If you’re a horror fan you probably like or are at least aware of Rob Zombie, who was a musician long before he was the filmmaker responsible for “House of 1,000 Corpses,” “The Devil’s Rejects,” “Lords of Salem,” and his own version of “Halloween.” Zombie’s stage act combines horror and music in a multimedia experience, influenced largely by rock pioneer Alice Cooper. That’s also fairly well known, but what is not widely known is that before Zombie, before Cooper, before even Ozzy, there was John Entwistle. He may not have chopped his head off on stage like Cooper, or bit the head off a bat like Ozzy, or had a full-scale horror show on stage like Rob Zombie, but he set the stage for dark and spooky rock.
Entwistle is best known as the bassist and founding member of the British rock band The Who. Contemporaries of other “British Invasion” bands of the 1960s such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and the Small Faces (with Rod Stewart), the band is known as one of the most influential in rock. If you’re not a classic rock fan, you would probably recognize them as the group that does the theme songs for the “CSI” shows. That’s overly simplistic, but this is a horror blog, and here we’ll be looking primarily at the ideas behind Entwistle’s songs as well as his creepy style, not the music involved or his musical legacy.
Entwistle’s primary role in the band was to play bass, sometimes sing, or provide horns when they needed them. But he also wrote songs for the band with the most well known and often-performed being “Boris the Spider” from the 1966 album “A Quick One” and “My Wife” from the landmark 1971 album ”Who’s Next.” While there were other songs Entwistle provided, more than any other “Boris” became his signature song, and it inspired the creepy-but-cool spider pendant he later wore in concerts.
The song was also precursor of his songs to come: a bass-heavy, scary-sounding song about a spider who scares Entwistle (or as Entwistle later said in concert, lead singer Roger Daltrey). He rationalizes that the spider is scared of him too, but crushes it with a book anyway, then stomps it into the ground just to make sure.
That’s funny, that’s scary, and that’s what Entwistle in a nutshell, but to put things in perspective, in 1966 most pop/rock songs were upbeat love songs and other light hits like “Cherish” by the Association, “Monday Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas, and “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles. Songs about killing scary spiders or scary anything were a new concept.
By the end of the 60s, when bandmate Pete Townshend was writing the first-ever rock opera, which came to be known as the Who’s album “Tommy”, he turned to Entwistle to write two songs in which the title character – a deaf, dumb, and blind boy – is abused. Townshend tried but couldn’t write anything dark enough to fit. In short order, Entwistle wrote “Fiddle About” in which Tommy is molested by his Uncle Ernie, and “Cousin Kevin,” about a sadistic young thug who tortures Tommy for fun. Around this time, Entwistle also took to wearing a full-body skeleton suit in concert (pictured at top) in contrast to his bandmates who more typically wore mod fashion, hippie fringed leather vests, flag jackets, and Doc Martin boots.
In 1971, Entwistle was the first member of the band to put out a solo album, “Smash Your Head Against the Wall.”
From the cover featuring Entwistle’s face (wearing a death mask) superimposed on the chest x-ray of a lung cancer patient, to the title track “My Size,” (which is a sequel to “Boris the Spider” told from the spider’s perspective), the entire album is darkly comic, disturbing, and heavy. Other tracks include “You’re Mine”, in which Satan describes some of the sins that will bring you to him and his eagerness for you to come (as well as Entwistle’s fear of damnation) and the similarly-themed “Heaven and Hell” which was already a Who concert favorite. The album is probably his best work and well worth listening to.
similar to the cover of a children’s book, but it reflects the songs inside. If you’ll note, one of the anthropomorphic characters is a flasher (a reference to the song, “The Window Shopper”, about a hesitant peeping tom) while another is a young hedgehog strangling his mother with the strings of her own apron (from the song “Apron Strings”, a rebellion against familial control). Other songs on the album include “Thinkin’ it Over”, in which a man teeters on a ledge, deciding whether to step off and kill himself after his wife cheated on him, “Nightmare (Please Wake Me Up)”, and perhaps the bitterest and darkest of all, “I Feel Better” in which a jaded lover discusses how jabbing pins in the picture of his ex and screaming at her whether she’s there or not always improves his day.
