A visit to Sainsburys is never complete without stopping by the CD shelves where, like Ronnie Lane’s dad, I’m looking for a bargain. This week I spot a logo that brings back some happy memories, made up from the initials AWB with the W rounded in such a way as to suggest the outline of a woman’s shapely derriere, a design that might arouse some anxiety in 2019 but in 1974, when it made its debut, caused not a ripple.
        Gold, a triple CD set by The Average White Band, offers 45 tracks for £5, or 11.1p per song, which is certainly good value for money but it probably means that after deductions several years will elapse before the boys in the band, whoever they might be today, make enough from it to pay my grocery bill, which this morning amounted to £106.80.
        Nevertheless, I stick Gold in my trolley and when I get back home I listen again to ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, the effortlessly catchy instrumental that topped the US singles charts in February 1975, simultaneously sending the album from whence it came, AWB, to the top of the US LP charts as well. Briefly, then, this 5/6ths Scottish and 1/6th English soul/R&B group was the biggest band in the world and as Melody Maker’s man in America in those days it was my job to track them down, which I did. And they turned out to be as genial a bunch of Highlanders it’s ever been my pleasure to ken.
        In early 1975 they were living on the tip of Long Island, the densely populated island that extends for 120 miles or so eastwards from New York City. I took the train, through Freeport and Patchogue, and as I chugged along on that crisp February morning I discovered that the farther you travel the less populated the island becomes until you reach the easternmost tip where the rich people live, out in the Hamptons, Great Gatsby land. Here I took a taxi from the station and pulled up outside a grand mansion that belonged to Ahmet Ertegun, the boss of Atlantic Records, and inside, a bit gobsmacked at their good fortune, I found five Scottish musicians and a newly recruited black guy from Brighton called Steve. As I informed MM’s readers, “they play rhythm and blues music with such authority that the majority of Americans think they’re all black musicians. They spend their days kicking a fitba’ around the grounds of one of Ahmet Ertegun’s many mansions, and their nights creating music under the baton of some of the greatest rhythm and blues producers on the Atlantic label.”
        I discovered that a family of 13 occupied the house: six musicians in the band, a couple of roadies, three WAGS, manager Bruce McCaskill and one small child belonging to tenor player Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan. The big house had a big room, probably intended as a ballroom, where the AWB’s instruments were set up, and I listened to them rehearse for a while before we sat down to talk. They gathered round to tell me their story, which was not without its share of ill fortune, and a week later MM carried my long report about the band and its history, almost 3,000 words, which can be found on the website Rock Back’s Pages should anyone care to look.
This was the AWB that I knew: back - Alan Gorrie, Onnie McIntyre, Roger Ball; front - Hamish Stuart, Molly Duncan, Steve Ferrone. (Pic downloaded from internet, photographer unknown.)
         Realising their fortunes lay in the US, they had decided to settle in the New York area for at least a year and probably longer, and when they weren’t on tour I would bump into them in and around NY’s music clubs over the next 18 months or so. As transplanted Brits, we enjoyed one another’s company but their success wasn’t to last. It rarely did for white bands that played this type of music, no matter how competently, and soon there was strong competition from several US acts – Earth, Wind & Fire, The Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic among them – whose colour was no doubt in their favour with audiences. Still I reckon the guys in the AWB will look back on the spring of 1975 as a once in a lifetime experience that none of them ever regret.
        There are two footnotes to my story.
        In 1979, back in the UK and working in the press office at RCA Records, I became, briefly, the AWB’s PR when they released an album called Feel No Fret. They were as surprised to see me in this capacity as I was to see them on RCA, and I went to watch them play up in Scotland, headlining an open air event where local fans treated them as homecoming heroes.
