charlie watts biography alan claysonInterviews

An interview with Alan Clayson, author of the first Charlie Watts biography

“CHARLIE WATTS” (Bobcat Books, England, 2004)
*Interview by Marcelo Sonaglioni

Alan, you did books on Roy Orbison, The Yardbirds, Beatles (both the band and also individual biographies of each member, as well as ‘Backbeat’, which was the subject of the film), Yoko Ono, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, The Troggs, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, Edgard Varèse, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Winwood and many more artists. Can you tell me more about yourself and your career as a writer?
I was a performer, composer and recording artist long before I became an author, but, in 1980, when buying some guitar strings in a musical equipment shop in Camberwell, I recognised that the counter assistant was a former member of The Dave Clark Five. The lengthy conversation that followed was the basis of a feature about the Five that I submitted to Record Collector magazine. This was accepted and more articles followed – and, in 1985, I was approached in 1985 to write my first book, Call Up The Groups!: The Golden Age Of British Beat, 1962-1967. Because this was a critical triumph, a more prestigious company asked me to take on a biography of Steve Winwood. Soon, I was scratching a living from my pen at an alarming pace. Output has ranged from supermarket potboilers (a couple under pseudonyms) to serious commercial successes, most conspicuously, the Backbeat film item, Beat Merchants: The Origins, History, Impact and Rock Legacy of the 1960s British Pop Groups, authorised histories of The Yardbirds and The Troggs, and Death Discs, also the subject of a show I scripted and hosted for national radio. (‘Clayson’s show is as wacky as anything else you will hear on BBC Radio Two’ – The Guardian). Moreover, I not so much dipped a toe as plunged headfirst into many other – often unexpected – musical waters – such as a 2002 tome about Edgard Varèse, Frank Zappa’s boyhood hero, and the missing link between Stravinsky and John Cage. This brought me to the attention of Gail Zappa, Frank’s widow, who appointed me to pen a life of her husband – which is to be published next spring. Finally, a presentation called Clayson Sings Chanson has been on the road since the beginning of 2011 to tie-in with the most recent edition of my Jacques Brel biography, La Vie Bohème.  Recent media coverage has been fulsome with phrases like ‘mesmerising’, ‘a man possessed’, ‘a wonderful evening by a master raconteur at the top of his game’. I hope you find all this gratuitous boasting intriguing. A more objective résumé of my career may be read on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Clayson and more fully in the STORIES OF MY LIFE section of www.alanclayson.com

Then there are those about the Beggars Banquet album, The Rolling Stones – The Origin Of The Species: How, Why and Where It All Began and one centred on the group’s discography – not to mention biographies of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. However you seem to be the first author who wrote one on Charlie Watts, released in 2004. What took you to write about Charlie?
I had been commissioned by Sanctuary Books to write individual biographies of each of the principal Rolling Stones. However, the project was truncated after the completion of those concerning Brian, Keith, Mick – and Charlie – via a combination of the editor whose idea it was leaving the firm, and then Sanctuary being swallowed by Music Sales Limited. If Bill Wyman has an inferiority complex, I should imagine that the non-appearance of a book on him will make it worse.

A short description of your book reads: “Often appearing as a mere onlooker who didn’t really want to be there, Charlie Watts, ‘the silent Stone’, embraced fame reluctantly. Yet if any one of the Stones could have made it big without the rest, it surely would have been Watts, who showed as much early promise as an artist as he did a jazz drummer. Understated and seemingly underwhelmed, Watts provided a stark contrast to the band” Would you tell me bit more about the original idea of your Charlie biography?
Any ‘idea’ didn’t become tangible until the finishing of the research – which had led to the conclusion that, while his membership of The Rolling Stones will always remain central to any consideration of Charlie Watts as a figure in time’s fabric, under less extraordinary circumstances, he might have won a place in British cultural history as a truly great – or at least highly respected – jazz drummer. Moreover, with middle-aged candour, Watts himself would insist that, on joining the group in January 1963, ‘I wasn’t interested in being a pop idol. It’s not what I wanted to be’. The rest, as they often say, is history – or would be when the Stones emerged as a closer second to The Beatles than Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers and The Dave Clark Five had been – with Charlie rivalling Dave Clark as second only to Ringo Starr as the most famous drummer in the world.  Within professional circles, however, Starr was deemed less worthy of respect than Watts, ‘the only drummer who leaves out more than I do’. Indeed, as a Stone, Charlie favoured only the most essential embellishments – such as a recurring rataplan in “Get Off Of My Cloud” and a floor-tom rumble to bring in the vocal on 1966’s “19th Nervous Breakdown”. Charlie’s first venture into pure jazz on disc took place when he oversaw an eponymous album by The People Band, a free-form entity based in North London. When his Stones duties permitted too, Watts assisted on further ventures by other artists – notably as one of Rocket 88, founded in 1977 to celebrate what had been calculated to be half a century of boogie-woogie. By the mid-1980s, however, Rocket 88 was no more, and The Charlie Watts Jazz Orchestra had risen like a phoenix from its ashes, in the first instance for a week at Ronnie Scott’s, London’s foremost jazz club. Though the Orchestra was too cumbersome to last, a twenty-two-piece version managed a short US tour. At one stop, former Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham seemed buoyant with pleasure at Charlie ‘being exactly where he wanted to be’. More enduring was The Charlie Watts Quintet whose From One Charlie To Another album tribute to Charlie Parker was deemed by one leading critic to be ‘light years better than anything Watts’ day job has produced in fifteen years’. Finally, it‘s a truism that his status as a Rolling Stone guaranteed all Charlie’s jazz undertakings attention that they wouldn’t have warranted in the ordinary course of events. Perhaps in a parallel dimension, he’s running ‘rhythm and improvisation’ workshops at an adult education centre, immersing himself in music as other family men might in do-it-yourself, photography or football. What’s certain is that had Charlie Watts stuck with the likes of Blues Incorporated or any of the also-ran beat groups that infested London in the 1960s, it’s likely he’d have recouped little more than memories – not all of them golden.

