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The Authorized Biography of The Who's John Entwistle
By Paul Rees
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Drawing on his own notes for his unfinished autobiography, as well as his personal archives and interviews with his family and friends, The Ox gives readers a never-before-seen glimpse into Entwistle's two very distinct poles. On the one hand, he was the rock star incarnate—larger than life, self-obsessed to a fault, and proudly and almost defiantly so. Extravagant with money, he famously shipped vintage American cars across the Atlantic without having so much as a driver's license, built progressively bigger and more grandiose bars into every home he owned, and amassed an extraordinary collection of possessions, from armor and weaponry to his trademark Cuban-heel boots. But beneath this fame and flutter, he was also a man of simple tastes and traditional opinions. He was a devoted father and family man who loved nothing more than to wake up to a full English breakfast or to have a supper of fish, chips, and a pint at his local pub.
After his untimely death, many of these stories were shuttered away into the memories of his family and friends. At long last, The Ox introduces us to the man behind the myth—the iconic and inimitable John Entwistle.
The Quiet One
January 17, 2002—Entwistle flies to Los Angeles to attend the National Association of Music Merchants’ (NAMM) International Music Market, which is to be held over four days at the Anaheim Convention Center. At the event, he meets up with his old friend, Joe Walsh, who remembers:
I spent a while with John in his dressing room and then we went out to eat… I noticed that he was having trouble hearing. Also, he was not making sense like the John that I had known. I didn’t know if he was just too drunk, or whatever. At one time, that’s how all of us rockers would get to be late, late at night. Personally, I went on in that same way until 1994 and, by then, I had turned into a full-blown alcoholic and cocaine-crazy person. But I hit bottom before I OD’d and died. A lot of my brothers went the other way. Once I had got sober, John and I were living in totally different worlds. I went to see him a couple of times, but I didn’t hang out all night and into the next morning like I used to—and as he was still doing. So, we had got to be a little distant from each other.
Over time, I became disturbed by how John was getting to be. But I didn’t know what to do about it. I wasn’t sure whether I should, or even could, confront him. Ultimately, I was never able to sit down with John and say to him, “Hey, man, you’re fucking up.” Back in those days, I was still trying to figure out my own sobriety. Now, all these years later, I feel quite comfortable in telling someone I care about, “Listen up, because I know what I’m talking about.”
Those times that I did see John, I would notice a decline in his physical condition, most of all with his hearing, but also in his mental state. He would slur his words and not be as concise with his thought processes. From my perspective, Keith Moon had made up his mind that he was going to take everything as far as it would go, period. Maybe there was a bit of that in John, too. When I first met those guys in The Who back in the sixties in Philadelphia, we had all thought that we were immortal. Over the years, you get to realize that you’re not. Always with John, though, across the board, if he wanted to do something, he went right ahead and did it.
Of course, after we’d had dinner that night, he invited me back with him to his hotel, which was the Continental Hyatt House. I didn’t stay too long. I left him thinking, “Jesus, what has happened to my brother?” I also left him with a very bad feeling.
John Alec Entwistle came into a world of chaos and carnage. A war baby, he was born on October 9, 1944, at Hammersmith Hospital as Adolf Hitler was orchestrating a last, desperate bombing campaign on London. The Third Reich’s newest weapon of terror was the V-2 long-range missile, and the very first of these to be launched on the city had struck Chiswick the previous month, claiming thirteen victims on the evening of September 8. The day after Entwistle’s birth, the hospital building had shuddered at a second V-2 strike that hit just down the road. In later life, he would point out the birthmark on his leg, which was unmistakably and fittingly shaped like a bomb, fins and all.
