Friday, January 05, 2007
ABF Friday: Special Charlie Watts Edition!
Over the holidays I’ve finally gotten a few hours to put “songs” on my “iPod.” No, I didn’t get an iPod for Molochmas—I got an iPod for my birthday, over three months ago. That’s how inhumanely busy my life has been this past fall: I didn’t even have time to round up CDs and transfer them to the iPod until just this week. “Dad,” Nick said last week, with filial pity in his voice, “you can transfer things to the iPod on your laptop while you’re doing other things.” “True enough,” I replied. “But first I have to find the CDs, and that takes a great deal of time, because, you see, none of the CDs in this house are in their CD cases. For example, in your room you have approximately 400 CD cases, including some that nominally belong to me, like Ziggy Stardust and the Ramones’ first two albums. But lo! There are no CDs in them. Where are those CDs, pray tell?”
“I don’t know,” Nick replied.
“Well, then,” I said, “is it possible for you to download those things from your iPod onto my laptop, thence to my iPod?”
“It’s possible, sure,” Nick mused, “but they don’t really want you to do it, of course, because it’s not really ‘legal.’”
“I understand completely,” I nodded. “Artists should be compensated for their hard work, and so should corporate megaconglomerates. But I wonder whether we can’t make an exception for families in which, say, one person takes another person’s CD, downloads the songs onto an iPod, and then leaves the CD someplace behind the dryer with the lost socks.”
All of which is to say that I have worked long and hard to gather what Rolling Stones I have on hand, so that I can bring you today’s Arbitrary But Fun Charlie Watts edition. Eighteen months ago, at my very first blogger meetup, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and Scott Lemieux asked me for my professional opinion of Charlie Watts, and I promised them (in the course of answering them) that I would post something on this critical topic one of these days. So it’s taken me until my final week of blogging, but here it is.
Now, since many of you know that my house is a Beatles-besotted house, I should explain a few things about my relation to the Stones. First, I came along when they were just about done: I didn’t start listening to music as if it mattered until my early teen years, and by 1974 the Stones, like Gerald Ford during his Polydor years, had already recorded most of their best work. (Anyone who tries to put in a good word for Emotional Rescue or Tattoo You or any of their dessicated sequelae will be banned from this blog for the remaining days of its existence.) So my first Stones hit was “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” which, like most songs dealing with the love of rock and roll or the heart of rock and roll or the just give me old-time rock and rollness of rock and roll, sucks. By 1978, the music-literate high-school seniors with whom I hung out—the ones who dismissed Darkness on the Edge of Town as one anthem after another (prove it all night!) and declared Who are You? DOA just before Keith D’d—were ambivalent about Some Girls. One of my friends played it every day without fail; another insisted that only one or two of its songs could stand up with the fare of Sticky Fingers or Exile on Main Street. Then in my sophomore year of college, I met Mark Rykoff, who’s remained a dear friend ever since; it was Mark who led me past the various gaudy attractions of “Gimme Shelter” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and pointed me to things like “Sway” and the really quite amazing “Torn and Frayed.” Here, he said. Listen to these things. This is why I love the Stones. Yes, they’re a great rock and roll band and all, perhaps the greatest garage band ever to emerge from the UK, the Clash included; but, Mark said, what’s really great about them is the way they play sloppy.
He’s right about that, you know. To this day, it remains the one place in rock where the Stones could go and the Beatles couldn’t: to the half-drunken late-night jam just before the police knock and those doors fly back, when the joint is still reelin’ and rockin’ and nobody really gives a shit if the band is all together. Even Lennon’s “Yer Blues” is decorum itself compared to “Carol” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Of course, that’s the problem with the Stones, too: from “Honest I Do” on their first LP to “Cherry Oh Baby” on Black and Blue, they can sound like utter crap. And not in a good way, either. Neither of those songs should ever have been committed to vinyl or any other medium. I mean, let’s have some quality-control standards around here, people.
(A brief aside: thanks to Mark’s sage guidance, I once went through the entire Stones catalog and made a couple of compilation tapes of my favorite pre-1973 things of theirs, including lots of things like their cover of O. V. Wright’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” These were among the first tapes swiped from me at various U. Va. grad-student parties in 1983-85. Whoever has those tapes, or the tape on which I segued from the Talking Heads’s “The Great Curve” to Babatunde Olatunji’s “Kiya Kiya” to the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven” to Grace Jones’s “Pull Up to the Bumper”—now, that was some booty-shakin’ material—you better give them back or I’ll come and get you when I’m through with this here blog.)
