The PopCult Bookshelf

The Ox: The Authorized Biography of The Who’s John Entwistle
by Paul Rees
Hachette Books
ISBN-13: 978-0306922855

The Who are, of course, one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Their concept album TOMMY defined the Rock Opera genre, and their greatest hits include some of the most recognizable songs of our times.

Of the four men who made up the band, Pete Townshend, the flamboyant guitarist and main songwriter and Roger Daltry, the lead singer and face of the band have both written autobiographies. The short, tragic life of drummer Keith Moon has been detailed in several books, some of which have been optioned for the big screen. The band as a whole have had their history told in the pages of more than a few books.

But John Entwistle, the late bass player for the band who many consider to be the glue that held The Who together, remained a bit of an enigma, until now. Paul Rees, with the participation and support of Entwistle’s family and friends, plus access to Entwistle’s partially-completed autobiography, has crafted an in-depth look at the life of a complex and troubled man who made amazing music while living life as large as possible to soothe some deep wounds.

We see many sides of John Entwistle, the sickly wartime child of a broken marriage, the geeky fan of Mad Magazine, the immaculate musican, the heavy drinker who never seemed to get drunk, the collector, the control freak who had to stand in the background and ultimately a man who succumbed to his demons, albeit on a much more leisurely schedule than his bandmate, Moon.

Rees tells the story in a very British voice, completely appropriate here, and allows Entwistle to speak directly through large excerpts of his unfinished autobiograhy. This is enhanced with interviews of family members, friends and fellow musicians to create a oral history of the life of John Entwistle. It’s warts-and-all, as we see Entwistle at his most romantic and generous, but also at his most excessive and spiteful.

His friendship with Moon is touching and alarming at the same time, as Entwistle’s mischief often inspired Moon’s more notorious self-destructive and hotel-room-destructive antics. Entwistle’s relationship with his other band members is portrayed as cordial, but distant. John, Roger and Pete all went to the same school, but weren’t terribly close friends offstage.

In addition to the Entwistle angle of many key events like the Monterey Pop Festival, the recording of TOMMY and Quadrophenia and their appearance on The Smothers Brothers Show, we also see Entwistle’s frustration with his inability to have more of his songs recorded by The Who and his less-than-successful solo career.

I would have liked to have read more about the recording of his under-appreciated solo albums, where he enlisted the aid of musicans as varied as Peter Frampton, Tony Ashton and even Benny Hill’s back-up singers, The Ladybirds, but I suppose that might be a topic for an entire book on its own. One which would sell eleven copies.

We do get many glimpses of Entwistle as the obsessive shopper and collector. In one fun example his son talks about how, one year for Christmas, his father bought him every Star Wars toy on the market, and then goes on to explain how in the mid 1980s his dad became so enamoured of the British Comic Book, 2000 A.D., that he ran out and bought up the entire 600-issue run.

Entwistle’s decline and the dissolution of his marriage following the death of Moon is a stark contrast to the fast-paced party atmosphere we read about as the book covers the infamous touring history of the band. We see Entwistle cut loose from his moorings and entering a period where his excesses begin to get the better of him. The tragedy in Cinncinnati where 11 fans were tampled to death is mentioned, and we do get some new details about that, but it’s not a major point in the book.

If I have any real criticism of the book, it’s that it’s too short. The Ox: The Authorized Biography of The Who’s John Entwistle clocks in at over 300 pages, but you get the impression that there was enough material here for a book more than twice as long. Commercial considerations require the book to be kept to a manageable size, and the brisk presentation employed by Rees keeps the story of Entwistle’s life moving at an engrossing, almost breakneck, pace, but I could see myself readily buying a subsequent volume, or volumes, that cover each period of Entwistle’s life in greater detail.

The Ox: The Authorized Biography of The Who’s John Entwistle is a remarkable oral history of the life of one of the most overlooked, yet essential, elements in some of the greatest rock music ever recorded. You can order it from any bookseller using the ISBN code above, or take the coward’s way out and get it from Amazon.