Charlie Watts On 'Exile On Main Street'

The Rolling Stones drummer remembers...
The Rolling Stones
Charlie Watts is everything you would expect him to be.

Effortlessly dapper, exuding a sophisticated and seasoned cool, he revokes any rock star affectations and, despite being the anchor of The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, is visibly uncomfortable in the spotlight, fidgeting continuously in his chair, as if being interrogated by Clash.

We’re here today essentially to talk about the re-release of arguably the Stones’ finest album, 1972’s ‘Exile On Main Street’. Since the Stones parted with Virgin to sign with Universal, plans were put in place to finally revisit and remaster the albums that have remained untouched since first released. Despite its massive popularity and cult status, ‘Exile’ was always a thorn in Mick Jagger’s side - he hated its production and conceded to the derision it faced upon release for its multiplicity of styles and influences - the very thing that makes it unique.

However, given the chance to clean it up, Jagger went one step further and unearthed a dozen tracks from those 1971 sessions and - after controversially adding new vocals onto some - presents them here for the first time on the reissue’s bonus disc (see this month’s album reviews for full details).

But even with a product to plug, Charlie’s PR advises Clash not to dwell on Stones questions, but rather to endear him with his favourite subject: jazz music. It’s just as well, really, since - as one would expect - a Rolling Stone may not have the clearest memories of the early Seventies. “I have a terrible time remembering it,” the drummer warns.

The Sixties ended with a diabolical low for The Rolling Stones - having triumphed with their career-defining albums ‘Beggars Banquet’ and ‘Let It Bleed’ in ’68 and ’69 respectively, the bubble they’d blown as Britain’s second biggest pop export was diabolically burst when original guitarist Brian Jones’ death in ’69 was followed that year by the horrific murder of a teenager at the hand of a Hell’s Angel during the Stones’ infamous free gig at Altamont.

At the advent of the Seventies, having been hounded, harassed and arrested by the British establishment, the Stones were still paying the government almost ninety percent tax on their earnings - a galling figure to the former economics student Jagger. Looking for a solution, Prince Rupert Lowenstein - the band’s manager - pointed them in the direction of France and a financial loophole. The Stones were about to go into exile.

Basing themselves around the South of France, the focal point for the recording of the new album was Nellcote, a sprawling villa by Nice, and also the home of Keith Richards. While not staying on his farm some miles down the road with his wife and daughter, Charlie would stay in Nellcote to work.

“We recorded in the cellar,” he explains. “They had very large cellars. We used to just move from one place to another with the drums.”

The sessions for ‘Exile On Main Street’ featured a long - and often confusing - cast list. There were the five Stones - Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, bassist Bill Wyman and guitarist Mick Taylor - then there were the horn section, led by Bobby Keys, and an array of friends and visiting musicians, all ostensibly being reigned in by producer Jimmy Miller (Keith was really in charge).

The musician credits on the album’s sleeve, says Charlie, are vague and inaccurate. “You know why? Sometimes you’ll all go home at four in the morning, and Keith will suddenly want to do something.” Loose, casual and wildly unpredictable, the making of ‘Exile’ revolved around a gigantic consumption of drugs - the main attraction of the myriad house guests.

One such passing disciple was Gram Parsons, the ex-Byrd and Flying Burrito Brother, who shared with Keith a healthy appetite for heroin, and an undying love of country music. It is this friendship that is credited with the album’s Southern sway and downhome authenticity.

The prolific sessions eventually yielded the Stones’ first double album. It’s a thrilling adventure through the heritage of American music - stirring blues, country, gospel and soul into one big swampy gumbo - but its diversity was seen as unfocused upon the album’s release. “Critics don’t mean anything in the long run,” Charlie spits. “It’s not very nice reading that it was a load of crap, what you spent a year making.”

Despite initial slow sales, ‘Exile On Main Street’ has become the benchmark upon which all subsequent Rolling Stones records are compared. Its decadent, louche sound flows gloriously through the eighteen tracks, making for a dirty, heady listening experience that’s never been bettered - by the Stones or anyone.

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Clash Magazine Issue 50



This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the 50th issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from May 7th.

You can read the full issue online HERE and subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.


