Gone but not forgotten

Mega Watts

Charlie Watts died,” I say to Mrs Plain Or Pan when she gets in from work.

Oh…I know him,” she says, recognising the name from somewhere…and proceeds to sing the opening ‘fa-fa-fa fa fas‘ from The Kinks’ ‘David Watts‘. “He was the drummer in The Who, wasn’t he?

Every day is Give Us A Clue in our house and the sad, sudden, unexpected news regarding the metronomic heartbeat of the Stones provided yet another beauty.

I’ve been in the same environs as Charlie Watts three times, yet I’ve set eyes on him just the once. Or maybe twice.

The first: The Rolling Stones’ Urban Jungle tour at Hampden Park in Glasgow, July 1990. Derek and I were in the traditional Rangers end – a great place to be in the mid ’80s when Scotland were rampaging their way towards another World Cup finals, but not so great for the current Stones show. The stage set was so massive and clunky that we found ourselves watching them side-on. A never-ending flood of fence-jumpers made their way from the terracing around us and melted anonymously into the standing section, their stick-it-to-the-man actions loudly cheered whenever the Rock Steady security guy tripped and fell while chasing them, but I’m ashamed to say that I was too scared of getting caught and turfed out before opening act Gun had hard-rocked their way through their 17th guitar solo or third number, whichever came first, so with a grumpy but understanding Derek, we watched from our acute angle afar.

Mick and Keef did their thang, front and centre. Ronnie prowled just behind them. Bill Wyman’s replacement was…somewhere…(who cared?) and Charlie? His kit was stuck so far at the back that, even when they came to bow at the end, he ended up being obscured by a massive, deflating rubber doll that had popped up during Honky Tonk Women. So, although I saw the Stones in concert – “We should really see them before they break up“, contended Derek, thirty one summers ago – I never did see Charlie and that nonchalant face of his as the band ground through the gears of Tumbling Dice and Brown Sugar and Miss You and a gazillion other greats. Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues indeed.

The second: Lake Ontario, Toronto, September 1997. We’re on honeymoon, Mrs Pan and I, and out on a wee tourist pleasure cruise on Lake Ontario. It’s a roasting hot day, even out on the lake, and it’s all going on; an enthusiastic tour guide pointing out significant buildings on the Toronto skyline, free drinks, a reciprocal beep and wave from other passing pleasure cruisers and then… from nowhere, up glides this big boat. It’s blasting rock music. It’s got the MTV logo all over it. And it has a host with a microphone.

Hey you guys! We got the Stones on board!” And there they are – Mick, Keith, Ronnie, the Wyman replacement and Charlie, jazz-cat cool and riffing across his snare and hi-hat, staring off into the middle distance, lost in his playing. And just as quickly, there they went. Stone me! Literally. No photos were taken, of course. Oh no! I wasn’t always as smart as I am these days.

The third. Edinburgh a couple of years ago. We had tickets for Wicked at the Playhouse. I very kindly gave mine to my mum. Musicals ain’t my thing, I reasoned. And while they’re at the theatre, I thought to myself, I can check out the record shops without feeling I’m pushing my luck. So that’s the plan. I leave everyone at the Playhouse, I walk the short walk up Leith Street and at the top I’m met by a heaving throng of people, all gathered around the Balmoral Hotel. The road is sealed off. Half a dozen limos are circulating outside. The word on the street is that the Stones are, at any moment, leaving in the fancy cars to soundcheck at Murrayfield, where they’ll play later that evening. Well, what can a poor boy do, but hang around and catch a glimpse of a Stone or two.

A good hour and a bit later and suddenly there’s a burst of activity and yer actual Mick Jagger is standing at the top of the stairs that lead in and out of the hotel. With well-practised schtick, he holds court. “Awl-right!” he camps from below a red baseball hat, his linen suit looking expensively louche from 20 metres away. While I’m fumbling for the phone I’d long-since stuck in my pocket, he does a wee wave, one of those where the fingers bend at the knuckles and that’s about it, and, with a hop and a skip and a jump, he’s bundled by half a dozen burlies into his car. Wow, I think. He’s the same age as my father-in-law. How daft is that?! I catch myself laughing and a foreign tourist moves slightly away from me. Next there’s Keef. I think I manage to snap the top and/or back of the bird’s nest on his head. The wee twisted red ribbon is, I think, the giveaway. Or maybe it was Ronnie. I dunno. The photo, on later inspection, proves inconclusive.

