The nick name came from his robust physical constitution coupled with a quiet demeanour. His other nickname "thunder fingers" aptly describes the jet engine blast of his bass playing. With Cream's Jack Bruce, he was the leading electric bassist in Britain, if not the world, in the second half of the sixties. In 2000, Guitar magazine named Entwistle 'bassist of the millenium" (Jack was no 4).
John Alec Entwistle was born on 9th October 1944. He received classical music training on Trumpet and French Horn which led to his first concert performance at age 12. At Acton Grammar School he expanded his musical horizons from the prestigious Middlesex Youth Orchestra to an after school jazz band, 'The Confederates'. In 1959 a new arrival at the school was invited to join the band on banjo. Pete Townshend rushed off to get a chord book to learn how to play the instrument. It was the start of a life-long friendship.
After the demise of 'The Confederates' John converted to Electric Bass Guitar, initially one he made himself. That was the start of a love affair with the instrument that ultimately resulted in him amassing one of the world's biggest and best collections of electric guitars and basses. His training on brass was to be very useful in his musical career.
In 1962 Entwhistle joined 'The Detours', a working band in West London. John soon convinced the band's tough, curly haired leader to replace the guitarist. Townshend eventually came on board but it was to change their relationship, as Pete observed - "Our respective fingers were to move over respective guitar fingerboards, never more then thirty feet apart, for nearly thirty years. In the gap between us was to stand Roger Daltrey..."
The Detours changed their name to 'The Who' in Febuary 1964 with the band being completed with the addition of Keith Moon on drums in May. As The Who's stage act evolved, Entwhistle retreated into the background, standing quietly and letting the bass do the talking. Off-stage he was as much a raver as any of the band.
The dynamics of the band led Entwistle to develop a unique style to fit in between the manic drummer and the flailing guitarist. He eschewed the traditional bottom end and developed a trebly sound. His large hands facilitated a single note lead style to balance Townshend's chording. Daltrey recalls the early days ..."John was already playing different bass to anybody else...playing 25 times as many bass notes as any body else played in a bar." This led to regular bass lead breaks with that on "My Generation" being the most notable and which required multiple takes due to broken bass strings.
John not only introduced a new bass style into pop music but also had a major impact on sound technology. In mid 1965 he visited his amp supplier and requested that they build something more powerful for him. Jim Marshall began development of the, now, legendary 100 Watt stack. Not to be outdone, Townshend also adopted it - in fact two each. The six foot high wall of guitar amps and speaker cabinets had been born.
As the band progressed through the sixties, a poor record contract deal deprived them of full recording royalties. Live performance was their main source of income but their nightly auto-destruction of instruments/equipment left them increasingly in debt. In 1967 they toured America several times including an explosive performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. An Australian tour, with the Small Faces, in January 1968 included an incident where they were escorted from a plane for drinking beer and being abusive. Even the Prime Minister of the day got involved. The events are recounted in John's song 'Postcard' - "Going insane on the plane...". Only Roger Daltrey has revisited Australia.
The Australian tour was followed by two months in America as the headliner. This time they took their Marshall Stacks and began to build their performance reputation in the US. The release of the film of their performance at Monterey helped further. The big breakthrough was made with the release of Townshend's 'Rock Opera' Tommy in 1969 on which Entwistle overdubbed horns to achieve a symphonic sound on several tracks. The accompanying tour, which culminated in another explosive festival performance at Woodstock, cemented them as a major live act in the US.
From 1969 through to 1976, the Who were the greatest live band in Rock. The occasionally violent tensions between the members produced concert performances that still stand out in people's memory. That power was recorded and released on their classic album 'Live at Leeds" in 1970. Entwistle recalls that after listening to the pre-release tape with Keith Moon they had turned and looked at each other - "We didn't realise how fuckin' good we were."
Entwistle may have been the Quiet One but he occasionally got involved in the destruction mayhem. "I couldn't smash my instrument until they smashed theirs. I had to keep the noise going ... and once Keith had smashed his drumkit, I'd throw my bass into the ear and walk off before it landed. It would go boom...The bass had gradually cracked ...so I decided to smash it up ...it took fifteen minutes to smash it up. Everyone was going , 'Smash it, smash it! I said 'I'm trying, I'm trying'. I finally had to hit it on the corner of the stage to break it."
It was not only the performances but their prodigious sound volumes. John's interest in sound technology was reflected in the work of their sound engineer, Bob Pridden. John's rigs were awesome but they also pioneered the development of the huge reinforcement P.A.s which became standard in the '70's. It was the Who's sound system that powered the massive Isle of Wight Festivals in 1969 and '70. They are still entered in the Guiness Book of records as "loudest Rock Group". Without doubt, John was the loudest bassist - "There's loud, louder, and Entwistle".
Keith Moon's death in September 1978 brought in Kenney Jones, formerly of the Faces and Small Faces. This more conventional drummer allowed John to expand his style and he replaced Moon as Townshend's counterpoint. It was a musical balance that continued until his death. Their musical link is described by Entwhistle himself recounting an incident when he was the bass player on one of Townshend's solo tours. Townshend had gone off on one of his improvised guitar excursions, John unerringly went with him, while the rest of the band struggled to follow. Afterward the band remonstrated with John "Why hadn't you rehearsed that with us?" John's response was that he always knows what Townshend is doing and doesn't need to rehearse anything with him.
On December 17 1982 the Who played their last concert and retired. It was to be followed by sporadic 'reunion' concerts and a few event tours but The Who, as a working band, was finished. It is notable that a few of these event tours were organised to top up John's bank account so he could maintain his country manor lifestyle and continue to expand his guitar collection
The Who was his predominant musical involvement but their extended sabbaticals from performing and recording resulted in John developing a solo alternative, to relieve the boredom. His first solo album "Bang Your Head Against the Wall" was released in 1971 and it was to be followed 6 others over the years. The title refers to his frustration of getting his songs recorded by The Who as the album contained mostly songs intended for them.
John's song writing and singing is clearly overshadowed by Pete Townshend. However he supplied several staples of The Who's concert repertoire over the years, notably the concert opener "Heaven and Hell" in late '60's/early 70's and Jimi Hendrix's favourite Who song "Boris the Spider". On these he also did quite effective lead vocals - there have been and are a lot of worse singers in rock and pop. He also had a major impact on Tommy with the contribution of the dark songs "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About". The solo career was not financially successful with it being subsidised by his earnings from The Who, but the tours allowed him "to get out and play".
2002 had seen a reconciliation between Townshend and Daltrey with a real commitment to touring and recording. The integration of Zac Starkey on drums appears to have been an essential catalyst in a reborn Who.
John Entwistle's death from a heart attack on Thursday 27th June in Las Vegas, just before the first concert on what was building as a triumphant 3 month tour of the U.S., is the end of The Who.
Finest Moments: "My Generation", Live at Leeds (Deluxe edition- "Young Man Blues"), Quadrophenia ("The Real Me", "Punk and the Godfather")
P.S. I have been swamping myself with Who - he was a great bass player - get The Who's "Albert Hall" DVD and revel in the band and John's humungous solo.
Part 1 of The Lords of the Bass: Jack Bruce's Contemporaries
Part 2: Noel Redding
ã Graeme Pattingale, 2002
updated ã Graeme Pattingale, 2003