Ode to the Ox 1944-2002
By Ward Meeker
Pop music lovers – especially those with an ear tuned to gear and how it’s used – know that John Entwistle ranks as one of the most influential bassists in the history of rock and roll. Some would argue there is none higher.
Before Entwistle, the role of the bassist was nebulous; the average listener didn’t pay much mind to bass notes or their placement. But Entwistle changed that situation dramatically, developing not only a unique style and establishing the stereotype of the rock-solid, unmoving bassist, but also evolving a tapping multi-hand approach to bass playing.
A musically curious young man, John Alex Entwistle was born in Chiswick, London, in 1944, and as a schoolboy, learned to play piano and French Horn (which he would use throughout his time in the Who). Yet another member of his generation swept up in the skiffle revival of the 1950s, Entwistle was smart enough to see that guitar players in his hometown were a dime a dozen. But few of them were willing to take on the newfangled electric bass guitar, not only because the role was deemed secondary, but also because in England at the time, decent-quality basses were nearly impossible to come by.
Despite being just 14 years old, Entwistle quickly took on double duty as bass player and bass builder, not bothering to learn guitar first.
One day, as he strode down the street, homemade bass under his arm, he was approached by a neighborhood chap named Roger Daltrey, who invited him to join a band. Guitarist Pete Townshend joined soon thereafter, then drummer Keith Moon, and the band evolved from The Detours to The High Numbers and finally The Who, and they started recording in 1964.
From early on, The Who, being a single-guitar band, relied heavily on Entwistle to keep the music rolling. For many reasons (like keeping up with Townshend’s taste for 100-watt amp stacks) he tended to play extremely loud and complex parts to compensate for the absence of a rhythm guitar. The Who was unique in that way: Townshend’s guitar was often the base that Moon and Entwistle would “solo” over.
And amid the pandemonium that was a Who concert – Townshend’s windmilling and power-posing, Moon’s run-amock drumming style, and Daltrey’s frontman posturing – Entwistle developed a trademark standstill style that contrasted visually as he laid down complex fills and countermelodies that fit perfectly.
Entwistle also wrote many noteworthy Who songs. Where Townshend proved to be the cynic, the rebel, the conceptualist, Entwistle’s bizarre, often dark sense of humor lent further contrast. Two cases in point are “Boris the Spider,” from the band’s second album (A Quick One) and “My Wife,” from Who’s Next.
From 1971 to 1973, Entwistle, discouraged by certain bandmates’ falling victim to the trappings of rock stardom, released three solo albums and toured with his band, Ox. Though his solo career never garnered much interest in the U.S., it helped him focus on music despite the fact that the Who was on shakey ground; Townshend had suffered a nervous breakdown early in the decade, Daltrey pursued acting and a solo career, and Moon moved into the party fast lane that would claim his life in 1978.
Despite a uniform feeling that the band wouldn’t really exist after’s Moon’s passing, the Who toured in support of Who Are You, which was released just a few months before the drummer’s death. The wind, however, was knocked out of the band’s sails early in the tour, when 11 fans were trampled to death before a concert in Cincinnati in December, 1979.
The Who kicked out two albums in the early ’80s (1981’s Face Dances and 1982’s It’s Hard). Entwistle, meanwhile, recorded another solo album, Too Late The Hero, which reached number 71 on the U.S. album charts.
The band was to have retired following a farewell tour in 1982, but demand for a reunion led to another tour in ’89.
In the mid ’90s, Entwistle assembled the John Entwistle Band, with producer Steve Luongo on drums, guitarist Godfrey Townsend, and keyboardist Gordon Cotton.
In late June ’02, The Who had regrouped and was set to begin a tour of North America, when Entwistle died on June 27.
By all accounts, Entwistle’s personality was that of one of the most grounded, humble rock superstars ever. As a player, he respected peers like Paul McCartney and Jack Bruce (though he wouldn’t necessarily say he liked their tone), though his own style shared little with either of them. But like them, it defined itself.
Goodbye, John Alec Entwistle
We Hardly Knew Ya
By Steve Patt and Rick Pascual
“Kid, can ya lend me a hand here?” emanated from a hairy individual in a British accent so thick I could barely understand it’s meaning.
Without thinking twice, I grabbed a guitar case from the gent and followed him down the long hallway. This was my first encounter with John “The Ox” Entwistle, in grungy downtown Baltimore, and I got used to helping him over the years.
In the old days, access to bands was a lot easier, and being a 16-year-old Who fan, I had hoped to meet the group by scoping out their hotel. I got more than I bargained for, because the group’s head roadie, a hobbit-like sandy-haired Bob Pridden, pressed me into service, and I was a fixture for the tour.