For his third album, Entwistle formed a new band, Rigor Mortis, and wrote songs dedicated to the death of 50s style rock and roll.
“Rigor Mortis Sets In” (1973) continues the dark themes set in all Entwistle’s previous songs and sets them to a cheery 50s doo-wop and pop sound, which is possibly even more twisted than the pairing of heavy themes with heavy sounds as he did on his first two albums. Two good examples of this are “Roller Skate Kate” in which a young man mourns his girlfriend who was hit and killed by a bus while they were pursuing their passion of skating on the motorway together, and “Do the Dangle”, a groovy song about the final dance done by those who choose suicide by hanging after they kick out the chair and the noose grows tight. Also worth mentioning are another dance song, “Peg Leg Peggy”, about an amputee who “sure knows how to hop” and “Made in Japan”, which sounds more like 70s pop but is again a darkly funny song about a man frustrated with everything being made in Asia. During the course of the song he is molested by a tailor and cheated by a car dealer before embarking on a honeymoon with the woman of his dreams only to find, “tattooed on her belly,” the words, “Made in Japan.”
Entwistle’s 1975 album “Mad Dog” is similar to the previous album in the use of 50s and early 60s pop sound as a vehicle for dark stories, it’s just not as catchy or good.
The problem isn’t with the lyrics. The themes are still disturbing and dark. The music just happens to be dull. The title track, “Mad Dog” is about a violent sociopath, while “Cell Number 7″ is also about criminals. Most of the songs are about criminals and/or killers, but they’re not as entertaining as, say, Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy” which came out around the same time and is a much better song.
In 1981 Entwistle released a fourth solo album “Too Late the Hero”, which was basically a pop album that lacked the dark side seen in the three previous albums. In 1982 he went back to his dark roots for the Who’s album “It’s Hard”, the last album he would record with the group, and one of most prolific, contributing 3 of the 12 songs, including “It’s Your Turn” in which he hands off the torch of rock pioneer to the next generation and compares touring rock musicians to vampires who go to bed at sun rise; “Dangerous” about mortality; and the exceptionally twisted and bitter “One at a Time,” revisiting the theme of horrible people in horrible relationships doing and saying horrible things to each other. Perky, happy songs all.
In 1983 The Who officially broke up and Entwistle was largely inactive except for the occasional reunion until 1996 when he released his final solo album, “The Rock.” The album is a bit heavier and darker than “Too Late the Hero” but still not on the disturbing or amusing level as his first three albums or his work with the Who. It is worth mentioning, however, because of the circumstances around it. On the day he was to go in to sign the contract with the label handling the release of the album, Entwistle got a call that the company was being investigated and all activities put on hiatus, all assets frozen. In response, he released a limited edition of the album using his own funds, gathered a touring band (The John Entwistle Band) and embarked on “The Left for Dead Tour.” A buzzard image was used on the tour t-shirts and posters, which was also reflected by the iconic custom-made bass Entwistle started using in the late 1980s, the buzzard bass.
As a further reflection of his dark sense of humor, Entwistle titled the live album of the tour “Left for Live.”
Gaining a bit of momentum after the tour and another reunion tour with The Who, the John Entwistle band was asked to contribute music for the children’s animated show “Van-pires”, about undead vehicles that feed on gasoline. The show was largely unwatchable, but the band released an album in 2000, “Music from Van-Pires” that showed a return to Entwistle’s heavier and darker roots. This was to be the last studio output from Entwistle solo or with the Who. He died in Las Vegas in 2002, the night before the Who was to launch a new tour. At the time they were trying to produce songs for their first album in 20 years, “Endless Wire” but Entwistle died before being able to contribute to it or see its release. The band released a song dedicated to him “Old Red Wine” written by bandmate Pete Townshend on their “Then and Now” hits compilation.