He was the least rock’n’roll member of the World’s Greatest Rock’n’roll Band—which automatically made him the coolest one. Charlie Watts was the Rolling Stones’ resident Renaissance man: the impeccably styled, eternally blasé timekeeper who never really shared his bandmates’ voracious appetite for sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, preferring monogamy, illustration, and jazz instead. To say he approached his 58-year tenure as the band’s drummer like a job is no insult, but rather the highest of compliments. Like the pilot with whom you entrust your life whenever you board a flight, Watts was dedicated to making sure the Stones always got where they needed to go, on time and with minimal turbulence.
Watts’ unflappable backbeat—punctuated by his spine-cracking snare hits—provided the sturdy foundation upon which Jagger and Richards could prance and preen. (And as legend has it, the snare wasn’t the only thing he was good at hitting.) Whatever direction the Stones’ musical curiosities pulled them toward—blues, psychedelia, funk, reggae, disco—Watts was the engine of those transformations, with an effortless rhythmic dexterity that allowed the band to dabble in different genres with authority and panache.
When you’re in a group with the most famous frontman and most iconic guitarist in rock history, it’s easy to get taken for granted. But here are eight Rolling Stones songs where Watts refused to take the backseat.
“Get Off of My Cloud” (1965)
Released in the summer of 1965, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” immortalized the Stones’ signature snarl and became their first No. 1 single in the States. But just a few months later, their second American chart-topper showcased the band’s more sanguine side. Sure, “Get Off of My Cloud” is just a more polite, radio-friendly way of saying “fuck you,” but it hitches Jagger’s anti-social sentiment to a jolly drumbeat that whirls around like a fairground attraction. The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” may boast the greatest percussive intro of the ’60s, but Watts’ ricocheting lead-off rhythm here ranks a close second.
“Salt of the Earth” (1968)
Watts was never one to challenge classic-rock peers like Keith Moon and Ginger Baker in acrobatics and aggression—but that made the moments when he did hit hard resound that much louder. For its first three-quarters, this Beggars Banquet closer is a graceful working-class anthem guided by Jagger and Richards’ humble vocals. But just when it seems like the song has reached its glorious, gospel-choir conclusion, Watts unleashes a thundering roll on his floor tom that ushers in a manic coda, investing this angelic hymn with a healthy dose of the devil’s music.
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (1971)
One of the Stones’ longest tracks (and, perhaps not coincidentally, an evergreen soundtrack choice for movies about drugs), this Sticky Fingers classic gives Watts the space to show off the full breadth of his skill set, as he flexes a tough, punching-bag beat at the start, turns his ride cymbal into a fourth harmony vocal on the chorus, and then seizes a rare opportunity to indulge his jazz jones on the song’s surprise second act, where the Stones magically transform into Santana at Woodstock for four-and-a-half minutes.
“Street Fighting Man” (Live in Brussels, 1973)
Watts always seemed to get faster and more frenzied the longer a show went on: It was not uncommon for the Stones to rip through late-set standards like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction” at an accelerated clip that left their recorded versions in the dust (maybe because Watts, a notorious non-partier, was eager to get back to the hotel and curl up with a good book for the evening). But on this version of “Street Fighting Man”—featured on the fabled Brussels Affair bootleg that got remastered for last year’s Goats Head Soup reissue—Watts sets a new personal speed record, and his mania proves contagious, with guitarist Mick Taylor unleashing an absolutely mind-melting Eastern-psych solo over the breakneck home stretch. It’s an extraordinary moment where Watts sounds less interested in landing the plane than letting it explode into a fireball on the tarmac.
“Fingerprint File” (1974)
Despite the meat-and-potatoes, proto-Seger manifesto of its title track, the Stones’ 1974 album It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll betrayed the encroaching influence of New York club music on the band’s sound. The closing track, “Fingerprint File,” features a typically bluesy melodic structure, but Watts’ fiercely funky strut gives the song a rhythmic character unlike anything else in the Stones’ catalogue up to that point. They would go on to record more flagrant dancefloor overtures after this, but “Fingerprint File” was the crucial connective tissue between the band that once recorded “Stray Cat Blues” and the one that would go on to make “Emotional Rescue.”
“Undercover of the Night” (1983)
Part of the Stones’ valiant offensive to hold their own against early-’80s MTV darlings like Duran Duran, “Undercover of the Night” is awash in period-specific production. And yet the song still packs one helluva wallop today, thanks largely to its strobe-lit rhythmic attack, which saw Watts supported by a team of guest percussionists that included reggae giant Sly Dunbar. But like the bullet-dodging characters Jagger portrays in the song’s infamously violent video, Watts’ relentless thumps and thwacks swerve through the bongos and trendy drum effects, keeping this clamorous track locked into the groove.
By the mid-’80s, the creative chasm between the perennially fashion-conscious Jagger and the old-school Richards had turned into a canyon. Adding to the turmoil, the band’s long-time pianist, Ian Stewart, died of a heart attack in December 1985. And Watts—traditionally a casual drinker and drug user—had become a full-blown addict for two years (a lapse he later blamed on a midlife crisis). Recording sessions for 1986’s Dirty Work were notoriously fraught, with the full band rarely present for sessions. But all that discord instantly disappears the second Watts triggers the opening snare roll of “Fight,” a fleet-footed shitkicker that could go shot-for-shot with any Replacements rocker from the same era, while showing how Watts could still bring the fire even in his darkest hour.
“Commit a Crime” (2016)
The Stones’ 2016 collection of covers, Blue & Lonesome, was never intended to be Watts’ final album as a recording artist, but it now feels like a fitting full-circle conclusion for a storied career that was born in the blues. The backbeat driving their rendition of the Howlin’ Wolf standard “Commit a Crime” is classic Watts: in-the-pocket, full of swing, and simmering with fury.