The Who, all included, were fun to be around, and got along like family. But John was the avuncular older brother to me, giving me tips on wine, women, and (of course) song – though not necessarily in that order. I graduated from the Who to Procol Harum, and eventually left roadying to be a musician with the Chambers Brothers, but never forgot the kindness of Peter, Keith, Roger, and John… who urged me to “forget about the music life, kid – it’s all flash. Go back to school!” Which, of course, I ignored at the time.
John was a scholar – very serious about his music – but had an easy perspective on the Who and its role in the world of popular music.
The group took the stage June 29 in Los Angeles, without its linchpin, John Entwistle. “John would have wanted us to go on,” Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the remaining original bandmates issued in a statement after John’s untimely death at 57, and I couldn’t agree more. The extended family of Peter, Roger, and crew will be playing their hearts out in honor of John Alec Entwistle and his legacy, and all of us music lovers will be there in spirit. – Steve Patt
As you entered the original Manny’s Music on 48th Street in New York City, you walked straight ahead to the stairs that led you down to the main selling floor. That’s where the guitars were, behind sliding locked glass doors above your head. Amplifiers of all the most soughtafter brands formed a small island in the center. The yellow Danelectro that everyone used to test amps was sitting in its usual spot on top of a Standel (or maybe Fender) amp.
I bought my first Precision Bass at Manny’s on August 7, 1968. I still play it to this day. John Entwistle and Pete Townshend entered the store right behind me and my brother, Frankee Lee.
The two guitar players of the Who walked passed us and we acted as cool as we could, but I was delirious. I really was a fan, and that summer I was in love with The Who Sell Out LP.
Entwistle also came to buy a Precision Bass. Henry, Manny’s sales guy, called upstairs to stock and told them to bring down two Fender Precision Basses in sunburst. Henry turned to me and asked if I was buying the case as well figuring that perhaps I could only afford the bass. He didn’t know that I had $225 burning a hole in my pocket. I’d accumulated this money during a summer job at my mother’s office, an aircraft parts distributor. She was my boss that summer and told me if I wanted a really good bass, I’d have to buy it myself. She gave me the job so I could earn it. I really wanted a Precision Bass.
When they finally brought the basses down, Mr. Entwistle opened one of the cases and wearily brushed at the strings as it laid in its orange-lined case. I took the other out and caressed and stroked it like the new lover it was about to become.
I turned to Entwistle who was standing a foot or two away talking to Henry and asked if these weren’t the greatest basses we were buying and he simply said, “The best.” He was so right.
Later that night The Who played the Shaefer Festival in Central Park’s Wollman Rink where I caught Townshend’s pickup cover from his completely smashed Gibson SG. Entwistle did not play the bass that he had bought that evening and I often wondered if he ever did play it or perhaps he made a lamp out of it at a later date.
He was the best rock bass player period. He changed the role and sound of the electric bass like Hendrix changed the sound of the electric guitar. I don’t think he was unappreciated. His fans, myself one for 37 years, are many and varied and devoted. The greatest pleasure in going to see him play was watching him stand so casually still and fly so high into the heavens simultaneously.
He knew he astonished other bass players, after all he was our Jeff Beck. We worshipped and applauded and let it be known that he was the hero of another subspecies of Who fanatics. Anyone who was really listening when they first heard the thunderous solos he blasts off in “My Generation” knew from that day forward the bass was coming out of the shadows. Live at Leeds. Left channel. Case Closed. – Rick Pascual
The Ox’s Axes
As The Who gained prominence, John Entwistle’s tastes developed and he made the de rigeur progression through various makes and models of bass guitars. By the mid ’70s he’d developed a liking for the Fender bass feel, but favored the low-end tone of Gibson’s Thunderbird through Hi-Watt and Sunn amps. Ever one to resolve a quandry, he had Fender Precision necks fitted to Thunderbird bodies – creating what he called his “Fenderbirds.”
By the late ’70s he had taken to custom-made (and often elaborate) Alembic basses. Through two decades he was often seen in concert and video playing an Alembic with an Explorer-shaped body. By the late ’90s, though, he was playing Status basses with all-graphite necks.
But his personal collection of guitars consisted mostly of six-strings, including some fantastic rarities, like a matched set of 1958 Gibsons – a Flying V and an Explorer – a late-’60s Fender Stratocaster in Paisley Red, and a double-cutaway Gretsch White Penguin made for Mary Ford, and believed to be the only one of its kind. Among the basses in the collection were several early-’50s Fender Precisions, Ampeg Horizontal basses, including a an ASB-1 “Devil Bass,” and a Rickenbacker 4005L “lightshow” bass.
Entwistle collected more than “just guitars.” An avid deep-sea fisherman, he had nearly 300 fish mounted and hanging in his bar at home, to go with a guitar collection that numbered well over 200. He also had a fondness, at varying times, for Star Trek episodes on videotape, brass instruments, and antique synthesizers. He even tried his hand at breeding purebred chickens. He was also an avid drawer, and on a few occasions, toured with his artwork.
This article originally appeared in VG October 2002 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.