Did you ever meet Charlie or get to interview him?
As you might guess, it was without much hope that I attempted to elicit Charlie’s assistance with this biography. He did not deign to reply to my letter assuring him that mine was to be a respectful account, concentrating mainly on his professional career and artistic output, that it would not peter out after the Swinging Sixties, that I was not some scum reporter, but an artiste like himself. I wanted him to like it. His silence was galling, but a recent biographer of Pope Francis hadn’t spoken to his subject either.

Any other Charlie Watts or Rolling Stones stories you want to share now? How much a fan of the band you are?
Apart from what’s in the book, there’s nothing specific. Information discovered since confirms he much preferred the quietude and fresh air of his and wife Shirley’s manor farm in Devon to the holocaust over the hills in London, New York and Hollywood. Outbuildings included stables for the Arab horses that Shirley bred – and there’d be a comparable pack of canines at the behest of one who would ‘enjoy the company of dogs more than that of humans. Not that I loathe my species, but they’d find me a miserable little man after a while’. Among other interests were collecting mementoes of the US Civil War, and being to drums as Lord Beaulieu to motor vehicles. Charlie was also a connoisseur of Italian marble pigs (!), but how privately ordinary, the icon once worshipped from afar appeared when he and his wife became an everyday sight, unmolested by autograph-hunters and worse, at fêtes, sheep dog trials and other parochial events where nothing much else was calculated to happen, year in, year out. A vast fee for a Stones show on the eve of the millennium in New York couldn’t drag him away from that quiet night in his West Country haven. Yet, while absent when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Watts was to stick his head above the parapet in 2001 as a ‘castaway’ on Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs. Predictably, the records picked were mostly from the jazz age – but he included too a clip from Hancock’s Half Hour, cricket commentator John Arlott discussing bowling, Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending and an excerpt from a Stravinsky ballet while, prompted by presenter Sue Lawley, he telescoped a life that stressed the disparity between the drummer at the back and the show-off lead singer. ‘I don’t know how Mick does it,’ commented Charlie, ‘People love looking at him. He’s fantastic!’. To answer the second part of your enquiry, much of my self-image was formed with Mick Jagger hovering in the background – though, when the family watched television together, I’d hear myself endorsing things that I either cared nothing about or found repugnant. Like 1984’s Winston Smith voicing his abomination of Goldstein through cupped hands, I’d agree with Mum and Dad that The Rolling Stones were morons and join in the snarls of laughter when comedian Max Bygraves, knowing the prejudices of his consumers, centred his jokes on a blow-up of Mick Jagger with a superimposed Yul Brynner pate on ITV’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium. This was during an era when even Elvis Presley was not yet a yardstick of masculinity, and ‘Well, he had long hair, hadn’t he?’ had been the plea of a man on trial at Aldershot Magistrates Court for attacking a complete stranger. Today’s pony-tailed navvy would also find it incredible that, in 1964 too, a leader in a Sunday newspaper editorial advocated a law that made short-back-and-sides compulsory for men. Formerly tractable when handed money by my mother to go to the hairdresser’s, a sea-change had occurred in me. It had been as portentous in microcosm as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 789 AD about ‘three ships of the Northmen’ attacking Weymouth Bay and precipitating further-reaching Viking ravages that would trouble Britain over the next three centuries. Early in 1964, I’d been guiltily transfixed by Mick Jagger on the cover photograph of The Rolling Stones maiden EP in the window of my high street record shop. His picaresque beauty was a little bit femme – more so than the more conventionally handsome Brian Jones – and this was enhanced by hair that just about touched the collar and with ears still visible. Screaming Lord Sutch’s tresses had been shoulder-length since 1959 – and had been the subject of debate even on the playground at infant school – but that was seen as part of his endless efforts to elicit career-sustaining publicity for a ‘horror-rock’ presentation as harmlessly amusing as a ride on a fairground ghost train. Jagger – and the more hirsute Phil May of The Pretty Things – didn’t regard the way they looked as remotely funny. Neither did I. Nor did Mum and, by her implication, Dad – who wondered why the hell I too wanted to look like ‘a bloody poet’. They didn’t like long hair on men. They even hated it. As a teenager, therefore, I had to fight every literal inch of the way with much the same fatalism as a Great War trench private resigned to a stray bullet at the Somme. I’d trance out when examining myself in a bedroom glass, hoping that it was beginning to show, on the understanding that, within the hour, I could be eating my heart out after an enforced – and seeming arbitrary – trip to the barber’s.

Are you planning a new edition of your book?
Discussions are taking place.

With Charlie gone now, what’s your take about the future of the band, if there’s any future at all of ‘The Rolling Stones’ as we know them and always did?
Having gouged so deep a wound on history – cultural, social, political and more – they are destined to be forever visualized in some fixed attitude, doing what the ‘classic’ line-up did during its optimum moments. Whatever else not so much The Rolling Stones as a Rolling Stones do in the years left to them without the pivotal Charlie, is barely relevant.

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