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And so, talk turns to Charlie’s true loves: jazz and drums. When the Stones formed, Charlie was a misfit in the ranks - while Keith, Mick, Brian and Bill were blues freaks, obsessed by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie was fully immersed in the world of jazz, his hero Charlie Parker, and taught himself to play drums by watching the proponents of London’s jazz scene - Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Allan Ganley - and the American giants. “I went to Paris to see Phil Seaman play,” Charlie recalls. “He was playing with [American jazz pianist] Bud Powell. But along with him that night was one of my great, great idols - look and style - a guy called Kenny Clarke. I met him later a few times, which was a great thrill.”

The Charlie Watts drumming style - refined yet potent - has made him a rock ‘n’ roll legend, but he relishes the opportunity to play jazz. The difference in techniques, he says, is down to subtlety. “In jazz music you have to listen more. You can’t go steaming ahead during a piano solo because piano players don’t like you going all over them. The thing with rock ‘n’ roll is that you generally have to keep the same consistency going all the time. In jazz it’s much looser and subtler, but both as enjoyable.”

Rejoicing in discussions of jazz, there’s a fire in Charlie’s eyes as we go on to talk about his first visit to New York’s 52nd Street and Birdland (“That was America for me”), Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Duke Ellington and King Oliver. But our time is running out, and Clash has a million questions to squeeze in about The Rolling Stones.

The impenetrable songwriting partnership of Jagger/Richards has claimed its fair share of victims - so to what extent does Charlie contribute to the Stones’ music? Are his drum parts his own creation, or is he advised what to play by the authors? “Oh, it’s a mixture,” he offers calmly. “Mick will say, ‘No, don’t do that - keep going’. Keith never says anything.

Keith’s like playing with a jazz player - he’s not very dictatorial, but if you don’t do right - he’ll never tell you or anything - but he won’t use it. Someone else will do it better. But Mick is very controlling anyway in his nature. He likes to know his eggs are being done properly in the [kitchen]. Keith couldn’t care less about the eggs; he’ll get up when he gets up. They’re different characters. With Mick, usually he’s right - that’s the annoying thing with Mick; he’s very often right!”

With the unenviable task of being the mediator between Mick and Keith, Charlie must have the patience of a saint. (This was famously tested in the mid-Eighties when a drunk Jagger called Charlie’s hotel room, asking where “my drummer” was. Charlie coolly arose, shaved, got fully dressed in his sharp suit, went down to Mick’s room, and punched him in the face, with the immortal pay-off line: “Don’t ever call me your drummer again. You’re my fucking singer!”)

Rumours have always abounded that Charlie would leave the Stones - his 2004 battle with throat cancer was considered reason enough - but he denies even considering such a move. “I’ve never said that,” he states. “I’ve never said I’ve left The Rolling Stones. They might not want me, but I’ve never left.”

Thankfully so - Keith Richards has repeatedly suggested that without Charlie Watts there would be no Rolling Stones.

“I think he’s being very kind,” Charlie chuckles. “I think The Rolling Stones would be Mick and Keith, to be honest.”

Faultlessly modest and simply charming, Charlie Watts is the ultimate gallant gent. Through a combination of Clash’s extensive questions and Charlie’s measured and considered answers, we reach the end of our interview all too soon. We don’t get the chance to talk more about Brian Jones, or to dig for dirt on Mick Jagger, nor does the opportunity arise to ask about Charlie’s own brief dalliance with heroin in the Eighties - though it’s doubtful that he would even be pressed on any of those topics.

Departing with the insinuation that another Stones tour is forthcoming, you can only wonder how the sixty-eight-year-old does it - squeezing gigs and albums with his jazz band, not to mention his boogie-woogie group, in between mammoth treks around the globe with his day job. So, as our interview ends, it’s with great hope that there will be many more possibilities in the long and impressive career of Charlie Watts.

It’s only rock and roll, but he clearly likes it.

Words by Simon Harper

‘Exile On Main Street’, the re-release with never-before-heard extra tracks, is released on May 17th. A forthcoming documentary, Stones In Exile, is due for broadcast on BBC4.

Read ClashMusic's review of The Rolling Stones' 'Exile On Main Street' HERE.

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