If the Who can be said to have an instrumental virtuoso it is John Alec Entwistle. In a group famous for its anything-goes anarchic approach to performing, he has always been a solid rock in a swirling sea. Besides being the rhythm anchor – especially when the drummer was determined to rip the beat to shreds – he was one of the first rock players to establish the bass as a solo instrument. Right from the start, in songs like “My Generation,” Entwistle took the solo spotlight, frequently overshadowing the playing of guitarist Pete Townshend. Later, he would add other talents as well, playing a variety of horns and singing high harmonies.

Born October 9, 1944 in Chiswick England, Entwistle began growing into his musician’s role early. He was the only Who member to benefit from formal musical training, taking up piano at age seven. By 11 he was also learning trumpet: a year later he was tackling French horn and playing in the Middlesex Youth Orchestra.

He and Peter Townshend were in their early teens when they first teamed up at the Acton County Grammar School in 1959. They formed a traditional jazz group called the Scorpions, featuring Entwistle on trumpet and Townshend on tenor banjo. Within a year, though, Entwistle’s interest had switched to bass guitar and Townshend had begun packing a 6-string.

The Who really began taking shape in 1962 when at first Entwistle, and later Townshend, were invited into Roger Daltrey’s band, the Detours. At the time Daltrey was lead guitarist and occasional trombonist but by 1963 he abandoned his playing chores, concentrating on his leader singer role. When Keith Moon joined in 1964 the history-making line-up was complete.

No one in the band was closer to Keith Moon than John Entwistle, and no one has a keener insight into his landmark drumming style. I interviewed him in Boston this past July, during the early stages of the group’s U.S. tour.

What was your musical relationship with Keith like?
ENTWISTLE: Well, Keith didn’t particularly keep time too well. If he was feeling down the songs would be slow, if he was feeling up the songs would be too fast, and if he felt normal the songs would be normal. I would get very frustrated because he couldn’t actually play hi-hat at all, just a mess of cymbals. I knew he was a one-off [one of a kind] drummer, but in the same way as the rest of us were one-off. We constructed our music to fit ’round each other. It was something very peculiar that none of us played the same way as other people, but somehow, our styles fitted together.

Who was the timekeeper?
I guess I held a lot of it together. I remember I sometimes had to play simpler bass parts to accomplish that. If Keith came out of a drum break out of time, I would sort of set a new time or go and look at his bass-drum foot to see what the hell he was doing. I mean, at times, it could sound like a drum kit falling downstairs [laughs].

What part of the kit did you listen to for the pulse?
Usually the bass drum and sometimes the snare, although the snare tended to be all over the place. I had to take an average between the bass drum and the rest of the kit. Of course, most of his drums all sounded the same. He tuned all the toms to the same note. The little ones, obviously, sounded higher and the floor toms sound lower, but apart from that, when he had the two-deep kit, they’d more or less be tuned to the same note, so if he missed one he’d get the other.

How much did his playing influence your style?
Well, one of the reasons I added top end or treble to my sound was to cut through the rest of the noise. We found, after I used the wire-wound strings, that the guitar and the bass sort of blended into one huge sound in the middle with things that Keith and I did happening at the top and bottom. It was a sound that no one else had.

You must have had an equal influence on him.
I would say so. He found out that if he played something silly, I could actually go with him and match it precisely. He became confident in that, so he played a lot of silly stuff. I remember listening for the first time to Live At Leeds with Keith. We just looked at each other and went, “Did we play that? How in the hell did we play that one?” There were a lot of things that we played that only happened once, that slid together by magic and were gone forever.

You and Keith were known for going off on what you call “tangents.” Did he listen and follow you or did you end up chasing him more often?
We followed each other, but you have to remember, Keith played with everything. If you played his drum track alone in the studio, you just couldn’t work out what song he was playing. Sometimes he played with the vocals and you could tell that way. A lot of the time, because there were only two guitars, the whole thing interwove and we’d influence each other. Like on Live At Leeds, Pete would start an idea and then we’d pick up on it until me or Keith would play a riff and start another idea. So you had these sort of islands to land on and then we’d play off the top of our heads in between. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but we were always willing to take risks.