He was to grow up at 81a Southfield Road, South Acton, the home of his maternal grandparents and where his mother, Queenie, was also living. His father, Herbert, was away in the Royal Navy, doing his bit for the Allied war effort as Chief Stoker on the HMS Renown. A Lancastrian by birth, Herbert Entwistle had in 1930 gone to sea straight out of school. War had broken out by the time he met Queenie Maude Lee. Like so many other young couples at the time, their futures unimaginable, they had rushed into marriage in 1941. Herbert was twenty-five by then and Queenie eighteen. By nature, Herbert was bluff, good-humored and kindly, his new bride a pretty, gregarious and fun-loving party girl. The thing that they had most in common was a love of music; Herbert played trumpet in the Navy band and Queenie honky-tonk piano in the pubs and clubs around west London.
Their union didn’t survive the end of the war. Inevitably, Herbert returned home a changed man. His elder brother, who had traveled with him to Liverpool to enlist, was on the HMS Hood when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in May 1941, killing all but three hands. On Renown in the South Atlantic, the crew had endured months on an enforced starvation diet which left Herbert requiring long-term hospital treatment. Apart for almost all of their first four years of marriage, when Herbert and Queenie came back together, they found that they hardly even knew each other. Their only child was eighteen months old when they separated; Herbert moved into a lodging house and would visit his son at Southfield Road every Friday night.
John and Daisy Lee’s terraced maisonette at 81a was right across the street from the Wilkinson Sword factory. In this particular part of industrial west London, the factory was a local landmark. As a whole, the sprawl of Acton was commonly known as “Soap Suds Island” on account of the 600 or so laundries that operated in the area, a result of its abundant soft water resource. The Lees were a tight, close-knit family; Daisy’s two sisters, Edith and Flo, both lived within a mile radius and the young John grew up surrounded by great-aunts and -uncles. “We lived upstairs at 81a and another couple, Jock and Florrie Leslie, downstairs,” he wrote of his childhood home.
Jock was an angry little Scottish bloke, on the short side with wild eyes that blazed continuously as though he was always about to hit somebody; it was usually Florrie. Ours was a three-bedroom house: two singles and a double. I slept in the single at the front of the house. Unfortunately, my very earliest memory of the room was of my great-grandmother dying in there. She was laid out with pennies on her eyes and I was made to kiss her goodbye. The bed faced the window under which sat my gran’s Singer treadle sewing machine. Behind the bed was a curtain which concealed a hanging area for clothes. I spent many sleepless nights waiting for my dead great-grandmother to crash through the curtains and leer over the headboard with those pennies on her eyes. Though in fact what scared me more was being woken by gran pedaling that damned sewing machine in the morning.
The whole interior of the house was painted brown and cream, as were most houses after the war. Back then, the limited choice of paint extended only as far as either good old camouflage green and brown, underbelly of Spitfire cream, or battleship gray. Drainpipes and fences were always green. Our kitchen was split into three rooms: there was an eating area, which overlooked our opposite neighbors’ kitchen, four feet away; the scullery contained a gas cooker on which we heated our hot water. In the corner, between the cooker and sink, was the coal hole. A short corridor led to the toilet; opposite that, in pride of place, was our aluminum bath. Our back yard was a concrete path with two feet of soil on either side, leading to a wooden gate that opened on to a communal alley—my playground.
Grandad John was a gambling man till the end of his life. He was half-Irish on his father’s side and had a pretty volatile Irish temper, especially when the dog or horse that he’d backed lost. He wasn’t a tall man, about 5ft 8in, very gaunt and with a distinct Roman nose, part of which I inherited. His left eye, which he refused to have removed, was glazed with glaucoma. The old photographs of my gran as a young woman show her as tall, thin and dark-haired, but I remember her as being little, portly and gray. Her cooking was always delicious. Gran’s greatest pleasure in life was “nossin’.” This was the expression we used for whenever she was sat looking out of the front room window. The front room was sacred. The best furniture in the house was there. It was used for birthdays, weddings, funerals, Christmas, and Gran’s nossin’. She would sit hidden behind the lace curtains, a discreet corner moved to one side, and could tell you what the neighbors were up to at any time of day.
