Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Missin' The Ox

When his untimely death occurred in Las Vegas in 2002, just prior to The Who's opening night of their tour that year, the band not only lost one of their founding members in John Entwistle, they lost the greatest rock bass player of all time.

I can say that while his passing that night in Las Vegas was beyond unfortunate, it seems that he went out like a rock star. I'll let you research that further to find out what I mean.

Entwistle was also commonly referred to as "The Ox" and "Thunderfingers." He more than lived up to the imagery of the latter nickname.

I was watching the 2001 live concert DVD of The Who the other night, Live at Albert Hall, and forgot how incredible this guy was on four strings. He made it look effortless, and used multiple techniques on the instrument over the course of a single song. Stemming from the mid-1960s, he single-handedly changed the way the bass guitar was played in rock music. His style could be so smooth, like a knife through butter---and then he'd get percussive to accompany Keith Moon's drumming or assist Pete Townsend's guitar playing. He floated seamlessly between the Who's rhythm and lead sections.

Anyone who picks up a bass guitar is influenced by him, and forever walks in his shadow. He's simply unreachable---and that's not even a slight exaggeration. He was that good.

From my own listening experience with the albums of The Who, the best moments
of THE OX that stand out occur on 1973's Quadrophenia. There are moments on that album where the bass guitar is taken to other worlds---with the song "The Real Me" being the best example that comes to mind. "The Punk Meets the Godfather," another highlight with its pops and fills, defies logic---but he also gives the bass personality, as it reacts to the storyline of the music. The percussive fills and lead he does in the middle bridge section to "Sister Disco" (from Who Are You) during Townsend's vocal part sends shivers up my spine. That song as a whole is a bass run that's totally creative and one-of-a-kind.

However, to really understand all the elements that Entwistle imposed on his bass, you need to go beyond the albums and check out the live performances. That's where the man REALLY shines. There are many out on DVD (just make sure it's from a Who performance before his death in June 2002).

I was fortunate enough to see Entwistle preform with The Who in 1989, and witnessed the greatest rock performance of my lifetime. I saw a legendary band and a legendary bass player in the flesh... only Keith Moon was missing in action. I can only imagine the band with him. Wow.

Nobody ever played the bass like Entwistle before him, and for anyone to try in the future means they'd merely be a copycat... but the man's style simply can't be replicated. Furthermore, his absence in music these days simply reveals how much of a lack of instrumental prowess there currently seems to be in the music scene. Other bass warhorses such as Chris Squire, Geddy Lee, Flea, and Les Claypool are still around---but it's sad that I can basically name the great living bass players on only one hand.

"Thuderfingers" and his unique style went beyond the technical thing, however. He gave his bass personality. He made the instrument sing for us.

It was just a random thought for the night, but John Entwistle, also known as "Thunderfingers" and "The Ox," is sorely missed. When I think of great rock musicians and people who simply mastered their instrument, he's usually one of the first who comes to mind. S

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