John Entwistle, 1944-2002

I was as blindsided by the news as anyone: another great musician has passed away. John Entwistle, the rock-solid bassist for the Who, was found dead in his hotel room in Las Vegas on June 27, a night before the Who were to start their latest reunion tour. The suspected cause was heart failure. He was 57. Yeah, you can say that it’s all been a bit of a cash-in ever since Keith Moon, the band’s legendary drummer and wild man, died in 1978. But Entwistle always showed a lot of class. Must be the English bass player thing. John Paul Jones had much the same role in Led Zeppelin: the quiet, classy one in a group full of hooligans. Entwistle’s seemingly calm influence on the thunderous world hard-rock bass-playing is now legendary, and his sudden passing is a shocking loss.

John Entwistle helped found the Who with Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey in 1964, after the trio’s original mod combo, the High Numbers, split up with just one single under their collective belt, “I’m the Face”. They recruited Moon from a local R&B surf band (!) and took on Kit Lambert’s services as band manager. They landed a record deal and Lambert set up his own label, Track Records, to release the Who’s singles and albums exclusively. Their debut single, “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, is considered one of the finest debuts in English rock. The pressure was so great for the band to have a hit that Townshend was only allowed to play the guitar solo break, which he modeled after the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” solo (Jimmy Page played the rhythm guitar on the track). What stands out in the song, though, is Entwistle’s propulsive bass line, Moon’s “machine-gun” drum fill right before the choruses come in and Daltrey’s slurred vocal delivery.

Entwistle was perfect for the band in that he was probably the only bassist who could adapt to Moon’s frenetic drumming style. Moon’s playing was a mixture of surf riffs, R&B back-beat and rock ‘n’ roll agility. He would have been too “all over the place” for Paul McCartney, not bluesy enough for Bill Wyman, not jazzy enough for Jack Bruce. But “the Ox” (as he was affectionately known) adapted perfectly to the hyperactive drummer. Furthermore, Entwistle was one of the first rock bassists to use bass chords, which was unheard of in 1965. He would come up with complex structures that would be found more in jazz than in pop, but they sounded deceptively simple (just try playing one of his lines if you don’t agree). He also owns the defining moment on the “My Generation” single. They get to the middle eight for the solo, but instead of Townshend ripping through one of his feedback ridden excursions, Entwistle plucks out some low bass notes then plays a descending fluid pattern of notes after Townshend gives a bluesy break. Voilà: rock’s first bass solo!

Onstage, while Townshend would be smashing his guitar, Moon kicking over his drum kit and Daltrey scraping the microphone on one of Moon’s dislodged cymbals, Entwistle would stand in front of his bass cabinet playing various scales right through the chaos around him. He also provided some of the Who’s more humorous moments, such as the deep voice on “Boris the Spider” (another tune defined by an excellent bass riff), or the French horn on “Cobwebs And Strange” (which gives it that marching band/oompah quality).

Of course, there’s also his shining moment in the Who’s recorded output, “My Wife”, from their quintessential 1971 album, Who’s Next. There’s a rumor that Daltrey fought with Entwistle over who would get to sing on the track, but I’m glad Entwistle won out. His woe-is-me down-on-me-luck yobbo voice fits the lyrics (about a man running from his wife after he got too drunk and caused some unpleasantness — I still can’t figure out what he sings after “All I did was have a bit too much to drink . . .”) in a way that a Daltrey version may have over-dramatized. His bass lines are also up-front all over that album, like the nice little riffs he provides in “Gettin’ In Tune” and “Goin’ Mobile”.

On the band’s two major concept albums — Tommy (about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who becomes a modern messiah) and Quadrophenia (about a mod named Jimmy who journeys to Brighton to find disillusionment), Entwistle was happy to sit back and let Townshend and Daltrey take the glory. During this time he just plugged in and played. His work on Tommy is over-shadowed by the vocals and guitars. Indeed he’s often nearly buried in the mix, except on a couple of tunes, such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Pinball Wizard”. However, his bass is given a more prominent position in the mix of Quadrophenia. Indeed here he came up with some of his best stuff, nearly getting fonky on “The Real Me” and “5:15”.

Entwistle made a solo record, Bang Your Head Against the Wall, in 1971, and continued sporadically to record and tour with his “solo” bands Rigor Mortis and John Entwistle’s Ox throughout the early ’70s. Meanwhile punk exploded in the UK in 1976, though the Who were one of the few ’60s bands not to be slagged off by the new pack of rebels. “No more Beatles, Stones or Elvis in ’77”, I believe was the rallying cry of the Clash. This was probably due to the the Who’s anti-establishment, working-class stance from the beginning (though Daltrey and Moon were the only two working-class lads in the group). Indeed, the punk movement readily adopted the Who’s trademark Union Jack imagery in many of their fashion statements and album covers.

When the Who regrouped to make Who Are You, Moon’s addictions were catching up to him and it’s been said that a session drummer played most of the backing tracks on the album. Moon passed away in 1978, ironically from an over-dose of the medication that was supposed to curb his alcohol consumption. The other three decided not to split, but to continue on with an old friend, ex-Small Faces drummer, Kenny Jones. The revamped Who made two studio records and a live album, and endured one of rock’s biggest tragedies when several fans were killed in a stampede before their 1979 Cincinnati show.

The Who split for good in 1982, after the It’s Hard record was released. Townshend continued the solo career he had started in 1978, while Daltrey took up acting for a bit. Entwistle, completely in character, just chilled out for a while. He appeared on a public television series in the late ’80s, an educational show aimed at kids to teach them the fundamentals of music theory. The three remaining members worked together in the studio in 1988, the first time since 1981, for Townshend’s Iron Man record (on the tracks “Dig” and “Fire”). This led to a full-on Who reunion and in 1989 they toured for the first time in nearly 10 years, a tour that coincided with the twentieth anniversary of both Tommy and the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where the Who turned in a classic performance. Entwistle was active in the 90s, doing both solo tours and a couple more with the Who. They have been relatively quiet the past few years, aside from Pete Townshend’s various solo efforts popping up here and there (the remastered Scoop, the complete Lifehouse boxed set). The Who announced earlier this year that they would be touring in the summer. But sadly, another original member is gone now. Still, the Who have announced that they will continue with the tour nonetheless. I had hoped Townshend and Daltrey wouldn’t even think they could carry on without Entwistle. Alas.

Here’s to John Entwistle, who most definitely expanded the bass guitar’s vocabulary in rock and roll. Sure, he didn’t have the jazz licks of say, Jaco Pastorius, or the star quality of McCartney, but he remained a pretty humble guy for being one of the best bass players around.

* * *

Sean Rovaldi is a freelance writer and self-described prog/psych geek from East Hartford, Connecticut.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.