John Entwistle: "I just wanted to play louder than anyone else"
Delivering a deafening but dextrous bass-in-your-face assault, John Entwistle was a key part of The Who’s sound – and also of their combustible chemistry. This is his story
There were good and sound reasons for the two enduring nicknames The Who bassist John Entwistle was given: The Ox and Thunderfingers. The former was bestowed on account of his iron constitution, the other because of the speed, power and volume at which he played the bass guitar. In each of these respects, and most others too, it would be entirely accurate to say that John Alec Entwistle never did things by halves.
Footage of the last UK gig he played with The Who survives on YouTube. It was at London’s Royal Albert Hall on February 8, 2002, although in respect of the key details of his performance, it could have been any Who show from the preceding 30 years. As always, he’s standing stage right, erect as a soldier on parade, rooted to the spot in his Cuban heels, as if the better to anchor the band’s restless, volatile sound. His only appreciable movements are from his hands and fingers, which attack the strings of his bass like demented spiders.
The electric bass was still a relatively new instrument when Entwistle took it up in the early 60s, the potential of it latent and uncharted. He went at it with the zeal of a Victorian explorer, testing every aspect of its range and then charging on beyond those boundaries.
“John was a remarkable player,” says Bob Pridden, The Who’s long-serving soundman. “It was Bill Wyman who said he was the Jimi Hendrix of the bass, which is a good way of explaining what he did. The sound he got was unique. If you listen now to the early Who records, the bass is the lead instrument. And he was bloody loud, too.”
Entwistle himself was typically blunt about the formidable racket he made. “I just wanted to be louder than anyone else,” he once said. “I really got irritated when people could turn up their guitar amps and play louder than me.”
Not that there was ever much chance of that happening. Famously, his bass rig grew to be so towering and such a sprawl that among Who insiders it was known as Little Manhattan. Roger Daltrey was forever badgering Entwistle to turn down the volume on stage, the Who’s frontman claiming he wasn’t able to properly hear himself sing. Usually, Entwistle would stare implacably at Daltrey – and then turn it up instead.