John Entwistle, The Who’s original bass guitarist, was born in Chiswick in West London on October 9, 1944, and his natural talent as a musician formed the backbone to many of The Who’s most memorable recordings. He was nicknamed ‘The Ox’, as well as ‘Thunderfingers’ – because his digits became a blur across the four-string fretboard – and in a poll at the end of the 20th century he was voted ‘Bassist of the Millennium’ in Musician magazine.
Like many of the world’s greatest bass players, John was born into a musical family and formally trained, initially on the French horn which he played in the Middlesex Youth Orchestra. Drawn to rock’n’roll, he became a fan of Duane Eddy, the US guitarist whose hit singles featured a twangy guitar played in a low register, and soon abandoned his trumpet for a home-made bass guitar, playing in school groups The Confederates and The Scorpions with his friend Pete Townshend. In 1961, he was approached to join fellow Acton County Grammar school pupil Roger Daltrey’s group, The Detours. Six months later, John persuaded Roger to let Townshend join, and in 1964 they became The Who.
John contributed to The Who’s distinctive sound by cultivating a lead style of bass, underpinning Pete’s more rhythmic style of guitar playing with inventive runs in a higher register than most bass players, while at the same time keeping the group’s timing rigid during Keith Moon’s volatile thrashings.
The Who’s third single, ‘My Generation’, featured a prominent bass solo by Entwistle, the first of its kind on a rock record, but unlike his colleagues John remained virtually motionless on stage, quietly observing – and underpinning – the reckless styles of Pete and Keith and Roger’s up-front approach. More than anything else, John loved to play, to perform, to see and hear the crowds, yet he rarely smiled on stage and, indeed, often looked on impassively, his fingers a blur as they danced across his bass strings with supreme skill and casual panache. As The Who’s repertoire grew, John was often called upon to sing one of his own Who songs, contribute backing vocals and occasionally step forward to rattle off a stunning solo bass part in ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ or ‘5.15’; and afterwards, as the crowds cheered him, he’d simply mumble a quick ‘Thank you’ into the mike in his deep, crusty voice, then step back again into the hinterland of his immense speaker cabinets, and resume his seen-it-all-before demeanour.
While Pete emerged as The Who’s songwriter-in-chief, John began making distinctive, macabre contributions to The Who’s catalogue, beginning with ‘Whisky Man’ and the imperishable ‘Boris The Spider’ on the A Quick One album in 1966, continuing with ‘Doctor, Doctor’ and ‘Someone’s Coming’ (1967), ‘Silas Stingy’ (from 1967’s The Who Sell Out), ‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde’ (1968), ‘Heaven And Hell’ with which The Who opened their formidable live shows between 1968 and 1970. John wrote ‘Cousin Kevin’ and ‘Fiddle About’ for The Who’s 1969 magnum opus Tommy because Pete specifically requested John to write “nasty songs” that he felt uncomfortable with. ‘My Wife’, John’s hilarious rocker about marital strife from 1971’s Who’s Next, also became a popular stage number.
When The Who’s success enabled the other members of the group to move out of London, John remained true to his West London roots. He married his childhood sweetheart Alison Wise in 1967 and bought a large semi-detached home in Acton, filling it with all sorts of extraordinary artifacts, ranging from suits of armour to a tarantula spider. His eccentricity and taste for the bizarre was to remain with him throughout his life, and when he finally moved out of the city to Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire in 1975, his 17-bedroom mansion Quarwood resembled a major museum. Suits of armour from medieval times greeted visitors who arrived by the front porch, an effigy of Quasimodo hung from a 40-foot bell rope in the hall and a human skeleton reclined gracefully in a Regency chair. It also housed one of the largest guitar collections belonging to any rock musician.
John’s impressive musicianship continued apace and his work on ‘The Real Me’ (from Quadrophenia) and ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ (from 1975’s The Who By Numbers) was particularly memorable. In the meantime, John sought an outlet for his backlog of songs, and in 1971 became the first member to release a solo album, Smash Your Head Against The Wall which earned him a cult following in the US for fans of his brand of black humour. Other solo studio albums followed: Whistle Rymes (1972), Rigor Mortis Sets In (1973), Mad Dog (1975), Too Late The Hero (1981) and The Rock (1996). John also compiled a Who leftovers collection Odds & Sods in 1974 and with The Who resting in 1975, went out on the road with his own band, Ox. He also fronted the John Entwistle Band on US club tours during the 1990s, and appeared with former Beatle Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, in 1995. A talented artist, John held exhibitions of his paintings, many of them featuring The Who, on a regular basis, and his drawing of The Who graces the sleeve of The Who By Numbers.
By the end of the millennium, a stripped down version of The Who – consisting of Pete, Roger, John, keyboard player John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, and Ringo Starr’s son, Zak Starkey (who had drummed in John’s studio band) – were touring again, amply demonstrating to original fans and a new generation of musicians just how they had established their original credentials. On these later tours John would perform his extraordinary bass solo on ‘5.15’, footage of which was incorporated into Who concerts after his death.
John died from a heart attack on June 27, 2002, in Las Vegas on the eve of The Who’s North American tour. After deliberation, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend decided to continue with the tour and session musician Pino Palladino was brought in to play bass.