This nonsense goes on for what seems like forever and then, suddenly, there’s another swell of noise, a shouldery jostle from the tourist beside me and there…I think…yes…eh?…aye!…hmmm…definitely…it’s Charlie Watts; whippet thin, nice suit, grey hair atop a Mount Rushmore of sagging lines…and then he’s gone. Just like that.

The Rolling Stones have oft-featured on these pages and without checking, I’d imagine Charlie gets a mention every time. This doesn’t always happen when you spend your time writing about guitar bands, especially ones with such iconic guitarists, but there’s a fair argument to be made that the Stones wouldn’t have rolled quite so smoothly with anyone else keeping time at the back.

Always that tiny half beat behind the group, Charlie provided the groove and swagger, the calmest man in the crew as the madness and mayhem spiralled around him. To have been a part of that group during their golden years must have been quite something indeed, yet even when knee-deep in (and on) hard drugs, Charlie appeared to be never anything other than in control at all times. With his hands on the reigns, he gave the others the permission to push forward, instructed them when to hold back and allowed them the space in which to play some of the grooviest, bluesiest rock ‘n roll of all times, dapper as a dandy and nonchalant as fuck.

See y’later Charlie. I’ll have my camera ready the next time.


Cover Versions, demo, Get This!, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Kings, Queens & Other Chess Pieces

I meant to mark this occasion and put something up last week, but the RJ Ellory post (below) took over slightly. A week later, it would be churlish of me not to give a nod and a wink to that creaky old juggernaut that keeps limping on, like your smelly old dog with 3 good legs that’s deaf in one ear and blind in the only eye it has left. Aye,The Rolling Stones as a rock and roll group have now been in the game for no less than 50 years. That surely makes them one of the oldest musical acts still going strong. The Four Tops still do the odd show here and there (mainly ‘there’, in Vegas), and from 1953 until the death of Lawrence Payton in 1997 managed to keep the original line-up intact.¬†The Drifters started in the 50s, but most (or all?) of the originals have, cough, drifted off. They probably played 5 shows last night anywhere between Blackpool Butlins and the Bermuda Triangle, so you can’t really count them. The Stones survive with 3 original members (Mick, Keith and Charlie, who actually joined after their first gig, see image at the bottom) and with Ronnie Wood having been in the band longer than The Fall have been a going concern. And how many members have they gone through in that time, eh? (Answer: about 66, at the last count).

Nowadays, they’re a bit more¬†creased around the edges and a bit more expensive of cloth (though evidently, unlike most men of their age (and 10, 20, 30 years younger), no more expansive of waist). Sure, they’re a whole lot less vital than they once were, their live shows still trade on their Golden Era (early 60s – mid 70s, if you need to ask) and nowadays they’re a brand not a band – you can buy their merchandise in Primark if you fancy! But, as you already know, the Stones were totally, absolutely, dynamite in their heyday.

Chess Studios, 1964.

There’s a famous story (not an urban myth, as Keith goes at great lengths to point out in his autobiography) that when they turned up midway through their first US tour to record at the famous old Chess Studios, band hero Muddy Waters (he wrote I’m A Rollin’ Stone) was painting the outside of the building, whitewash streaming down his face, only stopping to help Bill Wyman in with his amplifier from car to studio. It didn’t matter that Muddy was a legend to the Stones and all those other Thames Delta blues bands, in his homeland he had yet to make that leap from unfashionable unknown to undeniable blues great. As Keith astutely notes, “If you want to stay on the payroll, get to work.”

Chess Studios, 1964

The stuff that the band recorded at Chess in 1964 was brilliant – Keith says 14 tracks in 2 days, my bootleg has 27, including their version of Bobby Womack’s It’s All Over Now that gave them their first number 1. Organic and rootsy, deep-rooted in the blues, the music has a big, booming, beefy sound, all reverb and twang and feral snap. Most of the recordings they made there for a potential album remain unreleased to this day (Google 2120 Michigan Avenue. Go on!) and it knocks spots off of anything that their sha-la-la, she-loves-me-and-I-love-her contemporaries were tossing off into the Hit Parade. But you knew that already…

The Tunes:

The Rolling StonesIt’s All Over Now

The Rolling Stones2120 South Michigan Avenue

The Rolling StonesTime Is On My Side (version 2)

The Rolling StonesDon’t You Lie To Me

The Rolling StonesStewed & Keefed

The Rolling StonesThe Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man

The Originals:

Bobby WomackIt’s All Over Now

Irma ThomasTime Is On My Side