So Who's the Bass Player? The Ox Anthology
oo frequently, fans and critics try to compare John Entwistle's solo work to the music produced by the Who or by Pete Townshend on his own. The comparison doesn't work, because Entwistle was doing something quite different from either of those projects. For the most part, the Entwistle sound stays to a more traditional rock feel (think early Who, or maybe a distillation of "My Wife") and his lyrics possess far more dark humor than a Townshend number would ever hint at. The new two-disc compilation, So Who's the Bass Player? The Ox Anthology, offers the best overview of this solo material and includes quality liner notes to guide your listening.
Previously the best introduction to the Ox's work was Rhino's Thunderfingers: The Best of John Entwistle, but this new release more than doubles the number of tracks and, importantly, includes eight live performances (Entwistle was always at his best on stage). Even at 38 tracks, the compilation stays fresh through careful track selection and the steady progression (although not improvement) of Entwistle's writing.
The first five tracks come from his debut album, 1971's Smash Your Head Against the Wall and, despite the odd exclusion of first single "I Believe in Everything," represent Entwistle's best work. Collectors take note: four of these mixes are alternate mixes from the original US Decca release. In three of the cases, it's an improvement, but the choice for "Pick Me Up (Big Chicken)" is questionable, as the downplaying of the piano changes the mood of the song, even if it allows more room for Entwistle's bass. These songs, including "My Size" (the aggressive sequel to novelty hit "Boris the Spider") are straight-ahead rock. The slowed down version of "Heaven and Hell" shows the band focused on a pounding sound, especially compared to the live versions from that period released by the Who.
The six songs from the playfully-spelled Whistle Rhymes give insight into the basic Entwistle worldview, such as there was one. The world is dark, but funny, and, if nothing else, you should have a good time as long as you're here. "Thinkin' It Over" tells the tale of a suicide narrowly averted, and "Who Cares?" offers up a two-word answer to stress. "I Was Just Being Friendly," though, grinds the hedonism to a halt, as a family man is undone by his carousing—what was funny in "My Wife" becomes tragic here. For all Entwistle's morbidness and grotesque humor (see the skeleton suit he wore on stage), he rarely lost touch with an emotional core in his songwriting.
The loss of that core undoes his tracks from Rigor Mortis Sets In, mostly novelty numbers about hanging yourself, strange girlfriends, or dead skaters. If there's a section of music you'll skip on these two discs, it's this one, and the three live tracks on unexciting performances of "Cell Number 7" and Who tracks "Whiskey Man" and "Boris the Spider" (all available from King Biscuit shows). Despite its fame, "Boris the Spider" is easily the worst Entwistle track ever to receive recognition, and fortunately it's buried as the final track on disc one.
Unlike that first disc, disc two offers its best moments on its live numbers. "My Wife" is a high-speed, saxed-up rendition of the Who classic (and probably Entwistle's best song). The other live numbers here are all Who staples performed in 1998 by the John Entwistle Band and released on Left for Live. Live renditions of "The Real Me" throughout Entwistle's career contain fabulous bass work, and this version lives up to it, with the bass wisely turned up in the mix. [Although to hear Entwistle at his finest, track down live shows from the Who's '96-'97 Quadrophenia tour—every night Entwistle seemed to set a new standard for the most phenomenal bass playing ever performed in rock.]
Unfortunately, much of this disc is given to novelty tracks, four of which come from Flash Fearless Vs. the Zorg Women Parts 5 & 6! , a cartoon-y, sci-fi adventure that's exactly what you think and, worse, contains bass-playing that may or may not be Entwistle's. Inclusion of "To the Chop" (originally "Let's Go to the Chop," reflecting the '50s parody) would have been enough, showing the Ox's vocals as well as his macabre humor in the castration-anxiety number. Completists will want the original album for its weirdness—and guest appearances by Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Justin Hayward, Nicky Hopkins, Jim Dandy, and more—but outside that context, these tracks pale.
The other cartoon songs at least come from actual animation. The JEB did the soundtrack to a short-lived series called Van-pires, about, yes Nosferatued automobiles. Surprisingly, these songs aren't bad; not surprisingly, they aren't particularly memorable either.
Amid the live rampages and wacko tracks, it's important not to miss "Too Late the Hero," Entwistle's best ballad and a technically complex number. The title song from a 1981 album, the track feels a little dated, but it shows Entwistle's ability to assemble more complex orchestration than his standard power rock. Lyrically the Ox describes an escapist fantasy while admitting the need to deal with failure. He simultaneously uplifts and mourns; the imagined life is more successful than the real one, and the longing for meaning and moral clarity goes unfulfilled. Yet, it sounds so good that there must be something true in the hero's exploits.
So Who's the Bass Player? does an effective job at running through John Entwistle's 30-year solo career, hitting nearly all the highlights, but including a few lowlights as well. Entwistle wasn't a brilliant songwriter, but he was a good one, and his very-entertaining personality shows on every track. Given the unevenness of some of his albums as well as the brevity of his early retrospective (also released before several key discs), this compilation provides the best entry into the music of an artist too often remembered solely for his work in a more famous act's rhythm section.