Gran was partially deaf and, being something of a seamstress, made herself special aprons to carry around the huge hearing-aid equipment of those days. Grandad would tease her mercilessly by cutting his voice mid-sentence and carrying on merely mouthing the words. Gran would turn up her hearing aid, thinking it was shorting out, and he would suddenly scream into the microphone. On the other hand, whenever she was annoyed with him, she would switch it off.
Each Saturday morning, Queenie would take young John shopping with her up the Chiswick High Road. On these excursions, she would allow him a weekly treat, which was to pick out a single, lead model soldier and so began the first of what was to be her son’s many collections. Being an only child, Entwistle was self-contained, something of a loner, and got used to living inside his own head. He would play out by himself in the back alley, sneaking off as he got older to enact war games in the rubble of the scores of burned and bombed-out buildings that littered the neighborhood. Food rationing was still in effect and he was a sickly infant. By the time he was five years old, he had contracted mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough and measles, had numerous bouts of flu, countless colds, and suffered with catarrh which, he wrote, “blocked up my nose and caused strange noises in my head and a peculiar numb feeling in my body.”
According to his mother’s recollection, he showed an interest in music from the age of two. In the front room at Southfield Road, next to Queenie’s piano, was a Victor Talking Machine record player. Settling her toddler in front of the old wind-up machine, Queenie would spin for him selections from her collection of 78s, which ranged from military marches to Glenn Miller. Also by five, he had memorized the words to the Andrews Sisters’ swing staple “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” and was adept at performing two of Al Jolson’s vaudeville standards, “Sonny Boy” and “My Mammy.” Not that these mother-and-son sessions passed by uninterrupted; grumbling one afternoon at being unable to hear the football results on his radio, Grandad John took revenge by fetching an old bird’s nest from under the eaves and secreting it down the horn of the machine. Thereafter, the Victor was mysteriously muffled.
Grandad John did, though, see value in his grandson’s precociousness. He started to take Entwistle along with him to his working men’s club, the Napier Sports Club. There, the old man would encourage the boy to stand up on a table or chair and sing his two Al Jolson numbers for the other patrons. As his grandson went through his act, Grandad John would have a cap passed around the room for loose change, using the proceeds to fetch lemonade and crisps for the budding singer. This routine of theirs went on for weeks until the youngster grew over-zealous during one performance, tumbling off a table and gashing his forehead. After that, Queenie put a stop to them going out together to the Napier.
In the summer of his fifth year, Entwistle was packed off to Southfield Road Primary. The school was a five-minute walk from his grandparents’ house, but to such a singular boy it must have seemed like an entry into another, more forbidding world. The old, red-brick Victorian building was imposing with its looming bell tower and iron railings; similarly intimidating was the school’s headmaster, Mr. Healey, a stickler for discipline who wielded a wicked birch cane.
At home, there came about an even more jarring and unwanted interruption to what until then had been the gentle ebb and flow of life. On Saturdays, Queenie would go out dancing at the Hammersmith Palais. One night there, she was whisked onto the floor by a tall, rail-thin suitor who bore a passing resemblance to the American movie star Clark Gable; this was apt, since Gordon Johns was working at that time as a cinema projectionist. To Queenie, the good-looking, fleet-footed Johns seemed quite the catch and, in time, she agreed to let him walk her home one night from the dance. These trysts soon became a regular event and, on the occasions that he missed his last bus home, Johns would stay the night at 81a, where he slept under Queenie’s piano. Eventually, he moved in completely.
To Entwistle, Johns was “Gordon the Lodger” and an instant adversary. “Like most kids separated from their father, I resented Gordon,” he wrote. “He wasn’t my real dad and he had no authority over me. That was my opinion and I bloody stuck to it—for years. Every Friday, two buckets of water went on to the gas stove and the bath was ceremoniously carried into the scullery. Being the member of the family that needed the most cleaning, I had the first bath. Two people had to bathe in one load of water and Gordon usually followed me.” Knowing as much, before he got out of the bath, Entwistle would never fail to take a pee in the water.
