“The Ox. The Last of the Great Rock Stars” by Paul Rees (published by Constable)

A fully paid-up member of the ’hope I die before I get old’ generation

For The Who’s bass player, John Entwistle, “The Ox” was a nickname to wear as a badge of honour, celebrating the iron constitution that allowed him to live the rock ’n’ roll life to the extreme. The epithet was, says his biographer, an acknowledgement that he was one of the last standing of a breed of reckless souls now tamed, wrecked or dead. The devil-may-care attitude killed him in the end though, in classic rock style in bed with a stripper in 2002 aged 57.
31. March 2021 16:10

In fact, “The Ox” was his second nickname. In the early days of The Who he had been known as “The Quiet One”, the group’s statuesque bassist standing stock still onstage while his band mates – strutting singer Roger Daltrey, slashing guitarist Pete Townshend and nutcase drummer Keith Moon – jumped, lurched, twirled, windmilled and generally threw themselves about, usually culminating in smashed guitars, amps and drums.

“The Quiet One” wasn’t the nickname Entwistle preferred. He wasn’t happy being seen as the straight man; by comparison with the others he appeared sensible, reliable and, as such, dully conservative. It meant, says Rees, that Entwistle was “nagged and pained by feelings of being misconstrued and underappreciated, by the others in The Who as much as by the public in general”.

And indeed, long after the other three members of The Who had sworn off – or, in the case of Moon, succumbed to – excesses of drink and drugs, Entwistle roistered on. Nightly he downed copious quantities of fine brandies and vintage red wines, and he would go on to develop a taste for cocaine, systematically blowing his way through thousands of pounds worth a month. It never was his style, writes Paul Rees, to be a bystander at a party. And women? Well, googly moogly.

It’s an exaggeration on Rees’ part, surely, to subtitle his biography “The Last of the Great Rock Stars”, as still today almost two decades after Entwistle’s death there remain plenty of survivors who fully enjoyed the sex and drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle (not least Daltry and Townshend). Interesting, though, is the sub-subtitle, “The Authorised Biography of The Who’s John Entwistle”, as 1) authorised biographies may cover up a few unpleasant facts (though conversely they should be more accurate than unauthorised ones), and 2) this one doesn’t exactly say who authorised it.

Clearly, though, the book’s dedication to “Chris and Alison – for their trust and so much more” refers to Entwistle’s only child, Christopher, born in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, Chiswick, London, on January 23, 1972, and his first wife, Alison Wise, who he wed at Acton Congregational Church on June 23, 1967, and who is Christopher’s mother.

Readers need have little fear that unsavoury aspects of Entwistle’s wild and haphazard life may have been glossed over, not with all the startling mayhem and riotous times related here. And Chris and Alison it must have been who not only cooperated with the author but also supplied him with Entwistle’s own partial autobiography that he started to write by hand in notebooks in sporadic bursts but eventually just forgot about. These pages add invaluable first-hand insights.

John Alec Entwistle was born on October 9, 1944 in Chiswick, a district of west London, a war baby and an only child. His father Herbert played trumpet and his mother Maud played honky-tonk piano. They had married in 1941 but Herbert returned from the Royal Navy a changed man and the marriage didn’t survive the end of the war.

John was then mostly raised by his mother at his grandparents’ house in South Acton. When his mother remarried, he hated his step-father and the feeling went both ways. Entwistle passed his 11-plus exam and attended Acton County Grammar School in the 1950s, becoming proficient on brass instruments.

He played in the school orchestra and with Acton Congregational Boys’ Brigade band, attracted by the presence of Girl Guides. Later, still a youngster, he played with the Teddy Fullager Band at Saturday night dances in Acton. His first own band, The Confederates, managed a solitary public performance, playing selections by such British traditionalists as Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball, the Chris Barber Band and Ken Colyer.

Cutting an oft-told story short, Entwistle progressed to the bass guitar, to The Scorpions with Townshend, to The Detours with Daltrey and Townshend, and, eventually, The Who with both and Moon. The utter abandon of Moon’s drumming compelled  Entwistle into becoming The Who’s anchor on bass.

