The Ox’s complete bass line from “Back on the Road” and solo from “Left for Dead,” both from the newly released collection 'Rarities Oxhumed, Volume One'
“When it thunders, think of John Entwistle.”
Those were the poignant parting words from Entwistle’s best friend, bandmate, and musical partner, Steve Luongo, at the Ox’s memorial service at St. Marin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, on October 24, 2002. Although the presence of bass guitar’s first virtuoso still looms large, new music from the Entwistle archives has more resembled a drought. That has changed with the fall release of Rarities Oxhumed, Volume One [Deko]. Curated and produced by Luongo, the 13-track CD boasts unreleased and remastered studio tracks, demos, and live tracks of The Who cornerstone at his boisterous best. The spooky artwork by Lee Stokes, reflecting Entwistle’s dark sense of humor and favorite things, was conceived by Luongo and Entwistle’s son Chris, who also came up with the title “Oxhumed” off the top of his head.
Luongo, the veteran rock drummer whose playing and production credits include Rat Race Choir, Leslie West, Jack Bruce, Cliff Williams, Eddie Money, Todd Rundgren, Ann Wilson, Ritchie Blackmore, and Billy Squier, explains: “After John passed, people waited a respectful amount of time before asking me if I had anything to release. I kept putting it off, but there’s a lot of unreleased material. We recorded over a hundred shows with three different lineups of The John Entwistle Band. Plus, when John and I began writing together, we exchanged all of our demos, which included songs John submitted to The Who, soundtrack-style music, funny anecdotal songs, and a sci-fi rock opera John had started. Finally, it felt like the timing was right. I was past the mourning stage and ready to honor and celebrate John’s life and music. I discovered a great label in Deko Entertainment that understood, respected, and supported what I wanted to do. There will definitely be a Volume Two and beyond.”
The pair first met at the 1987 summer NAMM show in Chicago, after Entwistle had already heard about Luongo’s New York-based Who-covering band, Rat Race Choir. Laughs Luongo, “We were introduced, and me being the shy, retiring type, I said, ‘Do you wanna jam?’ And he said, ‘Anytime.’ So I ran to the Kramer booth, who had the biggest jam that year, at the Vic Theater, and I told them I was going to be playing with John, and they put us on the bill.” He continues, “A few weeks later, Kramer contacted me to see if John would perform in a K-ROCK & Roll Up Your Sleeves blood-drive concert in New York City. I said yes, and then I called John, who fortunately was game. The budget was so good I asked John if he wanted to do additional shows while he was over here, and he said, ‘Sure, set it up.’ Following the 1987 tour, he asked me to join his group, and we formed The John Entwistle Band soon after.”
The chemistry between the two was instant, right from the NAMM set. “I was immediately aware that I was playing with someone who likes to play the way I do. The key was, we listened to each other and weren’t afraid to try things. There’s a videotape of an early show where he’s looking at me the whole time, and I’m looking back at him. We had a telepathy that if you’re lucky you get once in your life with another musician. We were constantly searching for places to go. Can we do something here? What are you doing there? With John, the music was always out on the ragged edge — are we going to screw this up, or is it going to be amazing? We didn’t care which way it came out. If it was a train wreck, so be it; we were going for the gold and we’ll get it next time. It was highly improvisational, almost like jazz, but real loud!”
Turning to Rarities Oxhumed, one of the more intriguing songs is the power ballad “Back on the Road,” both because it features Entwistle’s songwriting, piano playing, and lead vocal, and for the way he applies his unconventional bass style to a conventional bass role. Luongo provides the backstory: “I picked it for the album because it’s a great song, and it’s completely revealing of who John was. ‘I’ve got to get back on the road’ — that’s what he cared about.” Entwistle originally recorded the song around 1979, likely as a demo for the Who. In addition to his vocal, piano, and bass track, he had Kenney Jones record the drums. Twenty years later, when the song was revived for a children’s TV-show soundtrack The John Entwistle Band was signed to do, Entwistle and Luongo decided to pump up the track. The Ox wrote guitar and string parts recorded by Godfrey Townsend and Alan St. Jon, respectively. He didn’t like the sound of Jones’ drums, so he had Luongo redo them. The problem was the original drums leaked into the vocal track, which meant Luongo had to precisely match Jones’ part.
Gear-wise, Luongo speculates that Entwistle likely played his 1976 Alembic Explorer 4-string, which he helped the company design (along with a V-shaped-headstock model and an 8-string model), strung with his trademark Rotosound RS66LD stainless steel roundwounds, gauges.045, .065, .080, .105. “He probably recorded the bass with his usual three-way split: an XLR line direct from the bass, which he called ‘direct inject’; a mic on his bass rig; and a mic on the guitar-amp part of his rig. You can tell he rolled off the treble on his bass and played with his fingers to get a rounder, more conventional sound.”
The track begins with an intro consisting of four measures of Entwistle’s acoustic piano comping, followed by the entrance of his hard-plucked bass melody — the first sign that his bass is going to take on roles usually filled by other instruments. For the first verse at letter A, he settles into his support role, pounding out roots in the rock-bossa groove before exposing his adventurous side in bars 16 and 17. There, he extends the V chord by an extra measure, riffing in three different octaves and using chromatics. Smiles Luongo, “That’s the John we love. I know I was always pushing and encouraging him, both in the studio and onstage. I’d have him add an 8-string bass track to a song, or taunt him: ‘C’mon, man! You’re playing like you’re 55 years old!’”
