In my opinion [and that of many others], John Entwistle of The Who was the greatest rock bass guitarist to ever walk the Earth. Guitar Magazine calls him "The Bassist Of The Millennium". Pete Townshend may have been the mind behind The Who, but it was Entwistle’s aggressive playing that gave the band its balls. You can immediately tell the difference when you hear The Who live now with Pino Palladino on bass. Palladino is a superb bass player, but The Ox he is not. PT had the following to say about The Ox on the 10th anniversary of his death:
“John's sound was harmonically rich and filled an enormous part of the audio spectrum. There really is no one who can do what he did. Other bass players can copy his sound, and try to emulate his fingering, but at the heart of John's playing was a contradiction. His laid back character disguised a powerful musical ego, supported by immense musical talent. His playing was complex and fast, but there are few players alive who could combine such speed and eloquence on the bass with such good taste musically speaking. Like Keith Moon, he really is irreplaceable. His sound can be emulated, and I sometimes hear players who can approach John's musicianship, but John really was unique, a complete one-off, an innovator who never stopped experimenting.”
Technique: John Entwistle started his career as a musician on piano, trumpet and French horn. Since he had the dexterity to play all those instruments, he could play the bass using three fingers [most bassist use only two]. This allowed him to play rapid multi-note clusters, tapping the strings percussively as if he was using the bass like a typewriter. His fingers were a blur, which stood in stark contrast to him being almost immobile on stage. But sometimes, he would use a pick [on My Generation, for example].
The sound: His sound was explained simply – “full treble, full volume.” Always in search of the perfect sound, he would split the sound coming out of his bass with the treble signals going to one amp, the bass sound going to another amp. As part of the “libretto” for Quadrophenia, Pete Townshend wrote this [from the point of view of the album’s protagonist, Jimmy] –
“The bass player was a laugh. He never did anything. Nothing. He used to smile sometimes, but the smile would only last half a second and then it would switch off again. My friend Dave said he smiled a lot more at his sister, they were engaged I think. His bass sounded like a bleeding VC10.”
All true [except for the smiling at Dave’s sister bit] – John Entwistle started with Marshall stacks so he could hear himself over Keith Moon’s drums. Pete Townshend started using Marshalls to hear himself over The Ox. No wonder at one time The Who were the loudest band in the world. By the end of his life, The Ox had so much equipment on his side of the stage that it resembled a big city skyline.
As far as his basses are concerned, he played Fenders, Danelectros, Rickenbackers, Alembics, Warwicks, and then played a custom Status Graphite Buzzard bass. If you’re really interested in all the gear he used, follow this link: http://www.thewho.net/whotabs/gear/bass/bass8602.html
Tony’s Favorite Ox Moments:
My Generation [single, 1965] – Rock’s first bass solo. Legacy cemented. Nothing more needs to be said.
My Wife [The Kids Are Alright, 1979] – As originally heard on Who’s Next, the emphasis is more on PT’s guitar, The Ox’s piano and horn parts. The bass is buried in the mix [and it’s HIS bloody song!]. Not so whenever this song came alive on stage. I prefer this version of the song [recorded in Kilburn, UK, December 1977].
Won’t Get Fooled Again [The Kids Are Alright, 1979] – The definitive version of this Who’s Next classic. When The Kids Are Alright documentary finally got a DVD release, one of the special features was The Ox’s bass parts of this song isolated from the rest of the instruments. One can do the same thing with headphones – the guitar is in the right channel, the bass is on the left. Recorded specifically for the film in May 1978 [Note: this was Keith Moon’s last live performance].
Sparks [Tommy, 1969] – I don’t remember it being like this on the Tommy album, but when Carol and I saw The Who at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum in August 1989, The Ox took a solo that shook the Coliseum to its foundations. In all the concerts I’ve seen since October 1982 [when I first saw The Who], this was the only time I ever heard 65,000 people gasp in amazement all at once. We were in the upper deck [someone screamed that Voyager had better seats than we did], and we felt it where we were - truly an impressive feat. A similar version can be heard on the live album Join Together .
