Before John Entwistle, rock and roll rarely exploited even a fraction of the musical potential of the electric bass guitar. On “My Generation,” Thunderfingers forcefully declared the independence of his theretofore humble instrument by perpetrating the first bass solos in rock history.
Sonically, Entwistle glued The Who together. His muscular melodies helped ground the exuberant but often sloppy playing of his bandmates. Not content with merely laying down the groove, Thunderfingers tapped out rapidfire riffs and bombastic flourishes that supercharged tracks like “Pinball Wizard,” “The Real Me,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “You Better You Bet,” “Eminence Front,” and “Fire.” His virtuosity redeems even some of the band’s weakest albums and tracks.
Unwilling to get lost in the mix like other bassists, Entwistle erected towers of powerful amplifiers and cranked up the volume and the treble to 11. Tired of snapping standard strings — and unhappy with their feeble resonance — he worked with manufacturers to equip his axes with gnarly steel cords that “vibrated properly.” Envious of his rich tone, other bassists scrambled to copy his equipment and technique—across genres, from rock to jazz, funk, soul and disco.
Visually, Thunderfingers formed the eye of The Who hurricane. His fingers a perpetual blur, the Ox stood stock still while Roger Daltrey strutted and preened, Keith Moon bashed away at his kit, and Pete Townshend windmilled and leapt about. Entwistle further deflected attention by dyeing his light hair black and cultivating a sinister stage persona.
This bass solo from a live performance of “5.15” gives some idea of Thunderfingers at the peak of his powers.
As a child, Entwistle began on piano, trumpet and French horn. During his lifetime, he played all of the brass parts on The Who’s studio albums.
Underrated as a singer, he contributed indispensable harmony vocals and occasionally sang lead for The Who with a tuneful, angry growl. He wrote and sang several beloved Who songs, including “Boris the Spider,” “My Wife,” and “The Quiet One.” His roaring lead vocal on the band’s live cover of “Twist and Shout” infused a typically joyous song with harrowing menace.
Since the ambitions of Daltrey & Townshend limited his singing & writing opportunities in the context of The Who, Entwistle cut several solo albums. Many of those are an acquired taste, but 1981’s Too Late the Hero is as fun to listen to as it must have been to make. Thunderfingers recorded it with guitar hero/jester Joe Walsh and his hard-partying partner in crime, drummer Joe Vitale. Entwistle’s wry take on disco, “Dancin’ Master,” features his funkiest riff ever, and climaxes with dueling bass solos: the Ox in the right channel vs. Thunderfingers on another bass in the left channel. Make sure you stay for the superfunky coda.
The rest of the album holds up, too. More than a mere bass clinic, Too Late the Hero displays the full range of Entwistle’s vocal talents, from the jaded menace of “Try Me” and “Talk Dirty” to the surprising poignancy of “Lovebird” and the title track. On “Love Is a Heart Attack,” Entwistle pretty accurately predicted his death, twenty years before the fact:
The doctor told me you’ve got to choose
Between livin’ & dyin’ and sex, drugs & booze.
Drugs I can handle, booze I can quit
But giving up love, I can’t take it.
On June 27, 2002 — on the eve of a world tour with The Who — a prostitute found the Ox dead in his hotel room, killed by a cocaine-induced heart attack.