In the first chorus at letter B, the Ox issues a sub-hook against his vocal, which begins on beat four of bar 18 and continues through the first three beats of bar 19 — with the key melodic figure starting on the 3rd of the G chord in 19. Even more intriguing, listen to how the guitar line he wrote for Godfrey Townsend in bar 18 (some 20 years later) helps set up his sub-hook. One other note: Other than in bar 18, when Entwistle plays beat four of bars 22, 46, 50, 57, and 61, he plays a D-E-G figure, which technically clashes with the D chord but is actually an anticipation of the coming G chord — a very James Jamerson-like move. Luongo remembers, “The only bass player that John ever told me he enjoyed was Jamerson; he was his favorite. He spoke of him with reverence, respect, and love. Of course, John always referred to himself as a bass guitarist, wanting to distinguish himself from standard bass players without disrespecting them. [Guitarist] Duane Eddy was the model for his sound, and Jamerson was the inspiration for his creativity. You put that together with a couple of thousand watts of power and you get the Ox.”
As the one-off chorus continues, Entwistle repeats his sub-hook in bars 22–23, a good place to point out his revealing position choices: In 22 and 24, he’s up in the 5th- and 7th-fret range (after staying in the lower positions for most of the verse), but he uses an open A to economize his moves. More impressive, in bar 23 he plays a span of the 9th to 5th frets in the first half of the measure, followed by a span of the 3rd to 7th frets in the second half (dig the sweeping C-D-E all on the A string). He returns to lower-position roots through the descending chords in bars 27–28, and plays another Jamerson-like pickup on beat four of bar 29 that anticipates the coming Fchord. Last, he ascends to a super-high C in bars 33–36 (which is an abbreviated return to the intro) in a way that functions as both a fill and a pedal.
Letter C’s second verse finds Entwistle subtly getting a little heavier by dropping down to the Fnotes (as opposed to going up to them in the first verse), adding hammer-ons in bars 38 and 42, plus extra motion in 40, and once again filling during the two-bar V chord in 44–45. Letter D is a double chorus, mirroring earlier moves, save for the cool expansion of the sub-hook in bar 58. Finally, letter E is an extended outro in which the Ox returns to his intro melody (bar 72) before developing it with the bluesy fills in bars 76 and 78, and landing safely on the tonic in 81.
Another high point on Rarities Oxhumed is the song “Left for Dead,” with Entwistle — who also went by the nickname Thunderfingers — letting loose for a hellacious groove solo in the extended outro, accompanied by Luongo, Godfrey Townsend, and Alan St. Jon. Luongo relates the tale behind the track: “We wrote that song right before the children’s TV-show deal, and it revolved around three stories: a spy story, which we end with John quoting the James Bond theme; a cowboy tale, which we end with John quoting the theme from The Magnificent Seven; and a tale of a wife’s betrayal, so for that it only seemed natural to go into John’s song with The Who ‘My Wife.’ We used it as the run-out and it was supposed to fade, but we were having so much fun we kept going. Thinking that no one would ever hear it, John went off. It’s him stretching within the groove, but it has everything he would play in a solo.”
Example 1 contains the main band-unison riff from “My Wife,” first heard at 2:52. In Ex. 2, Entwistle steps out, beginning at 3:11. First he ascends using a B blues tonality in bars 3 and 4. In bar 6, he unleashes a bluesy, five-note phrase that creates a triplet-based polyrhythm against the 4/4 meter that crosses the bar line. He then gallops down through a B blues scale in bars 7 and 8. His bar-crossing polyrhythm reemerges in bars 9 and 10, followed by his upping the intensity with sizzling sextuplet figures in 11 and 12. Of the Ox’s unique rhythmic and melodic moves when stepping forward, Luongo surmises, “I think a lot of that came from playing with Keith Moon. John told me he never knew what Keith was going to do; sometimes he’d play off of Pete or Roger. That uncertainty led to John’s spontaneity — he was ready for anything. It also led to him feeling that he couldn’t just pedal the root. He needed to do something exciting, like Keith was doing. Essentially, The Who gave him the freedom to find a new path, and he did.”
So how does Luongo reflect on his late friend, as his music returns to the spotlight? “Looking back now, I have a sense of fulfillment. I miss John one way or another every day, and I wish he was still here, but I also realize what a privilege it was to be in his life, and I wouldn’t change a thing.” He continues, “People ask me what killed John Entwistle, and my answer is, ‘Being John Entwistle.’ He didn’t die from a cocaine overdose, as was widely reported. He didn’t have enough drugs or alcohol onboard to kill him. He had a heart attack because he had 90 percent blockages in three major arteries. He would have had the same heart attack if he was in the gym or onstage; it was coming. It was the neglect of his health that sealed his fate, because he was petrified of doctors. If the people around him could have persuaded him to get the proper medical tests, he very likely would still be with us. But this is the way the story was written — no regrets. He left the world a much better place musically, and I’m proud to have been a small part of it.”
Special thanks to Stevie Glasgow for his help with this story.
“Back on the Road”:
“Left for Dead”:
For more visit: John Entwistle