If the Who can be said to have an instrumental virtuoso it is John Alec Entwistle. In a group famous for its anything-goes anarchic approach to performing, he has always been a solid rock in a swirling sea. Besides being the rhythm anchor – especially when the drummer was determined to rip the beat to shreds – he was one of the first rock players to establish the bass as a solo instrument. Right from the start, in songs like “My Generation,” Entwistle took the solo spotlight, frequently overshadowing the playing of guitarist Pete Townshend. Later, he would add other talents as well, playing a variety of horns and singing high harmonies.
Born October 9, 1944 in Chiswick England, Entwistle began growing into his musician’s role early. He was the only Who member to benefit from formal musical training, taking up piano at age seven. By 11 he was also learning trumpet: a year later he was tackling French horn and playing in the Middlesex Youth Orchestra.
He and Peter Townshend were in their early teens when they first teamed up at the Acton County Grammar School in 1959. They formed a traditional jazz group called the Scorpions, featuring Entwistle on trumpet and Townshend on tenor banjo. Within a year, though, Entwistle’s interest had switched to bass guitar and Townshend had begun packing a 6-string.
The Who really began taking shape in 1962 when at first Entwistle, and later Townshend, were invited into Roger Daltrey’s band, the Detours. At the time Daltrey was lead guitarist and occasional trombonist but by 1963 he abandoned his playing chores, concentrating on his leader singer role. When Keith Moon joined in 1964 the history-making line-up was complete.
No one in the band was closer to Keith Moon than John Entwistle, and no one has a keener insight into his landmark drumming style. I interviewed him in Boston this past July, during the early stages of the group’s U.S. tour.
What was your musical relationship with Keith like?
ENTWISTLE: Well, Keith didn’t particularly keep time too well. If he was feeling down the songs would be slow, if he was feeling up the songs would be too fast, and if he felt normal the songs would be normal. I would get very frustrated because he couldn’t actually play hi-hat at all, just a mess of cymbals. I knew he was a one-off [one of a kind] drummer, but in the same way as the rest of us were one-off. We constructed our music to fit ’round each other. It was something very peculiar that none of us played the same way as other people, but somehow, our styles fitted together.
Who was the timekeeper?
I guess I held a lot of it together. I remember I sometimes had to play simpler bass parts to accomplish that. If Keith came out of a drum break out of time, I would sort of set a new time or go and look at his bass-drum foot to see what the hell he was doing. I mean, at times, it could sound like a drum kit falling downstairs [laughs].
What part of the kit did you listen to for the pulse?
Usually the bass drum and sometimes the snare, although the snare tended to be all over the place. I had to take an average between the bass drum and the rest of the kit. Of course, most of his drums all sounded the same. He tuned all the toms to the same note. The little ones, obviously, sounded higher and the floor toms sound lower, but apart from that, when he had the two-deep kit, they’d more or less be tuned to the same note, so if he missed one he’d get the other.
How much did his playing influence your style?
Well, one of the reasons I added top end or treble to my sound was to cut through the rest of the noise. We found, after I used the wire-wound strings, that the guitar and the bass sort of blended into one huge sound in the middle with things that Keith and I did happening at the top and bottom. It was a sound that no one else had.
You must have had an equal influence on him.
I would say so. He found out that if he played something silly, I could actually go with him and match it precisely. He became confident in that, so he played a lot of silly stuff. I remember listening for the first time to Live At Leeds with Keith. We just looked at each other and went, “Did we play that? How in the hell did we play that one?” There were a lot of things that we played that only happened once, that slid together by magic and were gone forever.
You and Keith were known for going off on what you call “tangents.” Did he listen and follow you or did you end up chasing him more often?
We followed each other, but you have to remember, Keith played with everything. If you played his drum track alone in the studio, you just couldn’t work out what song he was playing. Sometimes he played with the vocals and you could tell that way. A lot of the time, because there were only two guitars, the whole thing interwove and we’d influence each other. Like on Live At Leeds, Pete would start an idea and then we’d pick up on it until me or Keith would play a riff and start another idea. So you had these sort of islands to land on and then we’d play off the top of our heads in between. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but we were always willing to take risks.
What about in the studio? On “In A Hand Or Face” on Who By Numbers there’s a very long tom fill which you match perfectly. Was that planned or overdubbed?
No, neither. That’s another example of the magic that can occur spontaneously.
Pete used to give everyone demos of his songs. How were the drum and bass parts developed from there?
Aside from a particular riff or melody, we were free to embellish what Pete had on the demos. On “I’m A Boy” (from Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy), the original bass part was just straight eighth-notes so I added to it. Other times I felt that Pete’s bass part was perfect so I played what he wrote for me.