He was only member of the group with formal musical training, and is acknowledged now as one of the best bassists of all time. Does anyone not know the bass solo on “My Generation” from 1965? Rolling Stones  bassist Bill Wyman dubbed him the Jimi Hendrix of the bass guitar.

Thanks to catastrophic business deals they made in the mid-1960s, The Who were in debt for years, never making anything like as much as they deserved in royalties from the sales of their many hit records. They were forced to play live incessantly up and down Britain, their financial situation not helped by the destruction of equipment on stage and the trashing of hotel rooms.

They had to keep working just to remain solvent. Eventually better deals, more sales and arena tours of the United States made them rich men. Entwistle spent and spent regardless of income or consequences. In Detroit he bought a 20-foot-long Lincoln Continental with two sun roofs and had it shipped to England. Later he added a Cadillac, an Eldorado, a Citröen Maserati and a Swiss Monteverdi. He didn’t drive himself, preferring to drink.

From the mid-1970s until his death his main home was a grand old Victorian rectory house called Quarwood at Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, a 55-room pile with a half-mile driveway set in 40 acres of the picture-postcard Cotswolds.

The self-styled lord of the manor had suits of armour from medieval times to greet visitors, an effigy of Quasimodo hanging from a 40-foot bell rope in the hall, a human skeleton reclining gracefully in a Regency chair, and the walls of the downstairs loo were covered from floor to ceiling in gold discs. His collection of some 250 guitars spilled into several rooms.

Other rooms housed a large train set and collections of teapots, porcelain, ornamental rugs, armies of toy soldiers, antique weaponry and Cuban-heeled boots. In a cage in the kitchen was Doris, a female tarantula. There were two recording studios. Stuffed sharks and marlin dangled from the ceiling of the much-used long bar. There was a tiger-skin rug and a polar bear skin.

Outside in the drive was a black Cadillac stretch limousine, probably the only one in Britain. Entwistle had taken a shine to them in America and had one shipped over. At Quarwood he had a 1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II Shooting Brake that had been specially converted so it could transport his dog pack, the latest addition being a grey Irish Wolfhound. He was a valued customer at Harrods, the exclusive Knightsbridge store, and had the Rolls painted Harrods green. Entwistle was also well appreciated in the pubs and antique shops of the Cotswolds.

This eccentric man was prone to having whimsical usually grandiose notions pop into his head and he would then be compelled to act on them, such as the time he decided he absolutely needed a Chilean monkey puzzle tree planted out front of Quarwood.

He wrote a song titled “The Quiet One” in acknowledgement of his image but in reality he was as loud as they come, certainly as loud as anyone else in this spectacularly loud group. Entwistle turned up his wall of amps to the max to infuriate Daltrey but the years of playing extremely loud rock music eventually rendered him all but deaf.

The Who’s 1976 performance at The Valley – home to Charlton Athletic Football Club near London – made it into the Guinness Book of Records in 1982 as the loudest concert of its time, at 120 decibels the equivalent of a thunderclap.

Entwistle had an insatiable appetite for sex and found it hard to keep his trousers on. He separated his home life from his road life in this regard. He died in Room 658 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on June 27, 2002, one day before the scheduled first show of the Who’s 2002 United States tour.

He had gone to bed that night with a local stripper, and she awoke the next morning to find him cold and unresponsive. A moderate quantity of cocaine had not been enough to cause death by overdose, but its effect on his pre-existing but undiagnosed heart condition was.

Entwistle chain-smoked and had a terrible diet, principally red meat and deep-fried food, and never kept fit. Nonetheless, Rees says the death was avoidable: “For insurance purposes, Entwistle had to undergo a medical before the tour commenced. His high levels of blood pressure and cholesterol were noted at this procedure, but since there didn’t appear to be any other significant issues, the upshot was that he was given an otherwise clean bill of health.

“However, the band’s insurers had not required him to have a detailed physical examination. Were he to have had just a routine electro-cardiogram scan, it would have picked up that three of the arteries to his heart were severely blocked – one fully and another by three-quarters.”

The Ox, rock star incarnate, had come to the end of the road, but what a road.

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