        In 1990 my photo researcher at Omnibus Press was Mary McCartney, daughter of you know who, and in August of that year she celebrated her 21st birthday with a party at the family farm near Rye to which I was invited, along with a guest who just happened to be the future Mrs C. Among the other guests was Molly Duncan, a pal of Mary’s, whose wife, it turned out, was the proprietor of a small boutique hotel close to London’s Royal Albert Hall. My friendship with Molly briefly rekindled, Lisa and I spent our wedding night there following a small reception in the bar.
The Average White Band are still going, though only bassist Alan Gorrie and guitarist Onnie McIntyre are left from the six I met that February day in Ahmet’s house on Long Island. Hamish Stuart would join Paul McCartney’s band for a period in the late eighties and early nineties, and also Ringo’s All Starrs, while Steve Ferrone became an in-demand session and live drummer whose CV now includes Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees and a slew of other big names.
        But before I finish, let’s revisit the sessions in Miami that produced ‘Pick Up The Pieces’ and other tracks from that super successful ‘white’ album. While there they stumbled on an Aretha Franklin session that was taking place in the studio where they were scheduled to record. “It was the day we arrived,” Alan Gorrie told me. “We were told we could come down and look in on the session and we thought phew... ee. When we got there everybody was just slavering. She was sitting down playing the piano and all our heroes were there in one long line. Tom Dowd was conducting and Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin were working in the control room.
        “We tried to take photographs and couldn’t hold the camera straight. We’d never heard anything like it. When they’d finished all the musicians packed up their instruments and left and Arif said, ‘O.K. You next’. We went in and used the same drum kit, the same amps. It was like being at school or having a kick around at Wembley.”
        By the way, ‘… Pieces’, ‘Work To Do’, ‘Let’s Go Round Again’ and ‘Queen Of My Soul’ sound as good as they ever did.



I wrote this appreciation of John for Bass Guitar magazine last month and although I posted an extract on my blog on May 1 I was asked by the its editor not to post the whole thing until late June in case it impacted on sales of the magazine.

“About time too.”
            John Entwistle could be forgiven for thinking such thoughts when, in 2000, Musician magazine named him its “Bassist of the Millennium”. A shame, then, that The Ox wasn’t around 11 years later when readers of Rolling Stone overwhelmingly voted him the greatest bass player of all time. Today, of course, it’s widely acknowledged that John, who died in 2002, was the best rock bass player ever to plug in and shatter eardrums, but it was his misfortune that during the time when The Who were performing regularly, from 1964 to 1982, his skills were largely overlooked.
            The golden era for The Who coincided with the release of their rock opera Tommy, 50 years ago in May 2019. Although they’d already distinguished themselves on the UK and US concert circuit, this was the group’s breakthrough in terms of album sales. In many ways it was a showcase for John who not only played bass throughout but also contributed vocals, including lead on two ‘nasty’ songs that Pete Townshend requested he write for his rock opera, as well as French horn, trumpet and flugelhorn.  
            John soon makes his presence felt. In the ‘Overture’ to Tommy his French horn – the first solo instrument to be heard – takes on a melodic role in place of absent vocals, while in the indistinguishable instrumentals ‘Sparks’ and ‘Underture’ his repeated descending bass figure defines the structure, the rigid staff around which Townshend and Keith Moon can improvise. On stage ‘Sparks’ would become a pièce de résistance of ensemble Who playing, with the band’s three instrumentalists reaching higher and higher towards block chord climaxes that characterised their style: the ringing open notes, the octave drops and wave after wave of escalating, bass-driven crescendos. In ‘Pinball Wizard’, the best known song from Tommy, Townshend’s furiously strummed intro is punctuated by the thunderous boom of powerful guitar stabs that John famously reproduced live by hammering down on his bottom string, and the finale to Tommy, ‘See Me Feel Me’ with its turbocharged ‘Listening To You’ coda, is driven by rousing major chords while John’s relentless, twangy bass acts as the foundation on which his three colleagues could rip yet another stage to pieces. 