With Johns’s arrival on the scene, the young Entwistle grew more reserved, as if he were seeking to escape into the background. For companionship, he had his grandparents’ dog, an ugly little Yorkshire terrier with a sour temperament and few teeth that the old folks had named Scruffy. Grandad John also began to take him out to the pictures twice weekly, and he would sit rapt in the dark of the Acton Odeon or the Gaumont cinemas. “Films affected me in a huge way,” he wrote. “After seeing Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table, I developed a passion for armor and weapons that is still with me to this day. Though I also lost count of the times my Grandad and I were thrown out of the cinema. He had a nasty habit of shouting out during the films. ‘Look out behind you!’ was his favorite, or else grabbing someone in front of him during the scary bits. The inevitable would then happen, a torch shone in our eyes and, ‘Excuse me, sir… we’d like you to leave.’”
From the age of seven, a less welcome distraction was introduced by Queenie who decreed that he should take piano lessons. Each Tuesday evening after school, she would drag him a mile down Acton Lane for tutoring by Mrs. Jones, a severe, round-shouldered lady in her seventies whose house was overrun with cats. At their first meeting, the formidable Mrs. Jones informed Queenie that she didn’t teach lazy little boys, and Entwistle was set the additional task of practicing the piano for a minimum of one hour every night. “I remember thinking, ‘My mum’s giving me a witch,’” he recalled of the old piano teacher. “I have been suspicious of the motives of old ladies owning cats ever since and Tuesdays became the blight of my life. I hated the piano. I had begun to hate music. It had come to mean practicing boring pieces, the freezing cold of Mrs. Jones’s house and, above all, the smell of cat’s piss.”
However, this weekly dose of unpleasantness was nothing next to the outrage he felt when Queenie and Johns’s relationship progressed in 1953 to marriage. Gordon the Lodger was now Gordon the Stepdad and, from that moment on, the extent of their mutual antipathy only ever deepened. Insofar as he could, Johns shunned his stepson. But also, he would never miss an opportunity to carp and gripe to Queenie about the boy’s idleness and general no-goodness. For his part, Entwistle went right on peeing in the interloper’s bathwater.
Herbert Entwistle, too, was remarried that same year, taking for a bride his landlady, Dora. A widower, Dora had two children of her own from her previous marriage, Bernard and Linda, and so the now nine-year-old John gained a stepbrother and stepsister who were respectively three years and a month his seniors. Herbert had got himself a good engineering job, and continued to call at 81a every Friday night, roaring up on his Norton motorbike. Now, though, he would often bring Bernard along with him. Entwistle looked forward to Herbert’s visits as the highlight of each week. When, later in 1953, Herbert was able to move his new family out of London and into the Buckinghamshire countryside, he sorted out visiting rights to have his young son come and stay over with them at appointed weekends.
“John would visit us every couple of months,” remembers Bernard. “Things would get a bit fractious sometimes between Bert and Queenie. If Bert was late arriving at Acton, Queenie would have a go at him. For his part, Gordon didn’t seem to like or want anything to do with anyone. Gordon would pass me on the stairs without so much as uttering a word. Most often, though, if they knew Bert was coming to pick John up, Gordon and Queenie would make sure to be out.
“John and I bonded quite well. He was such a thin, straggly thing… all fingers. It’s funny, but his fingers made you think of nothing so much as spider’s legs. I used to breed budgerigars [parakeets] in my bedroom. Up to then, I don’t think John had ever seen a budgie. He would put his hand in the nest box and pick up these tiny hatchlings. They would only have been hatched about a week and he would bring them out on the end of a finger. Most of us would have cupped them in our hands.”
Across the country, the pall of postwar austerity was being lifted from over Britain. A million new homes had been built since 1945, and the average national wage rose as the moribund British economy at last started to soar. By the end of the decade, 75 percent of households would have a television set and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was emboldened enough to tell the British people that they had never had it so good. Within the confines of 81a Southfield Road, the knock-on effect of these good times was two-fold. First, Johns was able to get a better-paid job as an estate agent. Second, like millions of their fellow Brits, as a family they found themselves able to take an annual summer holiday. In their case, this was a two-week jaunt out to the Coronation Holiday Camp on Hayling Island, a twelve-square-mile blob of land off the south coast from Portsmouth.
