Although he was (understandably) overshadowed by bandmate Pete Townshend, John Entwistle wrote a meaty amount of Who material – something we’re honoring with the Top 10 John Entwistle Who Songs. The legendary musician was no slouch with the bass guitar and pen, writing more than 25 tunes for the band, and singing lead on most of his compositions.
While Pete was working on social commentary via the rock opera or meditating on the nature of love in his songwriting, John’s compositions tended to be more like folk songs, often showcasing his famously dry wit. Here are the Ox’s best contributions to one of the greatest bands in rock history.
"The Quiet One"From: ‘Face Dances’ (1981)
The wear and tear of being in a band with Pete Townshend and Keith Moon shows in the lyrics of "The Quiet One," in which Entwistle sneers, “I ain’t quiet, everybody else is too loud.” The song was included on the Who’s first LP without Moon and was partially inspired by a rapid-fire beat that John heard new drummer Kenney Jones playing. Entwistle admitted that he wrote the vigorous track to replace "My Wife" and "Boris the Spider" (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 John Entwistle Who Songs) in the band’s live set, which it did in the early ’80s.
"Cousin Kevin"From: ‘Tommy’ (1969)
When it came to writing two of the ugliest moments in Tommy (in which a cousin tortures the title character and an uncle molests him), Townshend passed the task to Entwistle. Pete later said that he was squeamish because of his own background of abuse. John, however, found the task rather simple and ran with the ideas for "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About." The sinister-sounding "Kevin" was based on a sadistic kid that lived in Entwistle’s neighborhood when he was growing up. The old piano standby "Chopsticks" inspired the simple melody … and made the song a little creepier.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"B-side (1968)
Adult subject matter and child-friendly melodies seemed to be a bit of a theme for Entwistle. In this tune, John was writing about Moon the Loon’s drunken fits, but framed the song as a spooky waltz for kids. Actually, because the kiddies had taken to John’s "Boris the Spider," Who manager Kit Lambert coaxed Entwistle to write more songs in that vein for a children’s album. The project never happened, so some of those tracks, such as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" became B-sides. A few years later, Townshend would write a similar song about Keith Moon’s alcohol-induced mood shifts – "Dr. Jimmy" on Quadrophenia.
"905"From: ‘Who Are You’ (1978)
This Blade Runner,/em>-esque tale was plucked from Entwistle’s unfinished concept album about fabricated humans that rebel against society in the future. A clone named 905 was meant to be the album’s hero. The lumbering song, one of three Entwistle pieces on Who Are You, features the “futuristic” sounds of one of the first multiphonic Polymoog synthesizers, installed in John’s own studio.
"When I Was a Boy"B-side (1971)
Heavy-handed and heavy-hearted, "When I Was a Boy" finds Entwistle mourning the loss of his childhood, and the days when he “hadn’t a care in the world.” Released as the B-side to "Let’s See Action," the song is one of the bassist’s darkest contributions to the Who (which is saying something, given the songs he wrote about abuse and alcoholism). "When I Was a Boy," sung in Entwistle’s vinegar whine, imagines a man looking back on wasted years and looking forward to nothing. Townshend wasn’t the only tortured, introspective songwriter in the band.
"Success Story"From: ‘The Who by Numbers’ (1975)
Both acerbic and amusing, the propulsive track that kicked off side two of By Numbers is the story of the Who in 3-1/2 minutes. John gets in more than a few swipes at the guy singing high harmony on the track, including “I may go far if I smash my guitar.” He lashes out at others too, whether he’s grumbling about studio boredom and British tax laws or making a veiled reference to the sexuality of their (former) “fairy manager” (although that part does allow John to trot out his growling "Boris" voice). Regardless of the register, Entwistle was singing with his tongue firmly in cheek… at least we think so.
"Heaven and Hell"B-side (1970)
Although never appropriately captured in a studio take (which relegated it to B-side purgatory), "Heaven and Hell" was a rhythmic powerhouse when played at Who shows in 1969-70. The thunderous song allowed everyone to “stretch out” (in preparation for playing Tommy in full) while a skeleton-costumed John got to sing about a cartoon vision of the afterlife. It’s a silly, but musically mesmerizing, song that showcased the Who at the peak of their performance prowess. As such, the versions on the remastered edition of Live at Leeds and Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 are earth-shattering.
"Boris the Spider"From: ‘A Quick One’ (1966)
One of the first songs Entwistle ever wrote, "Boris the Spider" was penned in six minutes after John and Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman got drunk and started thinking of goofy names for animals. Until Entwistle’s 2002 death, "Boris" was one of the most frequently performed Who songs in concert. It’s also one of the band’s most distinctive, with a descending lead bass part and John’s vocal acrobatics – from a “creepy, crawly” falsetto to a chorus expectorated in basso profundo. No wonder he needed a break from the song by the end of the ’70s (see "The Quiet One," above).
"My Wife"From: ‘Who’s Next’ (1971)
Along with "Boris," this booming classic is Entwistle’s most famous Who song and his frequent spotlight moment at Who shows. On the studio version from Who’s Next, Entwistle sings and plays bass, in addition to performing the piano part and all of the brass parts (he’d also played the French horn on earlier Who records). Along with his instrumental talents, John’s dry humor is on display in "My Wife," as he sings about judo experts, machine guns, tanks, aeroplanes – anything to protect himself from his wife, who thinks he’s been with another woman. Entwistle’s wife at the time thought the song was amusing and even offered to show up at Who concerts to chase him around with a rolling pin.
"Trick of the Light"From: ‘Who Are You’ (1978)
Townshend once called Entwistle’s eight-string bass on "Trick of the Light" a “musical Mack truck.” That goes for every facet of this steamroller of a song, from John’s distorted, guitar-like bass to Moon’s torrents of toms to Roger Daltrey’s snarling lead vocals. Lyrically, it’s a clever dissection of one man’s struggle with sexual inadequacy and his desperate aspiration to inspire ecstasy in a rather nonplussed prostitute (or at least witness a “shadow of emotion” cross her face). Not only does "Trick of the Light" hold its own against Townshend’s Who Are You material, it might be the best song on the album.