            All of this, coupled with increasingly earnest accolades from his peers, ought to have raised John’s profile as a bassist par excellence but in the period after Tommy’s release, other players – most notably Jack Bruce, Chris Squire and Greg Lake – received many more votes in the ‘Top Bassist’ category of readers’ polls conducted by Melody Maker, then the benchmark by which instrumental prowess was measured. Indeed, in the 1973 MM poll John doesn’t even make the top ten bass players.
            Why was this? Well, despite my efforts as MM’s unofficial Who cheerleader, the paper gave far more coverage to Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer than it did to my favourite band, and Jack Bruce’s stint with Cream gave him an edge that never went away. Furthermore, despite his solo recordings John had the lowest of profiles within The Who. Overshadowed by the wayward but fearsome intellect of Townshend, the lunatic exploits of Moon and the craggy good looks of Roger Daltrey, John early on realised the futility of competing, of doing anything other than simply stand there and play, a low-key approach unlikely to earn him votes from magazine readers.
            But I think there was more to it than that. John 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 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 Daltrey and 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 MM’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, dry of wit yet 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.
            The house was full of curios: “part museum, part instrument store, part studio and part home,” I wrote in MM. He had just bought a table lamp with those swishy frond-like tentacles that lit up at the ends and I’d never seen one before. Nowadays they’re a bit kitsch but I was fascinated by it. Even more impressive was the first video recorder I’d ever seen, a contraption the size of the average micro-wave with lots of knobs and cassettes like cigar boxes. John demonstrated it for me, and then took me upstairs to admire his collection of guitars and basses. Outside of a music shop, I’d never seen so many guitars in one place. He told me he had 32, which was nothing compared to the number he would eventually amass.
            In 1975, flush with funds accrued from the Who’s US success, John and Alison moved to a preposterously large mansion on the southern outskirts of Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire, about 85 miles west of London. Approached by a winding drive through trees and shrubbery, Quarwood was a gothic Victorian hunting lodge completed in 1859, with 42 acres of land, seven cottages and 55 rooms, its cantilevered staircase leading to a gallery where gold and platinum records were displayed floor to ceiling. Many of the bedrooms housed John’s instrument collection which, in the fullness of time, would grow into one of the largest guitar collections belonging to any rock musician. Another was given over to his electric train set. Medieval suits of armour stood in the hallway where, dangling from a noose, was a stuffed effigy of Quasimodo eyeing the skeleton that reclined in an armchair.
            Unlike the semi in Ealing, it was the epitome of rock star indulgence and although it seemed to me as it if it was permanently in need of a coat of a paint and a bit of building work, the master of the house was as proud of his chattels as any 18th Century Lord of the Manor. “My father loved the house and Stow,” says John’s son Christopher, who put the house and most of its contents on the market after his father’s death. “Everyone knew him there but they gave him plenty of privacy and he was never bothered by anyone.”
            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 often 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.

* * *

Thanks to the miracle of modern technology it is now possible for fans to hear John’s bass lines isolated from the vocals, guitar and drums, at least on two Who’s Next songs, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Baba O’Riley’, and watch him as he does it. These extraordinary clips, made available for the first time on a bonus disc with the 2004 reissue of the Who documentary film The Kids Are Alright, can now be found on the internet and have, at the time of writing, attracted 1,890,184 views for ‘WGFA’ and 479,209 for ‘Baba O’. John’s now famous solos in The Who’s ‘Dreaming From The Waist’ and ‘5.15’ can also be viewed, as can bassists who demonstrate John’s techniques.
            Finally, a full length biography of John is due to be published by Constable in October. Written by Paul Rees, a former editor of Q and Kerrang!, The Ox: The Last of the Great Rock Stars: The Authorised Biography of John Entwistle is sanctioned by John’s estate and features contributions from Alison and Christopher, his cousin and stepbrother, and John’s second wife, Maxene, along with many from the Who camp, including manager Bill Curbishley and Who soundman Bob Pridden who operated John’s studio at Quarwood. Rees also had full access to John’s archives, including several chapters of an unpublished autobiography that John had completed.
            About time too.