As Entwistle wrote thirty-five years later, it was at the Coronation Holiday Camp in August of 1955 that “something happened to rekindle my love for music. Because the camp was so self-contained, I was left to my own devices and, when I wasn’t emptying my favorite penny machine, I’d hang out by the ballroom, sucking on a banana milkshake, and listen to the resident dance band. The normal foxtrots and waltzes the band did hadn’t interested me much but, one night, they played something that made my ears prick up. It was a trumpet solo titled ‘In a Persian Market.’ The piercing sound of the trumpet impressed me so much I just had to learn how to play it.”
With the trumpet being Herbert’s instrument, this discovery also allowed him to forge another strong bond with his dad and, by extension, to make a symbolic and defiant stand against Gordon the Stepfather. Once they were home in Acton, Entwistle badgered his mother to let him take up the trumpet. Queenie finally relented, but on the condition that he continue with his piano lessons. In the event, Queenie’s resolve in this matter held up for just two months. By then, Herbert had loaned the boy his old silver trumpet and, in the course of his once-weekly visits, coached him to blow a full, though somewhat shaky, scale C.
Required to practice out of his disapproving stepfather’s sight, Entwistle alighted upon the toilet as his makeshift music room. Upon entering the loo one day, he discovered his own particular reason to trust that things would get better—the belated arrival at 81a of toilet paper. “I found the usual knotted squares of newspaper to be missing,” he wrote. “Anxiously, I shouted out, ‘Where’s the paper, Gran?’ ‘It’s the white stuff on the roll,’ she replied. No more newsprint on my bum. We were on our way up!”
The Hockey Misfits
The divided state of things carried on at 81a Southfield Road. In equal measure, Queenie fussed about and nagged at both her husband and son. Whenever he was in the house, Gordon would be in a scowling mood, although he increasingly absented himself down to the pub. Entwistle, meanwhile, went right on blowing his dad’s old silver trumpet in the loo. Come the following summer of 1956, he also started at a new school. Against his own expectations, he passed the eleven-plus examination which, rather like the Hogwarts’ Sorting Hat, was the means by which the British education system separated out supposedly more academically gifted children. Entwistle’s success in this regard meant that he escaped the stigma of being seen to go to either of Acton’s two comprehensive schools and, instead, was elevated to the giddy heights of the local grammar.
Opened in 1906, Acton County was the first purpose-built grammar school in the county of Middlesex. As was the nature of such institutions at the time, it operated to rigid strictures and conservative tradition. In 1956, it was still an all-boys school, although a new headmaster, Mr. Kibblewhite, had just recently been appointed to prepare Acton County for the shock of admitting its first intake of girls the very next year. The masters, male for the greater part, almost exclusively middle-aged or older, would sweep about the place in their billowing black gowns, like great bats, administering discipline to unruly pupils with a sharp clip around the ear, or else a well-aimed blackboard eraser.
To go along with their navy-blue caps, blazers and jumpers, and red-and-black striped ties, first-year boys were required to wear short trousers. Entwistle’s mother had already graduated him to long trousers the previous year, so this last imposition was a blow to his self-esteem. In total, the first year at Acton County seemed to him a slow and joyless grind. The formalities of the school were unbending; each day would begin at 9:00 a.m. precisely with the whole school gathered in the hall for a morning assembly of hymns and a Bible reading. In one class after another, masters would direct the boys to work from the blackboard in strict silence, sitting side by side at their fold-up wooden desks.
“I had the new problem of homework to suffer with, and also the never-ending harassment of the older boys,” Entwistle later wrote. “This latter happening was called fag-baiting—‘fag’ being the term given to boys just starting at the school and which dated from the previous century. Still, I earned myself a reputation for being difficult to harass as I got into the habit of fighting back. At that time, I was the second biggest kid in my year, and taller than all but two of the second-year boys.”
