"Seemingly, I must be mad
- insanity is fun, if that's the way it's done." sneers John Entwistle
on the Who
's "Whiskey Man
" from their 1966 album A Quick One
Insanity wasn't a trait often accredited to Entwistle, who was nicknamed, among other things, "The Quiet One
." But "Quiet" shouldn't have been an adjective used to describe him either.
John spoke softly, but carried a big stick
. Or, in his case a big bass.
John's booming, beautiful bass
lines and sense of black humour has forever left a very loud influence on rock and roll
The Boring Stuff
John Alec Entwistle was born 9 October, 1944 in Chiswick, London, England, exactly four years after the other great John Lennon.
Perhaps contributing to John's reserved nature, his parents seperated when John was only an infant. He was often with his grandparents when he was very young.
Entwistle was a prime musician from an early age his mother, Maude ("Queenie") made him take piano lessons, and because of this, John could read music from the age of seven on. His father, Herbert, taught him to play trumpet, but John took up the French Horn when there was an excess number of trumpet players in his school's orchestra.
John took up bass when he was 14 in a time when basses were not widely avaliable in England so John made his own, a copy of the Fender Precision. Around that time, John met a banjo player named Peter Townshend at Acton County Grammar School. Both shared a similar sense of black humour and a liking for jazz, and became friends. John invited Pete to join his first band, The Confederates, soon afterwards.
The first "Who" - the Detours, were formed when fellow schoolmate Roger Daltrey stopped Entwistle on the street and told him he heard John played the bass guitar. John then joined the Detours, as did Pete Townshend, despite their initial dislike for Daltrey.
With Detour members Colin Dawson and Doug Sandom ousted from the band, they went with a new name The Who, and started the search for a new drummer. John fondly recalled the time he first met his bandmate and best friend, Keith Moon:
"He was in ginger...head to toe. Ginger hair, ginger suit, ginger shoes and holding a ginger drink probably a brandy." Moon was asked to play "Roadrunner", and needless to say, he proved his worth. The Who (no wait the High Numbers...no, the Who...The...Who?) were...well, the band we know as the Who were formed, and the rest, as they say, is history...
John The Bassist
John was an excellent bassist from the start, introducing the bass solo into rock with 1965's "My Generation."
Entwistle's bass solo on that song took several takes, not because of the difficulty level of it (and it is very difficult) but because he kept breaking bass strings. The treble strings were difficult to replace, and Entwistle had to keep going out to buy new basses because he wasn't allowed to buy the strings separately, so the story goes.
Entwistle was also the first to ever use Marshall amplifiers, that were then picked up by Townshend, and the Marhsall amp eventually became the most widely used amp in rock. "Once John had a Marshall he was so loud, I had to get one," recalled Townshend.
Although Entwistle was a great singer and songwriter himself, he often took back seat to Daltrey, the lead singer, and Townshend, the Who's main songwriter and lead guitarist. Entwistle liked the idea of being up front, but his role as the sturdy backbone of the Who ultimately proved his best role within the band. Entwistle stated:
"I did want to be a lead guitarist. The role of lead guitarist was the most glamorous to me. I wanted to make solo spots in a group. And you don't go from being a front man to a back man. But I always preferred the sound of a bass it excited me the most."
And indeed, John's bass playing never took the back seat.
John invented slapping and the bi-amped bass rig when he split his signal between an overdriven high-end amp and a clean low-end amp. John was a great bassist because he never thought of himself as a bassist. He never wanted to be a "background" instrument. John also invented "tapping" on the bass with his signature "typewriter" technique, which involved striking the strings at the base of the neck with his right hand fingertips.
Always known as "the quiet one", John seemed like the eye in the Who's hurricane of a stage show. Nicknamed "The Ox" for his silent but powerful stage presence, John rarely moved anything but his fingers onstage. While the rest of the band was a blur of motion - Roger Daltrey's swinging microphone, Keith Moon's wild drumming, and Pete Townshend's windmilling, Entwistle stood absolutely still on stage right.
Yet In the same way that he held the band together, he helped make them the loud, out of control band they were. John's genius on the bass allowed for Townshend to explore power chords and solos, while John held it all together with his raging tone and percussive energy.
John almost always used Fender bass guitars, up until the mid-seventies, when he favoured Alembic Explorer guitars. he continued to use them throughout the 1980's until he got tired of having to change the settings before every show. Alembics are made entirely out of maple and walnut, and the wood expanded with each venue. John searched for different alternatives, but got fed up with every brand and invented his own, the Buzzard bass(www.buzzardbass.com).
In addition to his stage instruments, John had a massive collection of basses. His collection (now, unfortunatley no longer in the possession of his estate) included a mint condition precision bass from every year 1951-1966, Fender Custom Colours, and just about any instrument he felt had historical significance. Like Frankenstein ("IT'S ALIVE!"), the bass he constructed from 5 smashed ones, or the bass guitars he played at Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival.
John the Songwriter
"Townshend once told me I use up about ten song ideas in one tune; he said he could get a whole bunch of songs from the first four lines of one of mine."
A critic once wrote that Entwistle had the misfortune of being a good songwriter in a band with a great one Townshend and his contributions to Who albums were only occasional. Songs Entwistle wrote, however, like "My Wife", "Heaven and Hell" (which, in fact, opened the Who's sets in the Tommy/Lifehouse eras), and, of course "Boris the Spider", were hits and concert favourites.
