The late John Entwistle is one of my idols (witness my ersatz tribute pic), and I rave about his bass playing often on this blog—after all, “Thunderfingers” was the greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll bass player of all-time on this here planet, plus numerous others. But I ain’t here to talk about his bass playing, (which speaks—loudly—for itself), but rather his solo career and compositions with The Who, which are often sadly overlooked. Even though he was a fine composer, John Entwistle is rarely recognized for his songwriting abilities, mostly because he was in a band that already had a prolific songwriter, thus was constantly overshadowed by one Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend. I would even go as far to submit that “The Ox” had a much more consistent solo career than Townshend (with his overblown concept albums) or Roger Daltrey (who was very hit-and-miss) did. His witty and often hard-rocking songs usually served to lighten the mood on Who albums when PT got a little too intense and serious, and JE pretty much spared the final two Who studio albums he played on (Face Dances and It’s Hard) from being totally wretched, as Pete was hoarding his best tunes for his own solo records during that time.
“Big Johnnie Twinkle” was the first member of The Who to release his own solo album, 1971’s Smash Your Head Against The Wall, and although its cover was ghoulish indeed, the record itself was critically well-received and featured John’s typical dark humor and his oft-underrated horn playing. Ironically, John’s solo albums hardly featured his bass playing, which was more subdued than on most Who releases. JE worked in his solo albums between Who records throughout the early ‘70s, following Smash Your Head with 1972’s Whistle Rymes (with guest appearances by one young Peter Frampton and the late Jimmy McCullough from Paul McCartney’s Wings on guitar), 1973’s Rigor Mortis Sets In and 1975’s Mad Dog. John took to the road with his band, John Entwistle’s Ox, in ‘75, opening for Humble Pie and making an appearance on radio’s “King Biscuit Flower Hour”, which is available on CD. Expectations were high for JE’s next solo album, 1981’s Too Late The Hero, recorded with the Eagles’ Joe Walsh on guitar and drummer Joe Vitale (no relation to Dick, thankfully!) but it turned out to be a disappointment both in terms of sales and quality, although it was still light years better than The Who’s 1981 release, Face Dances.
Subsequent solo projects were few and far between for John, including 1996’s The Rock and the Vanpires soundtrack in ‘98, which he followed with a solo tour that rendered the fine 1999 Left For Live recording and rendered him damn near broke. There was even talk of him putting together a heavy metal band in the mid-‘80s, but it never materialized. Sadly, John’s major vices (sex, drugs and booze) are what ultimately did him in—he spent money he didn’t have on things he didn’t need (shades of yours truly, sometimes), thus was always broke until The Who toured again. He also indulged way too much in alcohol and drugs, leaving him with a heart condition that he succumbed to at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas on June 27, 2002—the eve of The Who’s latest tour—with cocaine in his system. A disappointing (and frankly, rather pathetic) end for one of the finest musicians in Rock history. But, as Daltrey said upon John’s death, for better or worse, John lived the prototypical Rock Star life right up to the bitter end. Long live The Ox!
My All-Time John Entwistle Top 25
My Generation (1965) Okay, Big John didn’t write it, but he did give the world the first Rock ‘N’ Roll bass solo of all-time, and quite possibly, the greatest.
5:15 (Live—2000) Again, the man didn’t write the song, but The Ox’s bass solo from the December, 2000 Who performance at Royal Albert Hall was a three-and-a-half minute rollercoaster ride that will leave you totally dumbstruck (and possibly neutered) afterward!A Quick One (While He’s Away) (1966) The Ox was cast in the role of dirty ol’ Ivor the sooty engine driver in the famed mini-opera here, and he got to show off his falsetto voice during the climactic “You Are Forgiven” section of the song, which I originally thought was Roger Daltrey’s doing.
“Summertime Blues” (1970) Gots ta give JE credit for his basso-profundo vocals on this Eddie Cochran/Who classic. In 1998, John changed one of the lyrics to “I’d like to help ya son, but I’m too busy gettin’ a blow job!”
25) I’m Coming Back (1981) Track from Too Late The Hero that prominently featured Joe “How Ya DOIN’?” Walsh on guitar. Not a terribly funny song—by Entwistle standards, anyway—but it rocks all the same.
24) Drowning (1975) Not be confused with The Who’s “Drowned” from Quadrophenia, John waxed nostalgic on this cut from Mad Dog and did some major crooning! He sang in such a high register that he later joked, “I must have been wearing tight trousers when I sang this!” Backing vocals were provided by three ladies who sounded an awful lot like Benny Hill’s Ladybirds.
23) Too Late The Hero (1981) The title track from John’s ‘81 sojourn took a while to grow on me, but it’s not a bad song at all, where one pines for life to be just like the movies. Any Renee Zellweger, Lea Thompson or Kate Winslet flick would do me just fine…
22) What Are We Doing Here? (1971) All about life on the road: “And it’s only 25 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes, and this’ll all be 5,000 miles from here.” I believe this was conceived during The Who's 1968 North American tour in some misbegotten place like Edmonton, Alberta, freakin' Canada.
21) Thinkin’ It Over (1972) Even songs about suicide attempts can be humorous. Ironically, Elton John’s hilarious “I Think I’m Gonna Kill Myself” came out long about the same time as this one did.
20) It’s Your Turn (1982) Songs about aging Rock stars were usually P. Townshend’s domain, but The Ox took a shot at it on It’s Hard, invoking all them young whipper-snappers at the time to get in the ring: “It’s your turn to step up and take it—if you got the guts to hang on, you can make it…” This one also applies to the current sad state of Rock ‘N’ Roll: “You’re running out of ideas and new hats to try on…” Mr. Daltrey handled the vocals on this one.