However, one particular morning his attention was roused by a new initiative at the school. In assembly that day, the music teacher, Mrs. Holman, stood and announced the formation of a school orchestra, encouraging budding applicants to report to the music room at the end of the day for try-outs. At final bell, Entwistle rushed to the designated venue, but not quickly enough. He arrived to be told that the brass section was over-subscribed with aspirants. Unbowed, he protested to the officious brass teacher, Mr. Barnes, that he was already proficient on the trumpet. This was not entirely true, but it got him an audition. Mr. Barnes, he wrote, “beckoned me past eight pupils gathered round an ancient tenor horn wrapped in Sellotape to seal the leaks in the pipe work. I smiled as the first four produced deafening silence, whilst going red in the face. ‘Fuckin’ thing don’t work,’ number four said under his breath as he headed past me to the door. I knew something he didn’t. You don’t just blow into the mouthpiece; you have to produce a raspberry and vibrate the lips. Thank God my father had given me those lessons. I produced the first note of the evening and was told to stand to one side. I was feeling very smug and pleased with myself, but my thunder was immediately stolen by another late arrival, Middleton. He brought the house down by playing of all things a whole piece of music on his very own trumpet. Anyway, three of us were chosen: Middleton, Merriweather (the only boy in my year taller than me) and me. Middleton, of course, was delegated first trumpet, while Merriweather and I were given two ancient tenor saxhorns.”
In spite of their being a semi-tone lower, out of necessity the saxhorns had to fill the role of French horns in the orchestra. By the time the parts meant for French horn had been transposed to take into account the key difference, they were all but impossible to render on such archaic instruments. The gangling Merriweather quit the orchestra in frustration; Entwistle stuck to the task and was rewarded when the school eventually coughed up for an actual French horn—matte, silver-plated and procured from a brass band.
His dedicated approach to the trumpet also reaped dividends at home. Soon after the acquisition of his French horn, his mother and Aunt Flo clubbed together to buy him his first trumpet, a Boosey & Hawkes Model 78 coated in gold lacquer. Entwistle recalled: “The shop assistant remarked in passing, ‘The first valve needs a bit of oil.’ Lying bastard—that first valve had a mind of its own and the Entwistle temper caused it to fly across the room.”
The troublesome valve was replaced soon enough and, in the first report that Entwistle received from Acton County, he was awarded an “A” grade for music, Mrs. Holman remarking that he was “most enthusiastic” and “making splendid progress on trumpet.” The rest of the report was not quite so glowing. He got a “C” in English and a “D” for both Mathematics and PE. Even still, his form tutor, Mr. Paulin, concluded, “He is a good pupil and has done a good year’s work.”
At the outset of Entwistle’s second year, girls arrived at Acton County. The “cruds,” as they were referred to by the senior boys, initially made up just one half of the new first-year intake. However, the total numbers of boys and girls was intended to balance out exponentially over the ensuing three years. This was a prospect that delighted Entwistle, as he later recorded: “I had already worked out that by the time I was sixteen there would be two-hundred little cuties looking goo-goo-eyed at us older boys. The string section of the orchestra would also finally be up to strength—none of us boys would dream of learning to play the sissy violin.”
In fact, he might well have thought that things in general were looking up. Around this time he made his first public appearances as a jobbing musician at a series of Saturday night dances in Acton. A local big-bandleader, one Teddy Fullager, lived a couple of doors down from 81a on Southfield Road. The carrot-haired Fullager was a drummer and unfortunately afflicted with a nervous twitch. Before the war, he had played in a trio with Entwistle’s mother. Queenie took it upon herself to persuade him to take her son on as second trumpeter in the Teddy Fullager Band. For these occasions, Entwistle was attired in an old tuxedo that was donated to him by Fullager’s father, who so happened to be squat in stature and to have a tin leg.
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- "A rollicking new biography reveals."—Daily Mail
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- On Sale
- Apr 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Hachette Books