In the third week of December, 1972, I visited John at his semi-detached house in Ealing to do an interview for MM. By this time I knew him reasonably well and had met his wife Alison a few times too. Aside from the fact that the house was packed with curios, it was the kind of home you might expect a moderately successful businessman to live in with his family, comfortable but not ostentatious, perfect for the character in The Kinks’ song ‘Well Respected Man’.
I remember two things in particular from the visit. John had just bought a table lamp with those swishy frond-like tentacles that lit up at the ends and I’d never seen one before. Nowadays they’re very kitsch but I was fascinated by it. Even more impressive was the first video machine I’d ever seen, a massive grey box with lots of knobs and cassettes the size of cigar boxes. John demonstrated it for me, and then took me upstairs to admire his guitar collection. Outside of a music shop, I’d never seen so many guitars in one place.
Here’s what I wrote for MM:
Boris the spider sits in a glass case behind John Entwistle’s private studio control panel, and the ten little friends that inspired the opening track on Whistle Rymes flank him on either side. The spider in the case didn’t actually inspire the early Who favourite: it was bought later, along with all the rest of the bric-a-brac that makes John’s house part museum, part instrument gallery, part studio and part home.
Entwistle’s castle really is impressive. If the £14,000 custom-built Cadillac resting outside in the drive (it’s too long for the garage) doesn’t hold your attention, then the suits of armour, gun collections, swords or goldfish will.
And if you’re still not satisfied there’s no fewer than 32 guitars of different makes, shapes, sizes and uses waiting to be plucked. There are a couple of rare Gretschs that Chet Atkins must have been reluctant to part with. There is an acoustic bass with an outsize body to make the notes hum and there are guitars that are simply there because John was given them by eager manufacturers, anxious to use the Entwistle seal of satisfaction in their advertising copy.
There are Gibson basses with Fender necks and Fender basses with Gibson pick-ups, and all manner of combinations of bodies, fretboards and electronics. There are as many brass instruments as there are guitars, and the studio offers facilities for every home record maker. The electronic drum beater provides constant rhythms to play to, and a couple of muses (musical computers) provide a steady supply of notes in ever-repeating patterns.
There’s a grand piano and a couple of Keith Moon’s cast-off drum kits. And there’s a Moog synthesiser proper that’s guaranteed to keep anyone with the slightest interest in music occupied for hours.
John plays the lot. And when you glance around at this array of goodies it’s not surprising that he’s constantly looking for further musical outlets than The Who can offer. Playing bass for The Who has enabled John to experiment and his recent output of solo albums has outnumbered the output of Who albums by three to one.
Whistle Rymes, a collection of his own songs, was released a couple of months ago, and already there’s another in the can ready for release next February. In the case of this last album John has formed a new group so strictly speaking it’s not really a solo album. The group is called Rigor Mortis, and the album is called Rigor Mortis Sets In.
Instead of being a collection of John’s songs, it’s a selection of rock standards in the main, with two new Entwistle compositions and a new version of ‘My Wife’ which The Who recorded – and John didn’t particularly like – on their Who’s Next set.
So what made John decide to put out an album of rock standards after two albums of his own songs? “Well,” he says, relaxing in his living room, “I like rock and roll and after a while I start to run out of new numbers. My co-producer John Alcock had been wanting to do a rock and roll album as well as the solo stuff so I promised him I’d write two numbers as an exercise. It worked out alright so I write some more and used some oldies too.
“I was writing more up-tempo numbers as well, so they wouldn’t all fit on one album anyway. The only thing to do was to put out two albums. It’s more fun doing the rock album but I get just as much satisfaction out of writing and recording the Whistle Rymes material.”
Rigor Mortis includes Tony Ashton on keyboards and Alan Ross on guitar and it’s just possible that along with John on bass there may be some live performances on the cards.
“I think we’ll probably do a second Rigor Mortis album and then try a few live shows but this might take us through to the year after next. Next year will be very busy for The Who so I won’t have as much time as this year. The Who have to do an album and a couple of American tours and some gigs in England and Europe.
“I’m not really moving away from The Who but trying to get my name known as a separate entity to The Who. It’s too late for me to get my name pushed forward within The Who so I have to try and do it outside of the group. I have never written songs with The Who in mind, and even ‘My Wife’ was written for a solo album.”
John’s lyrics are notoriously for their pre-occupation with evil. A glance through the Entwistle song book over the years is a ride through terror. Even his contributions to Townshend’s Tommy were tinged with unsavoury characters, the school bully Cousin Kevin and the predatory pervert Uncle Ernie. Whistle Rymes features lyrics about prostitutes and sticking pins in photographs.
“I didn’t write them as nasty numbers,” says John. “They just end up that way. It all depends on what kind of mood I am in or what I have been watching on television. I am a great television addict.
“The song about the peeping Tom came out of an incident when someone was watching my wife working in the kitchen. It’s been in my mind for some time. The one about sticking pins in dolls is about what someone would do if they were in a temper because their chick had left them. I’m not really nasty inside. I’d better try to write some nice songs next or people will get the wrong idea.”
John feels that his solo efforts have achieved their purpose and made him recognised as more than just the bass player in The Who. In America this is especially so. “People over there seem more willing to accept a solo artist but here it’s different. The record buying public play safer. They will go out and buy a Who album but if there’s only twenty-five percent of The Who on an album they will think the album is only twenty-five per cent as good as a Who album.
“Pete was alright with his because he’s the accepted Who writer, and the title of his [Who Came First] helped a lot too.
In America John’s single ‘My Size’ sold in large quantities because many fans were under the impression it was the latest Who single. “I put them right on that but I’m a great disbeliever in singles. I’ll put one out from the Rigor Mortis album because that’s more a new band than anything else.
“I know Rigor Mortis has nasty associations but the reason we’ve called the band that is because I think rigor mortis has set into rock and roll. There’s no new rock and roll coming out. All the old numbers are being reincarnated and brought back again. The sleeve of this album is like a coffin with a gravestone and the inscription ‘In Loving Memory of Rock and Roll, 1950 to Infinity.”
Conversation turned to the orchestral Tommy show, and John admitted to being petrified when making his contribution to it. “It was alright for Roger. He’s used to standing there with just a mike. I’d have been OK with a bank of speakers set up behind me but I was petrified at the thought of it. I didn’t think I’d be able to hit the right notes in ‘Cousin Kevin’ because I’d written the song very high deliberately. I didn’t want Roger singing it on the original record so I pitched it up for myself and was cursing because of it. When the Who did Tommy we never used to play ‘Cousin Kevin’ because it was so high. The worst thing was finding something to do with my hands.”
The Who’s activities during 1972 have been kept to a minimum and John admits that the group have gone slightly stale as a result. Their only tour was a trip around Europe and it took a few gigs before the group came back into form.
“American tours always help the band because they’re such hard work. On the European tour I had forgotten how to control the volume on my bass because I was so used to playing in a studio, and on the first night Pete did his knees in because he’d forgotten to put on shin pads for his jumping act.
“We all miss not working, and in a way this year has been a drag. It’s nice to be at home and be able to go off on holidays but when you don’t work on stage you lose your identity. I went off on holiday for three weeks in the States just because I like it out there.”