A Tribute Written By: Scott Faller
Published: July 2002
These type of articles are always tough to write. Geoff and I were talking about that back when I wrote the John Lee Hooker tribute. It's really hard to write what you feel and yet not sound like an Orbit or obituary writer. I'm not going to write a report filled with facts and dates about John, there are plenty of those out there already. Instead, I want to draw your attention to his musical accomplishments. I'd like you to see John as the excellent musician that he was. With some luck, I can convey this with words.
To a true music fan, you mention the name John Entwistle and you think immediately, bassist for The Who. In fact not just bassist, but probably one of the most prodigious musicians that has ever strapped on a bass guitar. His influence on the current generation of bass players could never be fully measured.
When I think of "the best" musicians in Rock and Roll by instrument, it usually gets summed up this way, Lead guitar - Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bass - John Entwistle, Drums - Neil Peart (letters, I get letters, I get letters every day :-). Obviously, that list could be debated forever with no clear winner, but ultimately John Entwistle would end up as one of the top three bassists so far, IMO.
Over the past week or so, I've been reading everything I could find about him. I ran across an article in last Sundays (June 28th) London Times. It was an interview with some "well known" Rock critic (who will remain un-named). John's drummer (and manager of his current band, The John Entwistle Band,) Steve Luongo equated John as "the Jimi Hendrix of bass guitarists". This critic went off and said it was a "ludicrous" analogy. He further went on to use descriptors like "pretty dependable" and "capable" when it came to John's bass playing. This guy was just plain nasty. That started me really thinking (and listening) to John's contribution to The Who's music.
Sorely lacking some of the early Who material, I went out to my local Vinyl Shack and filled in what was missing. While I was at it, I picked up a couple of John's solo albums and I started listening. Although I'm (still) not a big fan of the early Who music (pre Tommy), I listened to John's contribution to the band. Not only his writing and playing but to how his style changed over the years.
John went from being a pretty standard bass player of the early to mid sixties to being one of the two anchors of (arguably) one of the greatest Rock bands of our times. In my humble opinion, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, when The Who was at their peak, were the best rhythm section in all of Rock and Roll, possibly ever. Without either of those two, The Who would never have been The Who. This isn't meant to be a disparaging comment pointed at Pete and Roger at all, it's just that the band would have (and will) sound completely different without their presence. After listening to The Who at their musical peak (1969 to about 1978) I don't know how anyone could come to any other conclusion.
During his life, occasionally, John would get the chance to step into the forefront of the band taking the lead on songs. By lead, I mean driving the song rather than just singing. Perfect example, The opening track (second actually) to Quadrophenia, The Real Me. John absolutely drives this song. Pure conviction and with a bass track that just cooks. It's an unparalleled performance in Rock, even to this date. This, to me, isn't just a "flash of brilliance", this was just his opportunity to show what he is really made of. That being said, it's more than obvious that John and Keith weren't The Who. In their hay day, the band fed off of each other just like all great musicians do. Each member was a virtuoso in their own right, that's what made these guys so great.
As I ran through my (updated) Who catalog, I see that John contributed a healthy amount songs to The Who's repertoire. One of my all time favorites has to be My Wife from The Who's Next. This was a perennial favorite for the concert going crowd. Every time I listen to this song it just cracks me up. It's a song about a guy (John presumably) who goes out drinking with his chum's and (innocently) doesn't come home that night. Now his wife is after him. To quote the lyrics – "My life's in jeopardy .... I ain't been home since Friday night and now my wife is after me." The premise of this song is just hilarious. This is such a "guy" thing to do. All of us (well most of us .... OK, some of us) have done something stupid like this before. But wait, the lyrics get better. Now in his trek to hide from his wife the songs goes .... "Gunna buy a tank and an airplane, when my she catches up with me won't be no time to explain…" John's in deeeeep do-do with his wife :-) Actually, his wife didn't come after him, her lawyers did :-|
Along with My Wife, John did quite a few other goofy songs that show his sense of humor. If you are interested, search out one of his solo albums, Rigor Mortis Sets In would be a good one to start with. Here he writes about Roller Skate Kate who has gone to that great skating rink in the sky and Peg Leg Peggy who has a leg in the shape of a chair. Words can't describe these, you have to experience them, trust me :-)
As much as I love The Who's Next, I think my favorite Who album is Quadrophenia. Not to mention, this album really shows off the gifts given to John. He is an absolute wild man on the bass. Him and Keith drive this release with a rhythm section that is absolutely second to none. Roger and Pete, even with all of their antics, have a hard time keeping up with John and Keith (musically).