Substitute [single, 1966] – PT plays the opening four chords of Substitute, but the riff throughout the song is all Entwistle. He gets a solo while PT plays his. Every bass player should learn this song.
I Wonder [Whistle Rhymes, 1972] – This song kicks off Side 2 of The Ox’s second solo album. The Ox has a very fat bass sound that sounds like it has a “bounce” to it that isn’t present on any Who album. The bass is higher in the mix than any Who album except Quadrophenia. Out through the window and into the sky/I’m so glad that sharks can’t fly…
Back on the Road [Demo] [Whistle Rhymes, 1972] – John Entwistle’s lament about needing to play in front of adoring crowds has some deft, melodic bass work.
The Real Me [Quadrophenia, 1973] – Can anyone imagine this song without Entwistle’s bass parts? I can’t and I doubt if any other hardcore Who fan could either. Sure, he’s just playing scales, but he makes playing scales sound cool. Quadrophenia is the Who album that has the best Entwistle bass sound on record. Can you see the real me me me me me…
The Punk And The Godfather [Quadrophenia, 1973] – Like everything else on Quadrophenia, The Ox’s playing is outstanding on this song. This one is just a cut above most [but just below The Real Me].
Success Story [The Who By Numbers, 1975] – One of The Ox’s songs, this one here’s Entwistle singing about how the music business can become a grind. It sounds like he’s playing “lead bass” here.
In a Hand or a Face [The Who By Numbers, 1975] – The final song from The Who By Numbers.
Dreaming From the Waist [The Who By Numbers, 1975] – While My Generation features a rock’s first bass solo, the band stopped playing while The Ox played his solo. On this song the band keeps playing while The Ox wails away. The remastered The Who By Numbers features a live version of this song played in 1976 in the UK.
Trick of the Light [Who Are You, 1978] – One of three John Entwistle originals from Who Are You, this song is about a guy who goes to see a hooker and keeps asking her how he was in bed. The Ox introduced an eight-string Alembic that was so trebly that the need for a lead guitar was eliminated. Pete Townshend played only barre chords on the record, but live he didn’t play guitar at all – he would play a four-string bass while The Ox would play like Panzers storming through Poland on his eight-string Alembic.
The Quiet One [Face Dances, 1981] – The Ox plays a very fast bass riff. Here he plays the bass like it’s a typewriter.
It’s In You [Face Dances, 1981] – This outtake from Face Dances marks the return of The Ox’s eight-string Alembic. After Keith Moon’s death, PT started writing songs that abandoned power chords. This song had more of a keyboard emphasis, and with his eight-string The Ox provides a very trebly bass presence. It just sounds cool. This song should have been on the original release.
Talk Dirty [Too Late the Hero, 1981] – Like The Quiet One, the bass provides the riff.
Dancing Master [Too Late the Hero, 1981] – Dueling bass solos! One bass solos in one the, the other bass solos in the other ear. I don’t know how he does it but Joe Walsh actually gets his licks in too. Great headphone listening, this one…
Another Tricky Day [Face Dances, 1981] –Listen to what’s going on under the power chords.
Cry If You Want [It’s Hard, 1982] - See Another Tricky Day…
Eminence Front [It’s Hard, 1982] – With PT playing mostly rhythm guitar and a solo here and there, The Ox’s bass propels this song to be the last Who classic.
Magic Bus [Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2003] – The Ox makes this one-chord offering from this 2000 show interesting. He plays all kinds of runs while PT plays his power chords, even when “the bus” turns into a train on Cyril Davies’ “Country Line Station,” which PT and Roger Daltrey tacked onto the end.
I Don’t Even Know Myself & Young Man Blues [Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2003] – The show for the first two discs was recorded in 2000 in support of the Teenage Cancer Trust in the UK. But the third disc is a bonus, recorded 8 February 2002. This is significant in that this was the last show John Entwistle played before his death four months later in late June 2002. This is proof The Ox had “it” right up until the very end. I still miss him.
"I guess I would like to be remembered... As someone who helped change the bass guitar, and be probably the only Bass Guitarist that hasn't been copyable.” - John Entwistle
Absolutely. RIP John Entwistle.