they are the greatest band in the world for a number of reasons, not the least of which is they call themselves the greatest band in the world. But on a drumming level, he was non-pareil – there was nobody quite like him. There are pretenders and contenders, but there’s only one Charlie Watts, and only ever will be – while not here in body, he will live for ever in the spirit of his drumming. It’s almost incomprehensible to think of a world, at least in my world, without Charlie Watts.

He fashioned himself after his favourite jazz drummers, among them the great English jazz drummer Phil Seaman, and Dave Tough, an American drummer who even looked like Charlie: a fastidious dresser, apparently with the most incredible groove and sound. Charlie became a proponent – as I am – of a style of rock drumming popularised by the late, great Al Jackson, the famous Stax drummer, where you deliberately play behind the direct backbeat. The way you do that – which is a little technical – is not by focusing on the two and the four beat, but the one and the three. Another example is James Brown’s music, which is heavily focused on landing on the one. It takes a long time to be able to do that. A drummer like that, you’re driving the bus, and the best drummers do that, to give the other musicians what they need. Charlie did it instinctually, or in some cases by osmosis by listening to the great drummers: Chick Webb, Kenny Clarke, Kenny Clare, Art Blakey, Max Roach.

He had a very signature drum fill. During the recording of what would become Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA album, Street Fighting Man was really intriguing me because of the sound, the toughness, the beat; the fact that it was apparently recorded on a tour drum set or a box, on a cassette player, and sounded incredibly dangerous and tough. Charlie does this thing where he plays, quickly, three eighth notes: bap-bap-bap. And when Bruce presented the groove to Born in the USA, it reminded me of Street Fighting Man, so on that song, I’m doing Charlie Watts.

Rocks Off is another of the best Charlie Watts performances. He does these rolling fills in the middle of phrases. It’s genius, but it’s not composed before it actually happened – because he’s a jazz drummer, he’s creating it in the moment. As he said in many interviews, he’s back there and he always imagined Charlie Parker or Miles Davis is standing up in front of him.

We developed a friendship. He was always an incredibly lovely, sophisticated individual. I first met him around 1979 or 1980 – the Stones were playing a couple of nights in Madison Square Garden, and I was tagging along for this interview for Modern Drummer with a friend of mine. He was wearing a three-piece Savile Row suit, just incredibly turned out, and invites us into his hotel room so he can unpack. He had two beautiful leather suitcases on the bed, and he opened them up. Everything was immaculately folded; there was a precise toiletries kit. It was the exact opposite of the way I travel on the road. He took his clothes out of his suitcases, put them on the bed, refolded them, and put them in the drawers. I had never used a drawer in a hotel room in 15 years of being on the road. I thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. We did this interview, ordered room service, and he realised he had to get picked up to go to the Garden. He went into the bedroom, and came out wearing sweatpants and a sort of ripped T-shirt. He’d looked like an English lord, with this handsome, aristocratic, craggy face, and now he’s so dressed down to go “play with them”, as he said. Not “go play with my band, our band”, it was always “them, the Stones”. There was this funny kind of distance.

Years passed. Charlie called me in 1989, and said the Stones were playing New York City in October. He remembered me telling him I was friends with Joe Morello – the Dave Brubeck Quartet drummer who was responsible for the odd metres that Brubeck played in Take Five and Blue Rondo a la Turk – and Mel Lewis, an incredible bop-era drummer. Charlie was a huge fan and said: “I don’t know why they would, but I would be over the moon if they would agree to come to Shea Stadium so I could say hello to them – I wouldn’t expect them to stay.” I said, “Charlie, I will do my best.” Mel hated rock’n’roll – one of those jazz guys where rock’n’roll represented the decline of western civilisation.

But we end up driving to Shea Stadium, and we’re being treated like royalty. They take us up in an elevator, and with the Rolling Stones – similar to Paul McCartney – there’s about 10 guest levels, and each level is slightly more VIP than the next. We’re led into the inner sanctum. I said: “Charlie, it’s my honour to introduce you to Joe and Mel.” And he grabbed each of their hands, and said: “Gentlemen, it’s such an honour to meet you.” Charlie had a million questions: “When you played with Wynton Kelly and you did that little roll, how did you do that? Joe, could you show me exactly what you’re doing on Take Five?” He was a kid on Christmas, a smile from ear to ear. Me, I couldn’t believe I pulled this off.

They wanted to stay for the concert. Joe was blind, he couldn’t enjoy the spectacle, but he said to me: “Boy, Charlie Watts is a hell of a drummer, what a strong sense of time, he really anchors that band.” Mel, meanwhile – this is a guy who for 45 years had railed against rock’n’roll, and he completely loved it, every aspect of it. He got the musicality, the spectacle, and he was most impressed of all with Charlie’s drumming. What impresses drummers is: is what you’re doing appropriate to the music you’re playing? That’s what Mel Lewis was really impressed with: “Boy, he’s nailing it down!” On the drive home, Mel is saying, “I still don’t like rock’n’roll, but that was a hell of an experience. And your friend, I see why they’re called the greatest band – if you have to play rock drums, that’s the way rock drums should be played.”

Last time I saw Charlie was in Newark at the Prudential Centre a couple of years ago, the day before Bruce sat in with them and played Tumbling Dice. I reminded him that some 50 years before, I had seen them on 7 November 1965, down the street from here. They opened with Everybody Needs Somebody to Love by Solomon Burke, and played for about half an hour. There was a contest to win the spot to open for them, and my band didn’t get it. I was in the second row, and their big hit was Get Off of My Cloud – they played that and it sounded exactly like the record.

In the arena, we were standing against this wall, and he had his blue Rolling Stones-branded windbreaker on, that he always wore in later years. We were reminiscing about all that time that had gone by – an incredibly gracious guy, lovely guy. And when he went out to play, he took off the jacket with the tongue logo, he folded it, he handed it to his assistant, and sat down. If I was going to look like anyone else playing the drums, I’d want it to be Charlie Watts.

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