The Black Keys drummer talks Watts’ influence on his work and the night he joined Watts onstage — and almost screwed up.
By DAVID BROWNE
The news about Charlie Watts, who died yesterday at 80, deeply impacted the Rolling Stones drummer’s colleagues and peers — but also subsequent generations of rockers. Like the Stones, the Black Keys cut their teeth on blues songs and went on to write their own material, songs that never lost sight of their gritty origins.
For the last show of their 50th-anniversary tour, at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center in December 2012, the Stones invited the Black Keys to join them onstage. (Other guests: Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, and John Mayer.) Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, who played alongside Watts during Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” recalls that performance and how Watts may have been the most underrated drummer in rock.
Today, I opened my Instagram and there were 50 photos of Charlie, all from drummer friends of mine. Charlie didn’t get time to shine in the big lists of greatest drummers, but he might have been the most influential because his beats are the most approachable. When you start playing drums, it’s hard to wrap your head around like “The Immigrant Song” or something like that. But “Under My Thumb,” you think, “OK, I could do that.” And then you realize the song only needs that. It doesn’t need anything else. It’s like when you have really good fried chicken and someone says, “What’d you put in it?” and you say, “Just salt and pepper, really.”
As a kid, I was allowed to watch shit I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to, like a really crazy show about Vietnam called Tour of Duty, when I was about seven in 1987. The closing theme song to the show was “Paint It Black.” I was like, “This is the coolest fucking song.” My dad would make me tapes of Stones songs, and the Beatles and Stones became the first couple of bands I really knew a lot about.
For most people I know who aren’t drummers, the first thing they mention is that Charlie didn’t hit the hi-hat sometimes; he hit the snare drum. But if you listen to the beat of “Satisfaction,” it’s derivative of a Motown beat, but it’s just so fucking simple. I don’t know if that had been applied to rock & roll prior to that. I’m sure it’s also the “Paint It Black” beat and also the beat to hundreds and hundreds of rock & roll songs.
If someone says to me, “Who’s your favorite drummer?” I tend to leave him off that list of the top five. But today, of course, I listened back to the Stones and what I realized is that I don’t try to play drums like John Bonham; I try to play like Charlie Watts. The feel of the Stones is a hard kind of stomp, just constantly into the backbeat and no bullshit. A song like “Brown Sugar,” Charlie was playing floor toms throughout the verses before he goes into the hi-hat. Very simple, natural. It was all swing.
I was just listening to a bootleg of the sessions around the time of Exile on Main St. with the Stones, Nicky Hopkins, and Ry Cooder. It’s the Jamming with Edwardstuff. It’s the sound of guys in a room trying to figure out a groove, and that’s the essence of Charlie right there. The Stones are about trying to find this kind of American swagger, and Charlie just fit in there with no frills, right on top of the sound.
And he was very dapper. I love the promo video for “Start Me Up.” Everybody else is all decked out, but he’s just sitting there in a blazer.
When we played with the Stones, we flew from London to New York after the last show of the El Camino tour. We went to SIR studios, and it was one of those moments where it’s not even like necessarily a good feeling. It’s more like, “How did I get here, and do I deserve to be here?”
I said hi to Charlie and shook his hand, and then we ran through the song a couple of times. Charlie was smiling and Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards had cigarettes constantly going in the headstock of their guitars. It was surreal. I remember not wanting to wear out my welcome, so when we were done, I said, “I have to meet my brother for dinner,” or something. And Keith says, “Hey, I don’t care what you have to do. Just make sure you have fun.”
“Who Do You Love” is a four-on-the-floor stomp, and you can’t really mess it up. Usually, when I play I turn off my brain and go into caveman-brain mode. But at one point when we’re playing it onstage, I looked up to see what was happening, and it was Dan [Auerbach] playing back to back with Keith. And I kind of hit this flubbed note and turned the snare beat around.
Unless you were a drummer, you wouldn’t have known what was happening. I looked at Charlie and he looked at me like, “You’re not supposed to do that.” But he had his huge smile. He knew what I’d done, and he thought it was funny. He might have been the coolest dude ever play to play rock & roll.