"Lyrics are much more difficult for me to write than music." said John. "It once took me three days to find something that rhymed with 'Napoleon'; I finally woke up in the middle of the night and screamed 'DeLorean!'."
Entwistle released nine solo albums, sometimes featuring his band The Ox. He formed the John Entwistle band and continued to tour with them whilst the Who played gigs.
John's macabre and odd sense of humour often melted into his songwriting. Actually, it did all the time. There's not one song I can think of, save "My Size", that isn't unfunny.
With lines like "I got a girl, mouth so wide, she eats her dinner with the plate inside"(1971's "Peg Leg Peggy") or "I wonder what would happen if my fish could fly, would it leap from its tank and hit the cat in the eye? Out through the window and into the sky, I'm so glad that sharks can't fly." (1973's "I Wonder"), you just can't help but wonder if John was high on something more than music...
John's most famous song in the Who, "Boris the Spider", was based on not his love of, but immense fear of spiders. He did, however, in his later years, own one named...here goes: "Doris". The name Boris, by the way, came after a drunken conversation with members of the Rolling Stones about funny names for animals.
I didn't know John, but I did have the wonderful pleasure of meeting him July 30th, 2001 on the A Walk Down Abbey Road tour. He was incredibly nice and funny, and even wrote me a limerick...but that's a different story. Let's just say it ended in "She had beautiful big eyes, all three of them are blue."
John was NOT what he seemed. In fact, the "quiet one" ("I'm not quiet, everyone else is too loud" he retorts in "The Quiet One") was arrested in 1974 for disturbing the peace in a bar.
John, like Keith, never learned how to drive, saying "I prefer to drink."
John and Keith often roomed together on Who tours, running rampant and wild on hotel rooms, causing the Who to be banned from many established hotels in large cities. John joined in, if not instigated The Who's notoriety by smashing up hotel rooms with Keith.
"No one ever said why we smashed 'em up." Said John about it.
"A lot of times it was because Keith and I had this running gag: He'd bring a coupla girls to his room, then he and the road manager would start talking about me, saying what a horrible person I was, how frightened they were of me because I bullied everyone, and how I hated girls and liked to slap them around you know, really building it up. Then Keith would ring me up and I'd knock on the door, and the girls would see me and their eyes would bulge. So I'd come in knockin' the guys around, breaking furniture and mirrors, and then I'd say 'You girls are next!' and they'd just run screaming from the room!"
John and Keith's shenanigans didn't end offstage, either. Sometimes breaking out of his stoic onstage nature, John would growl at the audience and band members, cracking jokes about audience members (or that time he swallowed a fly onstage) or band members penis sizes (FYI, John's nickname besides "The Ox" and "Thunderfingers" was "Big Dick Entwistle")...
"Sometimes we would do things to put off the screamers from coming to see us. We'd occasionally sing "Talking 'bout my masturbation" and "Prostitute" instead of "Substitute". On one occasion we all walked on-stage smoking tampons and throwing tampons at the audience with the string alight, and I actually led Keith on with a sanitary towel over each eye as though he was blind. I led him up on stage and sat him at the drums"
When Marc Bolan of the group T-Rex died in 1977, Entwistle attended his funeral and was asked by Bolan's son, Rolan, if he knew his father. John responded with "No, but I lived near the tree he crashed into."
John collected not just basses and guitars, but a plethora of other things. Unfortunately, these things, as well as the instruments, were auctioned off after John died because of his outstanding debts. Among the lots though were outrageous things like stuffed sharks, other types of fish, armour, watches, and guns.
John was also an accomplished artist. He drew the cover art for the Who's 1976 album The Who By Numbers. He often held shows with his one-of-a-kind artwork, which often featured his bandmates and friends, my favourite being Keith Moon as a pirate. To view some of his art, you can go to http://www.johnentwistle.com.
The lineup of Led Zeppelin almost went this way: Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle. Frustrated by constant rows between Pete and Roger in the Who, Keith and John often thought about leaving the group to form another group with a session guitarist, Jimmy Page.
"I was going to leave (The Who) every other week! At one point Keith and I were going to form our own band with Jimmy Page. Keith said 'It'll probably sink like a lead balloon.' so I said 'Why don't we call it Led Zeppelin?' and Keith agreed."
Of course, Keith and John didn't join Led Zeppelin, and everyone ended up staying in their respective groups.
When Keith died in 1978, John was doing a press conference. He remained calm and said nothing until someone asked about the future of the Who, and John burst into tears.
John continued to perform with The Who and the John Entwistle Band until his death on 27 June, 2002. The next day was to be the beginning of the Who's North American tour. At first, he was thought to have died of a heart attack because of his congenital heart problem, but it was later proved that he had cocaine in his system. Rumour had it that a stripper had accompianed John the night before. Cocaine and strippers. What a way to go.
"The quietest man in private but the loudest man on stage. He was unique and irreplaceable."
Bill Wyman, former bassist, The Rolling Stones
Smash Your Head Against The Wall
Rigor Mortis Sets In
Mad Dog (With John Entwistle's Ox)
Too Late the Hero
Thunderfingers: The Best Of John Entwistle
King Biscuit Flower Hours Presents John Entwistle (With John Entwistle's Ox)
Music From Van-Pires
Left for Live (With the John Entwistle Band)
featured on Songs From the Material World: A Tribute to George Harrison (With the John Entwistle Band)
quotes from my own recollection, Guitar Magazine, and Bass Player magazine. Typed out by me. Discography from Brian Cady at thewho.net. Info from Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, as usual.