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The drummer’s drummer: 10 Rolling Stones songs that exhibit Charlie Watts’ brilliance

On 24 August, The Rolling Stones lost another member of their original line-up in drummer Charlie Watts. In light of this tragic news, this article seeks to present ten songs from The Stones’ illustrious catalogue which reveal Watts’ significance to the iconic band’s sound. As a drummer, Watts never was extravagant like Keith Moon, or explosive like John Bonham, or flashy like Ginger Baker. Instead, his metronomic style was characterised more by understatement and discipline. He played the song, doing what was necessary, facilitating his bandmates’ forays into different genres, tempos, and melodic sensibilities. This list celebrates such untold brilliance. 

#10: ‘All Sold Out’ – Between the Buttons (1967)

The album track from an underappreciated Stones LP during their baroque pop phase has Watts driving the song from start to finish. His drumming is prominent on the mix, and his flourishes that supplement the verses are a delight, as well as his tidy cymbal work prior to each chorus and at the outro. 

#9: ‘Monkey Man’ – Let It Bleed (1969) 

This number has to thank Watts’ interplay with Nicky Hopkins’ piano work, particularly in the verses especially, for its unmistakable, effortless groove. The instrumental bridge of this track is particularly impressive because of Watts’ generous engagement with the floor tom, providing the instrumental with apt sturdiness to supplement Mick Jagger’s indignant tone. 

#8: ‘Child of the Moon’ – Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Child of the Moon EP (1968) 

One of the more strange songs in the band’s catalogue, ‘Child of the Moon’ is the dying embers of The Stones’ foray into psychedelia. Here, the drum groove is essential to the track’s enjoyability and familiarity. With Jagger singing some of his most surreal lyrics, and Keith Richards’ guitar work being uncharacteristically modest, and Brian Jones deploying soprano saxophones and mellotrons, Watts’ drumming is the one thing that reminds us that this is in fact a Rolling Stones song. 

#7: ‘Citadel’ – Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967) 

Their Satanic Majesties Request is the black sheep in The Stones’ catalogue. This is them embracing psychedelia to an extent that proved too much for many. But tracks like ‘Citadel’ still prove to be a gem. It’s unapologetically psychedelic and melodic, and Watts’ drumming compliments such wonderful anarchy really well, especially at the outro. 

#6: ‘Get Off of My Cloud – Single (1965) 

Watts’ bold, syncopated rhythm throughout the verses expertly sets up the single’s rebuking tone. His simple 4/4 drum beat at the call and response chorus is superb too – really playing to the song’s intensity with ease. 

The dark, depressing sentiment of [‘Paint It Black’] wouldn’t have come across half as well without Watts’ drumwork

#5: ‘Beast of Burden’ – Single/Some Girls (1978) 

The groove of ‘Beast of Burden’ is absolutely dictated by Watts’ drumwork. The bass, snare, high-hat combo that’s prevalent throughout carries the track’s chilled and sweet nature on its back and never lets up. It sounds as if the guitars and the vocals are filling the spaces in the mix left by Watts’ rhythm rather than the operating above it as they’d typically do.  

#4: ‘Dandelion’ – Single (1967) 

This is one of Watts’ most expressive performances. Another psychedelic track from The Stones, and it’s doused in drum hooks with the drumming superbly tracing the vocal melody at the chorus. Also the drum fill prior to the final chorus is gloriously satisfying. 

#3: ‘Street Fighting Man’ – US Single/Beggars Banquet (1968) 

One of the best Vietnam war songs ever written, and one of the best in the band’s whole catalogue. It’s a track that’s unlike any of their others, the psychedelic, raga rock feel it has accompanied by Jagger’s splendid vocal performance and lyrics cannot be overlooked. And Watts’ performance makes essential contributions like the heavy floor tom drumming at the start to kick the song into gear, and his discipline to allow other elements of the song to flourish like Jones’ tanpura is commendable. 

#2: ‘Gimme Shelter’ – Let It Bleed (1969) 

Speaking of songs about war, the drumming on this exceptional album opener to Let It Bleed cannot be disregarded. Though Richards’ riff is iconic, Jagger’s performance is inspired, and Merry Clayton’s vocals are amazing, Watts once again is the one who ignites the song’s unrelenting flame. The drumming grooves hard at the instrumental bridge, and within a track that has many elements at the fore he still finds the pockets of space to incorporate the necessary drum fills. He expertly keeps the momentum of the song going without missing a single beat. 

#1: ‘Paint It Black’ – Single/Aftermath US (1966) 

If ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ was the single that made the world believe The Stones were capable of achieving big success, then ‘Paint It Black’ is probably the song that hinted at their high artistic ceiling. The raga and psychedelic influences on this number are impeccable, and the dark, depressing sentiment of the track wouldn’t have come across half as well without Watts’ drumwork. His steady 4/4 drum beat sells the tension in the verses, whilst he explodes with flourishes at the choruses when Jagger unleashes the lyrics that exemplify the speaker’s rage and torment. Watts’ seamless transition between both styles is impressive and is indicative of his dedication to the craft. 

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