Anyone who has shared space within my vicinity since I was around 14 years of age could tell you where a discussion on bass guitar players was going to land. I’ve been an avowed Who fanatic since then, seeing the best parts of my last two decades as a loyal disciple in the cult of Pete Townshend. John Entwistle would then have been my first idea of what a player on the instrument should be, and even if he isn’t my ideal now (my tastes have changed in what I expect and appreciate from the bass in recent years), he’d never be that far from whatever new track or player had emerged in my mind. I can’t see him any differently—he might just be the reason why the Who were the Who and why there wasn’t (and hasn’t been) a band totally like them; his singular talent infused with an ability to play lead and rhythm simultaneously (or quickly switch back and forth with an instinctive flare coupled with a taste not often known to players of his ability [anytime you hear a flash, showy solo on any instrument with endless unnecessary notes you’ll understand what I mean) letting Pete roam and create fury, or play measly rhythm leads as he danced around onstage. Keith Moon also relied on Entwistle’s rock solid time keeping, as he too couldn’t be bothered with anything but the ultra showmanship of the fastest drummer alive. Yes, without Entwistle, the great charms that made the Who totally unique and wonderful—they were brash, combustible, and erratic—would have completely fallen apart at the seems. If Entwistle wasn’t there to keep everything buttoned down, playing the traditional role of the drums (time keeping), guitar (leads and flourishes) and bass (additional rhythm support), the Who would have been a wild, incoherent cacophony, rather than a tightly orchestrated cacophony that worked against all odds.
I’d debated picking something he wrote as his additions to Who albums were always a nice comically morbid juxtaposition to Townshend’s arty meanderings, something like the rollicking ‘Heaven and Hell’ that is not only a great rhythmic showcase (Moon’s first minute-and-a-half are sublime) but a wonderful mix of Entwistle’s thick heavy bass and those previously mentioned gleefully sardonic lyrics (it’s similar to his early Who single ‘Boris the Spider’ in this regard). Or, there is the titanic runs that finish of the last 2 minutes or so of Townshend’s depressive 30-something elegy ‘Dreaming from the Waist’ from 1975’s By Numbers equally worthy of highlighting.
But in the end I think Entwistle’s work is usually more interesting in the Townshend songs, because at his best he’s reactionary, the anchor to the swirling madness around him (comparatively to, say, ‘Heaven and Hell’ where he writes himself as everything but the anchor). ‘Dreaming from the Waist’ is a great example of this, but as an example of Entwistle it’s not as bone crushing immediate as what I decided to highlight; ‘The Real Me’ from 1973’s Quadrophenia. It’s an obvious pick amongst Who fans when discussing Entwistle, but it’s this for a reason. The Ox is wonderful here; a bubbling electricity and stone cold lumbering thunder. I can listen to it another 300 times (at least how many spins it’s gotten over the years by me in always meditative rapt attention) and never tire of it’s immediate and delicate boom. Entwistle explodes at you, but pay particular mention how everyone else can exist around him; Moon is awash in tom runs and cymbal crashes—he’s freed from the usual drummer’s job, while Townshend just plays occasional slashing rhythm parts, you can imagine him doing as much dancing, windmilling and jumping as actual playing when the song was featured live (and it has been a regular staple of the Who’s setlist since its release some 40 years ago). All things that made the Who the dynamic entity they were, and Entwistle did the rest.