If you weren't aware, there are two completely different releases (mixes) Quadrophenia. The original studio release for this album was in 1973. Though originally mixed for the old discrete Quad systems, the studio release was then remixed for stereo. The band hated the stereo mix and it stayed that way for a number of years until the release of Quadrophenia, The Movie (Polydor PD-2-6235). Accompanying the movie was John's remix of the studio release. The original song list was trimmed to add some great songs from James Brown, The Kingsmen, Booker T., plus a few Who songs that didn't make it on the studio release. The soundtrack's release not only has alternate takes but the bass is much more defined (tonally) than the studio release. John's mix is a bit raw and less overproduced and has a very distinct feel to it. I personally like this mix better than the studio release.
If you want a real treat, go out and fine the Rhino home video release of The Who, Who's Next (Rhino R3 972695). This video recounts the making of the Who's Next as told by the band members, managers and recording engineers. It's a fabulous inside look at the making of an album from inception to the final mix down. There are lots of spots with John, Pete and Roger who bring life to this classic album not to mention some classic film footage of the band and some acoustic versions of the songs on this release. It's well worth buying.
Do yourself a favor, pull some of your Who records and give them a listen again. Start with the early Who releases and end with their more recent music. Listen to John's progression as a bassist. When the song calls for it, John would play the part of a more traditional Rock bassist, just plodding along with the beat. On others, John would show what was really under the surface of his Stoic appearance, a wild man looking to be let out.
If you listen closely to some of the Who's songs, you can hear John matching Keith's drumming note for note. When you really think about it, the thought of a bass player trying to match the chords and speed of a drummer, especially a wild man like Keith, it would be pretty tough. That's not the case in John. If you look closely at old concert footage, you'll see that he was such a master of his instrument that he played with all four fingers. If you've never played bass before, you have no idea just how talented you have to be to do that. It's extremely difficult but when you enlist your pinky in your playing, you have just increased the speed and agility almost exponentially (when you need or want it). On some songs he plays so fast that you can hardly tell that he has just played multiple notes. Your reference system has to be pretty revealing to discern all of Johns true talents.
Here is, what I feel is, a pretty good starter list if you want to get a really good feel of John's musicianship, both in his writing and composition style.
Out on the Street, My Generation
Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doctor Doctor
A Quick One (Happy Jack in the USA)
I Need You, See My Way
The Who Sell Out
Live at Leeds
The entire album
The entire album
The entire album
..... and there are so many more. I'll leave it to you guys to fill in the blanks.
As you listened to Johns progression and eventual mastery of the bass guitar, you will hear what an excellent bassist he truly was. His sense of rhythm timing was impeccable. Many times, a lessor bassist might have foregone the dramatic pauses that John chose. That or another bassist might have taken those opportunities to step all over a band mate to make himself heard. John didn't. We Don't Get Fooled Again may epitomize John's playing ability the best. It's absolutely brilliant, not to mention, it's one kick ass song.
With all of the antics of the other band members, John got labeled a wallflower of sorts. He said it used to bother him. In a seeming attempt to lash out at the press and their endless questioning of "Why aren't you more flamboyant?" line of questioning, John wrote The Quiet One on Face Dances. The crux of the entire song rests in one line "I ain't quiet, everybody else is too loud." .... It think that says it all.
Keeping in mind that The Who were once in the Guinness Book of World Records (1976) for playing the loudest concert, I'll leave you with a quote from Roger talking about Johns passing.
"I just hope that God has his earplugs ready. Whatever happens he'll have to reinvent thunder as it simply won't be loud enough anymore.".
And don't worry John, I don't think your fate will befall that of Teddy Greenstreet's, I'm sure everyone will be there.
© Copyright 2002 Scott Faller - https://www.tnt-audio.com