Thursday, June 2, 2011

Charlie Watts's Ten Greatest Beats

Keith Richards may have recently spent nearly 550 pages grumbling about the prancing vocalist to his right, but only one Stone was terse enough to tell Mick Jagger “Don’t ever call me ‘your drummer’ again. You’re my fucking singer!” before giving him a face full of knuckles. That’s the kind of forthright might one should expect from Charlie Watts. He is equally brusque on drums, never overplaying or needlessly upstaging his cohorts, but like that famous punch, he isn’t above letting you know who’s really pulling Jagger’s strings every once in a while. The Charlie Watts Beat is as instantly recognizable as Ringo’s wash of hi-hat or Keith Moon’s thunderous chaos: never a hi-hat and snare played in unison, always a little behind the beat. Funky, loose but driving, the perfect compliment to Mick’s mercurial yowling and Keith’s sparse shades of strumming. Charlie Watts is The Rolling Stones’ “Man Behind the Curtain,” but in honor of his 70th birthday, we’re gonna yank that curtain down, shine a light on him, and groove to his ten greatest beats.

1. “Get Off Of My Cloud” (1965)

With “Get Off Of My Cloud”, Charlie Watts essentially does for the drums what Keith Richards did for the guitar on The Stones’ previous single, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: he creates his instrument’s most instantly recognizable lick. The big difference is that iconic guitar riffs had been a Rock & Roll staple since Ike Turner choked out the boogie-woogie on “Rocket 88”. How many iconic drum beats had there been? “Peggy Sue” perhaps? “Bo Diddley” maybe? But even on those songs the drums served as backdrop for Holly and Diddley’s manic strumming. Right from the start of “Get Off Of My Cloud” we know who’s ruling the record. That purposeful thunder of semi-open hi-hat invaded by a lightning-bolt snare fill is to Rock & Roll drumming what “Once upon a time” is to storytelling.

2. “Paint It Black” (1966)

“Paint It Black” is a glorious testament to The Stones’ ensemble power. Everyone is delivering stellar work: Keith’s snaky guitar riff later echoed by Brian’s zingy sitar, Mick’s crimped inflections, Bill’s bass swoops that propel the track through its concluding dervish dance. But it is Charlie’s tom-tom pounding that inspired Melody Maker to swoon that he “creates a galloping beat suggesting high-speed elephants.” The powerful thumping Charlie muscles through the majority of the song is only topped by the simple yet shattering fill he discharges after the quiet mid-song break. A curt volley between toms and snare and the track is immediately thrust back into frenzied violence. Transcendent.

3. “My Obsession” (1967)

The potency of simplicity. As he did on “Get Off Of My Cloud”—and as he would do often throughout Between the Buttons—Charlie provides a track’s chief instrumental hook on “My Obsession”. Bass-snare-bass-snare-snare. When the sound evaporates at the end of each verse, the drummer ushers the band back in with a return to his ponderous solo like a nightmare that refuses to end. Only by killing it mid-beat is Charlie able to halt his obsession.

4. “Please Go Home” (1967)

Another Between the Buttons track gets its oomph from the man behind the kit. While Keith’s absurdly overdriven guitar doesn’t slack, it is Charlie’s “shave-and-a-haircut” jive that launches “Please Go Home” into the stratosphere. Punctuated only by the occasional gong-like cymbal crash, the beat never relents or alters, and the listener’s heart never stops racing until that final wave of guitar shudders into the shadows.

5. “Complicated” (1967)

Charlie gets even funkier on “Complicated”. Once again, he provides the hook, a hypnotic cha-cha-cha that expands into an unbreakable roll by the end of the track. There’s something very cheeky about his shifts into a Ringo Starr-like wash on the verses.

6. “2000 Man” (1967)

Here’s where words fail me. I’m not a drummer, so I can’t really explain what Charlie is doing in this song. I’m guessing most drummers couldn’t either. As Keith picks out a fairly conventionally rhythmic folk melody on his acoustic, Charlie trips the beat into disorienting psychedelia (or is it prog rock?) with his syncopations, keeping the beat moving with his hippity-hoppity bass drum but landing the snare where you’d least expect it. On first listen, his beat sounds completely out of place and distracting. After the third or fourth listen, you couldn’t imagine “2000 Man” without it. And just in case you’re concerned that Charlie has succumbed to some sort of massive psychedelic head trauma, he lays down his familiar funk on the mid-section to remind us he is still well capable of kicking out a basic beat.

7. “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968)

Mick and Keith did not provide Charlie with a lot of material requiring Latin rhythms, so hearing him samba as naturally as Tito Puente on “Sympathy for the Devil” is kind of shocking. He gets the intricate rhythm jingling from the opening seconds. When Rocky Dijon on congas and Bill Wyman on cabasa join in, the voodoo ritual is in full effect. Add in Mick’s screams and Keith’s tortured guitar shrieks and jittery bass, and you have one of the most rhythmically exhilarating Rock & Roll tracks ever cut.

8. “Honky Tonk Women” (1969)

No Latin flourishes here. No tricky syncopations or signature hooks. “Honky Tonk Women” is where Charlie lays down the archetypal Charlie beat, and this list would be incomplete without such an example. A few insouciant clicks from Jimmy Miller’s cowbell then Charlie thuds in slightly behind the beat, as is his way. He then propels the tempo without pushing it, barely altering the beat throughout the track’s three minutes. Notice how consistent the drums remain even as the brass, guitars, and bass approach euphoria on the instrumental break. Then when all instruments and voices cut loose on the grand finale, swooping and diving around each other like asteroids, Charlie trips up his beat a bit for emphasis, but doesn’t hit harder, doesn’t really go out of his way to up the intensity because he doesn’t need to. “Honky Tonk Women” is a sublime example of the drummer’s taste and his ability to lead the show from the back row. And you can dance to it.

9. “Moonlight Mile” (1971)

Perhaps the most gorgeous song in The Stones’ catalogue is also one of the band’s most deceptively powerful ones. Gentle acoustic guitars and piano provide a velvet backdrop to Mick’s sensitive vocal. Charlie rolls in with what sounds like soft mallets, creating cinematic flourishes redolent of crashing waves. He never breaks into standard bass-snare interplay. Rather he washes and booms and tumbles his way through the track, providing its exhilarating might, driving Mick to wails that ring with greater sincerity than the mass of his vocals. “Moonlight Mile” suggests that Charlie may have missed his calling as a great movie director.

10. “Time Waits for No One” (1974)

Charlie’s rhythm on “Time Waits for No One” is just as visual as his work on “Moonlight Mile”, cracking a rim shot that instantly conjures images of a grand, looming clock even before Jagger begins decrying the stoic cruelty of time. When the guitars flood in, he releases all of his signatures: the lax beat, the cinematic rolls, the Latin off beats, the simple yet mighty tom fills. By the end of the track, he’s back to tick-tocking, leading this epic out toward infinity.

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