Times on John Entwistle and bass guitar

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at yahoo.com
Sun Mar 13 13:07:57 CST 2005

Thanks to John Cary for pointing this out. From The
Times (London) at:

Six strings good, four strings better
Chris Campling

In the classic rock line-up, the bassman is often
disregarded (the drummer at least gets derision). Open
your ears

THE bass guitar is unusual in that while it takes
great skill to play it well, any talentless loser
who’s best friends with the singer can get into a band
and plod his way through a song provided the others
don’t go too quickly. (Then again, Sid Vicious was
deeply impressed by his fellow Pistols’ ability to get
to the end without missing their place and giving up.)
Some bands, such as Keane, think they can go through
life without a bass in the line-up; others, such as
the much lamented Morphine, regarded it as a more
essential instrument — even if Morphine’s had only two
strings — than a guitar. 

Played well, it is sublime. One of the best bits of
last year’s DVD rerelease of Jeff Stein’s documentary
The Kids are Alright came buried deep within the bonus
material, where John Entwistle was to be found picking
his way through two of The Who’s greatest songs, We
Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Riley. 

Apart from a bit of leakage picked up by the mixing
desk you hear nothing of the rest of the band, so the
music as a whole plays in your head as he adds
incongruous — but utterly in keeping — baroque
flourishes to the songs, all the while looking about
as detached as a country mansion. 

Of course, he had played the songs hundreds of times
and had established to his own satisfaction that those
were the only notes that would do, but he might have
looked a bit more pleased about it. Then again, they
didn’t call him the Ox for nothing. 

The Who were a famously upside-down band. The engine
room of drummer and bass player contained the virtuoso
musicians, while the traditionally Fancy Dan guitarist
was left to cut great gashes of sound through the air.
But even while Entwistle was the one with all the
training — back in the Sixties, mods would tell each
other, “He plays the French horn, you know” — he was
still only the bassist. And he knew his place — stage
right, immobile in the shadows, possibly thinking of
his tea or, in later years, a post-gig smorgasbord of
coke and strippers. 

But deep within that mighty chest lurked a desire to
be the leader. So he made solo albums and started his
own band. The fruits of those labours are about to be
commemorated on a double CD called So Who’s the Bass
Player? Is it any good? Well, no. Entwistle couldn’t
sing, his most famous song is about a spider and he
sounded strange away from The Who, so he was on a bit
of a loser all round. But give him his due: at least
he tried. In the same way as he was the first bass
player to make people stop and really listen to what
he was doing within the band, he was among the first
to step away from it into his own patch of limelight. 

Not that there weren’t famous bass players before him.
The name of at least one springs unbidden to mind: Jet
(born Terence) Harris, who was the first British
musician to own an electric bass. With his fellow
Shadow, the drummer Tony Meehan, he had a No 1 hit
with Diamonds in 1963 — the first drum and bass

Even so, the bass was a minor instrument. Everyone
knows Scotty Moore was Elvis’s first guitarist, but
who could name the bass player (Bill Black)? The sound
of Tamla Motown, too, pivoted on the rhythm section,
but you’d have had a hard time picking them out

As with so many good things about pop, it took the
Beatles to drag the bass player out of the shadows, if
not the Shads. When he took over on bass after the
departure of the romantically doomed Stuart Sutcliffe,
McCartney made it an instrument real musicians played
because McCartney was by far the best musician in the
best band ever. When asked if Ringo was the best
drummer in the world, McCartney said he wasn’t even
the best drummer in the Beatles. He could have said
something along the same lines about George Harrison’s
guitar playing. Harrison might have been a top bloke,
but he had to have Eric Clapton in to do the solo on
one of his most famous songs or it would have come out
as While my Guitar Sort of Snuffles. McCartney could
have taken Harrison in an axe contest any day, quite
possibly playing right-handed. 

So there was no chance he was going to remain “just”
the bass player. Even on the simplest pop tunes there
was something that required more than the ability to
count. All My Loving is two songs — one sung, and one
played on a dancing Hofner violin bass by a genius. 

