They called him “The Ox.” In the midst of the unstoppable force that was the Who at its most fearsome, bassist John Entwistle was the immovable object. Measured against the extreme stage presence of his bandmates — Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar playing, Roger Daltrey’s deadly swinging microphone and Keith Moon’s explosive, unpredictable drumming, Entwistle was “the Quiet One”; but take away his bass, and the Who’s roar would be reduced to a whisper. Think of the Who’s signature anthem “My Generation,” and Entwistle’s earth-rumbling run down the neck of his bass guitar resonates as loudly as Daltrey’s stuttering “f-f-fade away.”
Entwistle’s also, in his own quiet way, probably the most astutely funny of the bunch. A noted caricaturist, he shudders at the thought of drawing the Y2K version of the Who: “It would take too much ink!” In a bio he penned for himself a few years back when he was touring with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, he painted himself as the watchman sitting on the Who’s coffin, making sure it stayed safely dead. How then to explain all those reunion tours over the last eighteen years, including this summer? Even the most dutiful of guards has to make the occasional run to the loo.
How do you feel going into this Who reunion tour? Eager to get back into it?
I think more so now than before, because it’s down to a five-piece. The last couple of times, there were so many people on stage doing my job, there weren’t hardly any holes for me to fit in and do my little bass bit. Now there are a lot more holes, and I can play a lot better. Pete and myself have gotten eye contact back again, so we’re playing like we used to, not letting someone else play all the melody lines, which didn’t allow us to improvise — which is what I always loved about the Who, and I think a lot of our fans missed that. They’d come and see Quadrophenia two nights in a row and it’d be almost exactly the same show. Now all the shows are different.
How would you compare the new live album, Blues to the Bush, to Live at Leeds?
In a way, it’s not really fair to compare the two. Because on Live at Leeds we were shit-hot. We’d done a whole bunch of touring, and we were extremely confident and our sound was perfected and everything was real smooth — we could do a great show every time. This live album is basically where we are now, after four days of rehearsals. We played a lot smoother on Live at Leeds, but I know damn well that I’m playing a lot better than I did on Live at Leeds. So you’ve got the better musicianship to balance it off. But it’s a lot more raggedy. We could have gone in and overdubbed like crazy and made it sound wonderful, but we didn’t want that. We wanted people to know bloody where we were even down to our mistakes. We did do a couple of repairs, but at least we didn’t replace everything like the Eagles — you know, “New live in the studio album!”
What are your thoughts on the prospect of recording a new Who studio album?
The hardest thing is trying to figure how it’s going to work out. I think because we’re jamming a lot more on stage a lot of songs will come out of the next tour. We’re recording every show on DAT so we can refer ourselves to what we’re playing, because we never remember what we played. So I think a lot of song ideas will come out of jamming, and obviously that will make the album a lot easier to do — it will help us find a new direction.
You were spotted in the audience at Pete’s “Lifehouse” concert in December. At any time while watching it, did you imagine the Who playing it?
Not really, no. That’s Pete’s baby. I have no comments on it.
What were your thoughts about the concept albums you did record together? Did you ever have difficulty sinking your teeth into those?
They were kind of a lot different. With Tommy, we started out doing what was basically a single album, but it didn’t make sense. We realized the only way to make it coherent was to make it a double album, because a lot more things happened to Tommy than could be put on one album. We eventually got the double album finished, but we were recording during the day and playing concerts during the evening to pay for the next day in the studio. We knew it was going to be different because it was the first full concept thing that we had done, besides a nine-minute mini-opera thing [“A Quick One While He’s Away”].
When it came to Lifehouse, it was like, here we go, another concept album. It kind of fell apart on Pete, and he did the opposite, making it a single instead of a double album, and it became just a normal album [Who’s Next]. But then Quadrophenia came and I went, “Oh God, yet another!” Why can’t we just do songs that stand on their own? But Quadrophenia was a lot easier because Pete had actually done most of the demos, so it was anywhere near as hard work as Tommy. But I always prayed that the next album wasn’t going to be a concept album. [laughs]
By the time of the farewell tour . . .
Which one? [laughs]
The first one, in 1982. Were you ready for the band to end at that time?
Yeah, I wanted to get on with my solo career. I thought there were much greater heights to go on to. And after four years of that, I realized that there weren’t any heights to go on to. You’d always get dragged back and have the Who thrown at you. “When are the Who getting back together?” We all realized that the Who would have to get back together again, because they wouldn’t let us do anything else. But yeah, I was full of grandiose ideas when the Who broke up for the first time. But it doesn’t take long to spend five million dollars [laughs].
These days, whenever you have to stop touring with the John Entwistle Band for another Who reunion, is that at all like having to go back to work for you?
Not really. The John Entwistle Band is a lot harder work. Playing with the Who after that is like a holiday. I don’t have to save my voice because I’m not singing, I’m not having to go to the mic to make announcements, trying to keep the whole thing going while somebody’s changing a fucking string. It’s a lot harder work, and touring with the John Entwistle Band is a lot more Spartan. We travel by bus, and the Who by private plane with big hotel suites. I’m lucky to get a hotel room with my band over $60. It’s a cheapo, cheapo production. So the Who is a vacation compared to that.
What was the origin of your nickname, “The Ox”?
I think it came from Keith Moon. He started by saying I had the constitution of an ox, because I could drink. And then I started putting weight on, and it became a physical thing. I hate it.
Last question: Were you ever clocked in the head by Roger’s swinging microphone?
Nah. If it ever gets close to me, it usually just goes around the head of my bass and puts me out of tune. He has hit a couple of people, but they were both on purpose [laughs]. I’ve seen him even knock someone out for throwing pennies at him. We did a gig with Chuck Berry and there were a whole bunch of rockers there making a lot of noise because we had actually pulled the plug on Chuck Berry because he was running over time. We were contracted to play an hour and a half, and we only had an hour and five minutes left. But we kept playing until they pulled the plug on us, and this guy was throwing pennies, and Roger saw the guy throw it when one hit him on the head. So Roger just pointed to the guy, aimed, and . . . phwump!.