Over the years, as I’ve compared live recordings by The Rolling Stones to their classic studio recordings, I’ve suspected that the claim that Charlie Watts drummed on those studio albums is a hoax. It’s a damn, dirty lie! The guy sucks so bad live that the Stones must have been using studio drummers from their earliest days.
Let’s start with a look at one of the most distinctive beats in the history of rock. Which among the dozen archetypal rock beats attributed to Charlie Watts, you ask? How about the opening beat to “Honky Tonk Woman”.
Sure, there’s no denying that Charlie Watts is the drummer on this “live” performance of a Stones’ classic:
Judging by the fact that Jagger actually sings with his great tight-throated tone rather than his characteristic live bellow, the fact that the drumming sounds decent, and the fact that Watts doesn’t come close to faking the song’s wrap up, this is obviously one of those studio recordings with newly recorded vocals. In other words, Charlie Watts is drum-synching to the song like the rest of his bandmates. The jury’s out as to who’s actually drumming. I suspect some union guy associated with the BBC.
Now take a look at this performance of the same song, paying particular attention, if you can block out all the other poor performances, to the drums:
OK, that may not be fair. How about this one?
“Now you’re really messing with us, Mr. Mod! Everyone knows that’s not Charlie Watts and the Stones. It’s the legendary New Barbarians! What the hell are you up to?”
OK, now that I’ve got men covering every exit, I’ll remind you to focus on the drums. Although the tempo of this New Barbarians version is 10 times slower than any song deserves, check out how well the New Barbarians drummer articulates the beat we grew up worshipping on the song’s immaculate studio version. Compare the drumming with the live atrocity from recent years, the one that clearly features the real Charlie Watts on drums.
Dig: I’m nowhere near a drummer, but whenever I grab a rare moment behind the drum kit, the first thing I try to do is play the opening of “Get Off My Cloud”. Then I try to play the opening of “Honky Tonk Woman”. I suck dick at either effort, just as I suck at attempting to play any drum beat, but truth be told, I’m not much worse than Charlie Watts live and in the flesh. This tells me something.
The Watts Hoax is not confined to Mick Taylor-era Stones recordings. Let’s check out a live performance of “Get Off My Cloud”, with a little detour into “Yesterday’s Papers”.
First of all, why is it so hard to find straightforward footage of an actual early Stones performance? Again, the footage in no way matches the recorded performance, but the grooves give ample evidence that Charlie Watts, although playing with more energy than he’s ever mustered live, doesn’t come close to playing this archetypal beat properly. Not once does he end the signature snare roll when he’s supposed to. WTF? It’s one thing if the guitarists and Jagger want to improvise on “Get Off My Cloud”, but this is one of the dozen drum beats that justifies Watts’ low-key role in this legendary band. Where does he get off screwing up the beat?
Here, I’ve got to conclude that it’s unfair to accuse Watts of “messing” with “his” beat. I sense he does what he can to keep peace in the middle of that inflated bunch of egos. Surely he’s the Derek Smalls of the band. He’s probably the one guy the road manager doesn’t have to worry about on the road. He shows up for gigs on time. He keeps the band as grounded as possible. Fine, but don’t tell me he’s the guy who’s been drumming on their albums.
I tracked down legendary soul drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, who you may recall made the outrageous claim in Max Weinberg‘s excellent The Big Beat book, a series of interviews with his favorite drummers and Weinberg’s greatest contribution to rock (even better than his work on Late Night with Conan O’Brien), that he drummed on 21 songs from the first 3 Beatles albums. That was the claim of one crazy old drummer! we all thought, but these days I wonder if there was a grain of truth, if a few grains short on memory, to his claims.
On his website, Purdie is credited with having “anchored sessions with the Rolling Stones.” I did not find any further explanations or indications of sessions on which Purdie might have drummed. Do any of our Townspeople know what sessions he anchored? When reached for comment, Purdie refused to talk about specifics of his work with the Stones. “I was called in to overdub drums on a lot of those record, just about everything but Their Satanic Majesties. They couldn’t have paid me to play on that shit!”
“So Charlie Watts didn’t play on songs like ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Get Off My Cloud’?” I asked.
“He may have shook a tambourine,” replied Purdie, “but have you ever seen him play live? He does that little hitch with the snare and hi-hat. Guy can’t keep himself from doing it if his life depened on it.” Purdie is referring to the way Watts pulls off the hi-hat when he hits the snare. “What’s he think he is, a fucking reggae drummer? That shit don’t swing, that shit don’t rock. Not even white folks can dance to that hitch!”
I tried to engage Purdie in discussing his claims of having played with The Beatles, but he cut the interview short. “Hey man, back then those skinny English cats all looked the same to me. I might have played with The Beatles, I might have played with the Stones, I might have played with The Small Faces – Kenny Jones, right? There’s another guy who was exposed as a fraud later in his career! I sure as hell didn’t drum for The Hollies!”