And, après McCartney, le déluge. Jazz musicians such
as Jack Bruce became part of groups called Cream
because everyone in the band (even if there were only
three) was deemed, if only by himself, to be at the
top of his particular instrumental tree. Noel Redding,
a “proper” guitarist in his own right, was willing to
lose a couple of strings in support of Jimi Hendrix.
Reggae took pop music in a whole new direction, the
low, stoned pulse of the bass underpinning the
skittering scratchiness of the rhythm guitar. 

By the Seventies, prog rock had, in its whimsical way,
created the monster bassist. Not only could musicians
such as Mike Rutherford of Genesis and Chris Squire of
Yes keep up with the guitarist note for note, they
could match the drummer beat for beat. 

Pointlessly complicated time signatures? Bring ’em on.
There was nothing too flash for these boys. Squire, in
fact, found time to prance around the stage looking
like a big girlie at the same time as wrenching
torrents of notes from his mighty Rickenbacker. 

Did they play solos? When these guys took solos, the
rest of the band left the stage, had a drink, went out
for dinner, got married, raised children, saw them off
to university. 

The Seventies really were the golden age of the bass.
Since then, although Peter “Hooky” Hook of New Order
has allowed it to drive him to his knees, and despite
a brief spell in the spotlight for Mark King of Level
42 and his Thumb of Steel, no one has really been
inclined to take up the instrument for its own sake,
rather than because the guitar gig has already been

You could put it down to punk, I suppose. Punk
stripped away the artifice of most pop music, and even
if things didn’t descend fully to the point where Sid
could cope with it, there was something to be said for
lines that didn’t require centuries of practice to
master. Drum and bass — as we know it, not as Terence
Harris did — started out promisingly, but reached the
end of its cul de sac about as quickly as it took
people to realise that it took powerful drugs, or a
degree in chav, to enable listeners to differentiate
one speaker-bending drone from another. 

No, we have to face it — until another McCartney comes
along, bass aficiosaddoes are just going to have to
live on past glories: the rounded, plopping, instantly
recognisable bass of the teenaged Andy Fraser of Free,
the majesty of Chris Squire’s opening to Yes’s
Starship Trooper. 

And, funnily enough, the little treats that popped up
in the strangest places. Such as on Cliff Richard’s We
Don’t Talk Any More, where, for bar after bar, a
single note is repeated. Eventually it cracks and a
second note is introduced, but for a long time there
is the perfect completeness of that one note. 

But for sheer perfection, you’d go a long way to beat
the Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone. The hit
version lasted nearly four minutes (although one mix
clocks in at 18), and all the way through the bass
line never varies: “Duhduh, duhduh, duh, duh”. The
song would be lost without it. 

So Who’s the Bass Player? is released on Monday by

My Generation - The Who
John Entwistle takes the solo and tears up the pop
rule book.

Radar Love - Golden Earring 
The first few bars make you want to get behind the
wheel and just drive. 

Question - the Moody Blues
A hit single built around a bass riff. Once it
finishes they just sort of pranny about. 

The Chain - Fleetwood Mac 
The sound of Formula One on the BBC. When it switched
to ITV and didn’t take John McVie’s riff with it,
something died. 

The Boys are Back in Town - Thin Lizzy
Forget the twin leads, it’s Phil Lynott’s bass that
makes the boys wanna fight. 

One of These Nights - the Eagles 
The promise of the swooping intro is irresistible.
Pity that it turns into a bit of a plodathon. 

Love Will Tear Us Apart - Joy Division 
Peter Hook’s breathless, panicky lines are perfect for
a song about the end of love. 

Under Pressure — Queen 
It’s a great riff, as Marmalade had discovered a few
years earlier when they used it on Falling Apart at
the Seams.

Love Cats - the Cure 
A bass that climbs a tree, jumps on to a window ledge
and washes itself in the sun.

Peaches - the Stranglers 
A sleazy, leering, utterly un-PC song gets the bass
line it deserves.

Watching the Detectives - Elvis Costello 
If Raymond Chandler had been a bass player he’d have
come up with this.

Seven Nation Army - White Stripes Jack White knows
that with a killer bass riff the rest of the song can
fend for itself.

-Brian in Atlanta
The Who This Month!

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