John discusses his solo records and the origin of "Led Zeppelin"
New york — "I’m not really into black humor," John Entwistle said with a hint of a wink, "I’m just different." The Who’s bassist, who more and more is getting into solo albums as the band’s future becomes a question mark, was in New York to attend the bar mitzvah of a friend and to buy equipment for his band, Ox, for its upcoming tour.
Entwistle is a dapper six-footer with a trim beard, an expensive hotel suite overlooking Central Park and a sly smile that lets on that he would savor the idea of become a solo artist permanently.
The Who will tour next year, he said, and after that he’s not certain, although he’s sure that Ox will be around for awhile. He’s just edited Odds and Sods for the Who and issued his fourth solo release, Mad Dog, in January.
Odds and Sods came about," he said, "because we knew we had a lot of unreleased material, mainly from singles that had fallen by the wayside. We didn’t know how good much of that material was till we started seeing it on bootlegs. The task fell on me ’cause everyone else was too busy with the Tommy film or something. It could’ve been a double album, there was that much material. It’s all more or less new material. I tried to arrange it like a parallel sort of Who career — what singles we might have released and what album tracks we might have released."
Entwistle is much more interested, it’s obvious, in his band than in the Who. "After my first solo album," he said, "I really didn’t think of any of my songs as Who songs. The only songs that they have used of mine since my solo albums started have been ‘My Wife’ and ‘When I Was A Boy.’ I started realizing there was no real outlet for my songs because the Who were more or less based on Pete’s style of writing and Roger sang Pete’s compositions best. I’d written my music for me to sing, really; I couldn’t see Roger singing them. So I realized it was a choice — I was getting so frustrated that it was either leave the band or do a solo album."
That resulted in Smash Your Head Against the Wall, his first step alone. That, as with subsequent albums, sold well in the United States although it barely made a splash in England. "Basically," he said wryly, "I’m best at naming albums and designing album covers. That’s one of the main reasons I do albums. I enjoy compiling the covers. For Smash Your Head it looks like a ghost of a pharaoh but it’s just me with a plastic mask staring through a heart disease patient’s X-ray. I went to my doctor and asked for some X-rays for an album cover and he thought I was mad but he dragged out dozens of them to audition."
His latest album cover is a homemade job, featuring one of his own giant deer-hounds baring his fangs. Some of his ideas, such as an illustration of finger sausages, leave other Who members cold. His touring alone also distresses Roger Daltrey. "I don’t know what Roger’s got in the back of his mind but he told me to just put out an album and then not actually appear with the group. I’ve had a very hard time with Roger about it. I don’t know whether he’s got something about me singing, trying to take his job away. The story about me being the quiet one of the Who is not quite true. Roger is the hermit. When we’re on tour, we never see him except on stage."
Entwistle’s reputation, as far as the usual cult followings go, was made in this country with his second album, Whistle Rymes. Black humor devotees attached themselves to songs about suicide, peeping tomism, macabre humor and despair. "Well," he chuckled, "I find something very repellent in the usual love songs. The first thing I think of when you mention love is somebody leaving somebody else. My wife often asks me about that. I just can’t do it. I can write about spiders and alcoholics and suicides but when it comes to love, I’m stuck. The only love song I’d consider writing is a love song about a dog, because that would mean more to a lot of people than a love song about humans. You don’t really know if a dog loves you. If you didn’t feed it, it’d probably eat you."
Entwistle laughed comfortably and winked again. His other Mad Dog songs, he said, are not so bad or twisted: a song about a Don Juan who turns queer, a song about first divorce and one called "Jungle Bunny," which he calls an "Isaac Hayes kind of song."
"There’s quite a lack of humor in the business," he managed with a straight face, "and I’d like to correct that. Thank God for Sha Na Na and the late Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Personally, I’ll be going on tour with a dozen members: an organ, a grand piano, two Wurlitzer pianos, two clarinets, two Moogs, two ARP synthesizers and a string synthesizer and various appliances to put my bass through.
"Oh," he added, "during one of the five or so times that the Who has broken up already — before we actually turned a profit with Tommy — Keith [Moon] and I decided we’d go off and form a band with Richard Cole, who used to be our chauffeur. I said, okay, I’m forming this band, and I’ve got everything all together. I’m gonna write all the stuff and Keith’s gonna play drums and we’re gonna be a big band — making much more money than the Who ever would make. I was gonna call the band Led Zeppelin and I had designed a cover of an R/101 Zeppelin going down in flames and I was gonna do it in black and white — very subtle. Two weeks later, Richard Cole went to work for Jimmy Page and you see where our Zeppelin went. The name came from England — in our area the local bands used to meet at the local bar after our gigs and we’d ask, ‘How’d you go over tonight?’ We’d say, ‘We all went down like a lead zeppelin.’ So that’s where that name came from, then. I was always better at naming groups and designing album covers."