1.5.19

JOHN ENTWISTLE: “AN OAK TREE IN THE MIDDLE OF A TORNADO”






To coincide with the 50th anniversary of Tommy, Bass Guitar magazine has commissioned me to write an appreciation of John for their May issue. In the fullness of time I’ll post it here but in the meantime here's some extracts. I nicked the sub-title from a phrase that Pete used in his Who I Am book.

… John [Entwistle] was a bass guitarist, not a bassist, perhaps even a guitarist who played bass, and this distinction – which he made himself – is important. “I found bass very boring,” he once said. “I wanted to turn it into a solo instrument and the only way to do that was turn up the treble.” In another interview he even went as far as to say that The Who didn’t have a bass player.
            So it was that audiences never really appreciated what John was playing because the sounds that came from his speaker stacks appeared as if they were coming from [Pete] Townshend’s guitar, or even a pre-recorded low register synthesiser. Coupled with the guitarist’s attention-grabbing style – the leaping around and windmilling – not to mention the antics of [Roger] Daltrey and [Keith] Moon, no one paid much attention to the chap on the left in the brightly coloured jackets who simply stood there and played. What they missed was a display of extraordinary but largely inconspicuous fluency, a player whose technique involved not just plucking his strings with his thumb and every finger of his right hand, but tapping them and switching periodically to a plectrum, bending and hammering on and off notes, vibrating trills and unexpected bell-like harmonics, glissandos that occasionally slid up and down his entire fretboard, parts that echoed or reinforced lead riffs and vocal lines, and even chords strummed across two or more strings that created an all-enveloping wash of low-frequency resonance. What’s more, he made it look easy.
            “John got attention simply because he stood so still, his fingers flying like a stenographer’s, the notes a machine-gun chatter,” wrote Townshend in Who I Am, his 2012 autobiography. “And through it all, as if to anchor the experience, John stood like an oak tree in the middle of a tornado.”
            When after a break of seven years Townshend agreed to tour again with The Who in 1989, he stipulated that because loud noise had damaged his hearing he would do so only if John significantly reduced his on-stage volume, a condition that required The Who’s stage personnel to be substantially reinforced. With Simon Phillips now on drums, they were augmented by a further twelve musicians, all to compensate for John turning down. “The only way we could add [John’s] harmonic richness,” said Townshend, “was to add brass, second guitar, acoustic guitar, two keyboards, backing vocals and people banging gongs, because that’s what John used to replicate.”
            “He had a technique that was light years ahead of everybody else at the time,” said keyboard player Rick Wakeman, who studied at the Royal College of Music. “Nobody played like John.”
            “Best bassist in rock’n’roll,” added Lemmy. “No contest.”

… In the third week of December, 1972, I visited John at his semi-detached house in the west London suburb of Ealing, ostensibly to interview him for Melody Maker about his second solo album Whistle Rhymes. By this time I had edged myself into the role of Melody Maker’s unofficial ‘Who correspondent’ and charmed my way backstage at several concerts, so I knew him reasonably well. He was a friendly, down-to-earth man, quite softly-spoken and reserved when he wasn’t performing, and he took compliments like a pinch of salt, wryly amused by his reputation as a disciple of the macabre; “big bad black Johnny Twinkle,” as Moon once yelled on stage, to which Townshend added, “with the flying fingers”.
            John and his wife Alison welcomed me into their home. It was the kind of house you might expect a moderately successful and well-travelled businessman to occupy with his family, comfortable but not ostentatious, perfect for the character in The Kinks’ song ‘Well Respected Man’. Some wags within the Who camp were suggesting John should run for Mayor of Ealing.
           
… About 90 of John’s bass guitars, among them several instruments that he had played onstage with The Who, were sold in 2003 at Sotheby’s Auction Room in South Kensington, along with a similar number of guitars and many brass instruments. The sale, which also included Who memorabilia, stage clothes, antique chandlery and casts of game fish, raised about a million quid.
            Watching the auctioneer’s hammer come down alongside me were grieving fans eager to bid for a little piece of John Entwistle. In the last decade of his life they had seen him performing not only with The Who but also with bands of his own, and the lack of renown he’d suffered in the early part of his career was now a thing on the past. These loyal fans deeply appreciated not just John’s immense skills as a musician but the touching allegiance he had always shown towards them. Within the Who fan community it had become well known that after both his own and Who shows, John would remain behind to socialise, happy to answer questions about his equipment, his playing style and The Who, and sign autographs for one and all. I cannot think of any other rock star of his stature who was more gracious to fans, the lifeblood of the music industry after all, than John, nor fans who appreciated this princely attitude so much.
            The last time I spoke to John was backstage at Wembley Arena after a Who show on November 15, 2000. The hospitality area was crowded with men and women far younger than me or the group and there was no sign of Townshend or Daltrey but, as ever, John was in the midst of the throng. Grey-haired and looking older than his 56 years, he was slightly tipsy I think, and when he saw me he offered a warm smile of recognition.
            “I don’t know a soul here apart from you,” I said to him.
            “Neither do I,” he replied, laughing.


You can order this issue of Bass Guitar in print at https://bit.ly/2VyqhdJ and digital at https://bit.ly/2WOyvvl.

2 comments:

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting John October 19, 2001 after he played the Wolf’s Den at Mohegan Sun Casino for a few hundred fans. Although he was playing with The Who in the Concert for New York he stayed and met fans. Class guy!

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  2. Everything written so eloquently and so true. My brother and I can both attest to the man's generosity and attention to fans; he truly was a regal presence.

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