So what does this Stoney sloppiness have to do with Charlie Watts? Well, everything, of course. Those of you who are familiar with my various accounts of the Beatles know that I explain the discrepancy between Ringo’s crispness and brilliance on minor ditties like “What Goes On” and “Old Brown Shoe” and Ringo’s general incompetence on songs like “Think For Yourself” or “Revolution” by invoking my Two Ringoes Theory. Nobody believes me when I tell them the Beatles were using two completely different drummers, both of whom were named Ringo Starr and both of whom had an adorably flat, nasal singing voice. But if you sheeple prefer to live in a cheering political paradigm in which everything is just as George Martin says it is, that’s fine by me. The simple fact remains that there were two Ringoes, and if the CIA hadn’t assassinated Jimmy Nicol just before he was supposed to meet with me in 1988, I could prove it to you right now.
Anyway, there is only one Charlie Watts. But he has two modes of drumming: metronomic and attentive. For reasons known only to Charlie himself, he seems to have decided that songs such as “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” are best served by the metronomic. I don’t get it, myself. Not that you’d want Keith Moon or Clem Burke banging away all over songs like those, but really, just a little variation, an accent here or there, a slight rise in temperature . . . these things can do wonders for a song! Take “Brown Sugar”: again, very simple, Rock Drumming 101 kind of stuff, and then that one little half-bar fill during the solo. Was that so hard? Or the great driving force of “Paint It Black,” with those deft rolls on the toms. Or the snap-to smacks on the snare in the second verse of “Shine a Light,” right after the words “when you’re drunk” and then on three successive whole-note intervals. Couldn’t Charlie have contributed something like that to those other songs? He’s supposed to be a jazz fan and all, it could have been something subtle and understated. But no, it’s just the metronome. It’s like he’s, I dunno, just marking time or something. And the metronome can be a serious problem on Stones songs that start off with great riffs and then don’t go anywhere from there, because the riff is the only thing they’re based on. There are many of these; the best of them is probably “Under My Thumb,” the most disappointing “Monkey Man.” A little judicious kick-start from the drummer might’ve helped—you know, the kind of kick-start you get from “Route 66.”
Weirdly, some of Charlie Watts’ most attentive work comes on the meandering melancholy mid-period songs, like “Angie” or “Memory Motel.” Despite the badly-played little cymbal flourish at the very end of “Memory Motel,” for example, the rest of the song contains some pretty nice drumming, clever and dramatic and understated all at once. It’s as if Mr. Watts decided that his talents would be put to better use on such songs, or on magnificently sloppy things like “Torn and Frayed,” while the Glimmer Twins took the lead on some of the Greatest Hits.
But there’s something else about Charlie’s drumming, as well. Bill Wyman put his finger on it, so to speak, in an interview about 35 years ago; Mark and I chewed over this interview word by word back in 1981 when we came across it, not least because it seemed to address the Sloppy Stones question in a way that satisfied our penchant for preferring technical engine-room answers to the usual rock-critic blather. (My personal fave in this genre: the great Elvin Jones, when asked in 1982 by Modern Drummer whether he’d gone to the 18-inch bass drum for a “jazzier, poppier sound,” replying that he’d gotten an 18-inch bass drum because it fits in the trunk of his car. He’d always wanted one of those huge 28-inch Jelly Roll Morton-era bass drums, he explained, but he had to keep tying it to the top of his car, see, and it kept falling off. . . .) According to Wyman, what made the Stones’ sound distinctive was that the band took its time from Keith and not from Charlie. That’s why, Wyman said, the Stones can sound a little bit off here and there, a little bit ahead of or behind the bar, even if just by a hundredth of a second or so. But it’s also why they sound so vivid and surprising on some of the bluesier R&B numbers. Of course, real drummers (at least the ones I spoke to at the time) were horrified by this, because to them it’s a little like saying, “in this body we rely on the liver to pump the blood, OK, and the heart follows along.” ‘Cause, you know, the heart of rock and roll is the beat. Not the liver! But Wyman’s probably right about this, because, (a) uh, he should know, and (b) it helps to make sense of why some of Charlie’s best work would appear on slower tunes where his drumming is almost incidental to the development of the song.
One last thing about the Stones. I was listening to “Hand of Fate” the other day—perhaps the only song on Black and Blue that wouldn’t appear out of place on, say, side four of Exile. I suggest you go listen to it right now, and turn it up loud for Wayne Perkins’ searing solo, which begins at the 1:31 mark. Not only is it a great little piece of guitar work that takes its song to the Next Level (catch the flourish at 1:56, too, and Charlie’s timely helping hand at 1:48); it’s also the last time the Stones recorded anything like it. Yep, it’s been over thirty years now since the Stones had a proper guitar solo on one of their records. Heh heh heh, oh my yes. Why, I remember when they played with all six strings! And then they decided to hire that sloppy-playin’ tousled-hair fellow Ron Wood instead, no doubt because they just couldn’t imagine life on tour with a Stone named Wayne—or (even worse) a Stone named Harvey, like Harvey Mandel, who plays that circuituous, squawky solo on “Hot Stuff.” After that, it’s almost as if the Stones joined the ranks of the hair bands, except that they were rather wrinklier than Poison.