19) Cousin Kevin (1969) Whereas Pete Townshend wrote the bulk of the songs for Tommy, he left it up to J. Entwistle to do the dirty work and write about the mean and uncouth characters in the story, and Cuz Kevin was indeed “the nastiest playfriend you ever could meet.” The ultra-high vocals proved too difficult to pull off in concert, though, so “Kevin” was often omitted from the Tommy section during 1969-70 at Who shows. Actor Paul Nicholas did a fine Cousin Kevin in the 1974 Tommy movie, and singer Billy Idol was even more convincing in the role during the 1989 all-star benefit Tommy concert.
18) Heaven And Hell (1971) Also recorded by The Who, and often a concert opener for them circa. 1970-71, JE's solo version is a little slower and a bit more atmospheric, thanks to John’s French horn. “Why can’t we have eternal life and never die?” Touché…
17) Whiskey Man (1966) Not to be confused with the Molly Hatchet song of the same name, this was John’s first recorded composition, all about an imaginary drinking partner. Love the line “Insanity is fun--if that’s the way it’s done…” It most certainly is, dear friends!
16) Talk Dirty (1981) One of the rare times on Entwistle’s solo albums that he let his mighty bass do the talking. Song has its moments, like “Van Dyke?—she’s queer!”
15) 905 (1978) A peek into the future from Who Are You, all about test tube babies and cryogenics and so forth. As John quipped on the Left For Live CD, “The great thing about the future is you never have to put your parents in an old folks home…Just put ‘em straight in the ‘fridge and you can visit them anytime you like!”
14) Fiddle About (1969) Only Entwistle could get away with writing a song about a pedophile. Good thing P. Townshend didn’t write it, when you consider the kiddie-porn charges he faced in 2003. The late Keith Moon was the penultimate Uncle Ernie, too.
13) Who Cares (1972) Love the attitude here: “Some people say they need their breakfast every morning—I’m satisfied with yawning, who cares?” Pretty much sums me up in the morning…
12) My Size (1971) The unofficial title track to Smash Your Head Against The Wall, and a song all about ill feelings toward a former loved-one. Nifty opening riff here too. John steals the closing riff from his own “Boris T. Spider” too.
11) I Feel Better (1972) Sequel to “My Size”, with even more intense hard feelings like “When I’m feeling blue, I stick a pin in a picture of you and I feel better…when I’m feeling sad, I remember that you were the worst lay I ever had, and I feel better…” Now, that’s a real kick in the crotch!
10) One At A Time (1982) As you might have noted by the last two entries, marital discord was a recurring theme in John’s songs, and this was one of the better cuts from It’s Hard, featuring John’s prowess in the brass section in the intro. “She’s been abusing her body again,” he intones. Sadly, JE did a bit of that to himself, as well.
9) Made In Japan (1973) One of John’s funniest ever, all about his shock and horror that everything he encounters comes from the Land of the Rising Sun—his suit, his car, even his bride! “There ain’t nothin’ made here in this country anymore—it’s either made in Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore…”
8) Success Story (1975) Another aging Rock star song, and easily the hardest-rocking cut from The Who By Numbers. “Take 276—you know this used to be fun…” Entwistle and Daltrey alternate on vocals here.
7) Boris The Spider (1966) Always a fan favorite and one of mine, too—poor Boris always winds up “imbedded in the ground” in the end. According to John, Boris was once married to Doris The Spider.
6) Pick Me Up (Big Chicken) (1971) All about a night out with the boys. This one pre-dates this current “competitive eating” crap by about 35 years: “Gather ‘round the bar, let’s have a race—wanna see how much beer I can pour into my face…”
5) You (1981) Entwistle’s contributions to Face Dances were the only songs that truly rocked out and this is one of the more underrated Who cuts ever, regardless of its composer. Sung by Roger Daltrey, it features a wicked bass line from Thunderfingers, which rendered Pete Townshend almost irrelevant throughout.
4) Had Enough (1978) Not to be confused with “I’ve Had Enough” from Quadrophenia, this was John’s declaration of independence and a basic “fuck you” to the world. Daltrey sounded great screaming the opening line, “IIIIIIIIIII”ve had enough of being nice/I’ve had enough of right and wrong…” The song ends with the line “Here comes the end of the world,“ so I made sure to play it just before Midnight on the night of Y2K, just in case it came true. The string arrangement during the middle eight was a nifty added touch here too. I totally endorse the line, “If you find something better, can’t you save my place?”
3) The Quiet One (1981) Anything but quiet, this could’ve been written about yours truly, as I often have to remind those who say I don’t talk much that “I ain’t quiet—everybody else is too loud!” TQO was one of the highlights of The Who’s rather flaccid 1982 “Farewell” tour, as well.
2) Trick Of The Light (1978) Roger Daltrey admitted that he didn’t much like to sing John’s songs, but JE was only limited to one vocal performance per Who album (if he was lucky), so RD handled this one, all about a poor schlub who needed a little reassurance in the carnal department, so he seeks “professional” help. Leave it to yours truly to quote an Entwistle song in bed with my girlfriend after doing the dirty deed for the first time, “So, was I alright? Did I take you to the height of ecstasy?” At least she answered in the affirmative, and all was right with the world…
1) My Wife (1971) Probably John’s most famous song, and certainly his most-performed one at Who shows. Originally released on Who’s Next, John took another shot at it on Rigor Mortis Sets In, but my personal faves are the Kids Are Alright and Left For Live versions, which are much edgier. Jokingly written about his first wife (and longtime sweetheart) Allison, the story actually came true later on.
So, was he indeed alright? I'd say yes...