Drummer Keith Moon was surely the most kinetic member of The Who—which is really saying a lot—but he was not the band’s best musician, even if he is routinely named one of the best drummers of all time. Moon knew the appeal of his playing often lay in the fact that it was like no one else’s: he described himself as the “greatest Keith Moon-type drummer in the world.” Nothing in rock approached his untamed excess, modeled after the far more disciplined flights of his hero, Gene Krupa.
But if the band “can be said to have an instrumental virtuoso,” writes Chris Jisi at Drum! magazine, “it is John Alec Entwistle,” their true solid center (they called him “The Ox”) and the perfect rhythmic foil to Moon, who “could sound like a drum kit falling downstairs,” Entwistle says. The bass player not only kept time, he tells Jisi, since Moon didn’t, and followed Moon’s “mess of cymbals” and “all over the place” snare drum, but he also filled in for a rhythm guitarist as Pete Townshend slashed away.
He kept his bass riffs relatively simple, he had to, and he “added top end or treble… to cut through the rest of the noise.” It works, for sure. He is rightfully singled out as one of the greatest rock bass players ever for his phenomenal skill and poise.
A lesser player trying to compete with Moon’s wall of drums and Townshend’s massive power chords might disappear entirely. Entwistle always stands out. His comments about Moon’s playing might sound disparaging, but they come off in context as honest and accurate, as do his descriptions of his own playing.
Entwistle suggests he wouldn’t be the player he became without Moon and the rest of the band. “We constructed our music to fit ‘round each other,” he says. “It was something very peculiar that none of us played the same way as other people.” In their best moments, some parts “slid together by magic and were gone forever.” This is the essence, really, of rock and roll, the serendipitous transcendence that arises from wildly colliding waves of sound.
But such controlled chaos can require, especially in a band like The Who, one cool, well-trained virtuoso who cannot be ruffled, no matter what, whose perfection looks effortless and who never breaks a sweat. The eternal archetype of that player is John Entwistle. At the top, hear Entwistle’s isolated bass in a live take of “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” (He comes in at 1:45, after a much-extended intro). Below it, you’ll easily pick out his every note in the studio version. And further up, after another extended synthesizer intro, hear him solo at 1:25 on “Baba O’Riley,” also live at Shepperton Studios in 1978. (The studio recording is above).
And just above, in one of his most energetic performances, hear him play a live version of “Pinball Wizard” (starting at 0:36). And then catch one more jaw-dropping solo, just for good measure, recorded live at Royal Albert Hall.
Entwistle is sometimes compared to Jimi Hendrix, but in some ways, The Ox came first with his fuzzed-out sound. The mild-mannered player “pioneered the use of feedback in music and smashing his instrument,” writes Ultimate Classic Rock, “with Jimi Hendrix following suit after seeing Entwistle do it.” For all his reserved English coolness, Entwistle first pushed the boundaries of loudness, “using 200 watts of power when most bands used 50,” just one of the reasons, as you’ll hear in these tracks, for his other nickname: “Thunderfingers.”