What about in the studio? On “In A Hand Or Face” on Who By Numbers there’s a very long tom fill which you match perfectly. Was that planned or overdubbed?
No, neither. That’s another example of the magic that can occur spontaneously.

Pete used to give everyone demos of his songs. How were the drum and bass parts developed from there?
Aside from a particular riff or melody, we were free to embellish what Pete had on the demos. On “I’m A Boy” (from Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy), the original bass part was just straight eighth-notes so I added to it. Other times I felt that Pete’s bass part was perfect so I played what he wrote for me.

Did Pete write parts with you and Keith in mind?
Towards the end he did. Particularly for me because he started playing bass like I do [laughs], but early on, we didn’t know one another’s playing that well yet.

But what would he put on the demo for Keith?
Just the basic feel. Then he’d usually have Keith lay down his own click track and we’d all play to that. Other times, like on “Won’t Get Fooled Again” [from Who’s Next], we just played to the synthesizer.

Did you prefer using click tracks?
No, we all hated playing with them. First off, click tracks did my left ear in. I lost a frequency.

If you fell out of time with the click did everyone just keep going?
No, we’d start over again. We stayed pretty close to it. Keith would have little messages coming through his headphones on his click track saying, “middle eight coming up 1-2-3-4 …”

Did Keith, or anyone else in the band, have trouble getting inspired in the studio?
Well, obviously we were at our best playing live, but there wasn’t really a problem with inspiration in the studio until our last couple of albums. On Face Dances [released after Moon’s death, with Kenney Jones on drums], which we made with producer Bill Syzmczyk, he got us to do three takes in a row for each song and then took the best bits and stuck them together. So we did sort of a Frankenstein job on it. I thought our last albums ended up being so perfect that they weren’t perfect, you know. They were too tight and sterile.

What was Keith’s playing like toward the end?
He was fluctuating between genius and complete rubbish, so you had to get him on the right day.

You wrote “Dr. Jeckyll And Mr. Hyde” (from Magic Bus: The Who On Tour) allegedly about Keith’s mood swings, and Peter and Roger have described his personality as being always “up.” Were there any tracks where a more subdued Keith Moon was evident as far as dynamics or technique?

The only song I’ve ever heard him play absolutely straight drums on was a song I wrote called “905” (from Who Are You) because it needed a very strict beat.

How did you get that from him?
I just told him it needed to be real simple and strong, otherwise the song wouldn’t come off. There was one song which we nearly wrecked the band over and that was “Substitute” [from Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy]. When he first heard the track he said, “When did you record that? Where did you get that drummer from?” And I said, “It was you.” And he said, “I don’t remember doing this.” And I said, “You did!” and he said, “Bullocks! You got some other guy and I’m leaving the band!” So finally I said, “Listen to the drums. You’re screaming!” So he listened a bit and went, “Oh yeah, it’s me … well when did we do it?” And I said, “Last week” [laughs].

Supposedly, Keith didn’t like – or had problems with – playing “swing” or “jazz” eighth-notes and their related feels, like shuffles.
There were just some beats he had a lot of trouble with, like shuffles or playing in 6/8. On “I’m Free” (from Tommy), me and Pete had to play drums and Keith played the breaks because he couldn’t get the intro. He was hearing it differently from how we were, and he just couldn’t shake it off. So we put down the snare, the hi-hat, and the tambourine part and he came in and added all the breaks. When we did it live, the only way to bring him in was for Pete and I to go like this [makes an exaggerated high step], which must have looked completely nuts.

What was the basis of his unorthodox style of drumming?
Well, on his breaks, for instance, he wouldn’t go around the toms like someone normally would. He didn’t play from left to right or right to left, he played forwards. It’s hard to explain. He went from the snare to the toms a lot, and he’d always start his breaks with his left hand instead of his right, which was sort of strange. When you see him playing mad breaks, he’s not going around the kit, he’s going forward: His arms are moving forward from the snare to the toms. I’ve never seen anyone play like that before or since. Keith himself didn’t know exactly what he was doing. If we had two years off while Pete was writing he wouldn’t play drums at all. We’d come back to record and realize that Keith had forgotten how to play, so we’d have to go into rehearsals and jar his memory.

When did he begin using double bass drums?
Sure. I’d been playing with straight drummers all the time. In fact, before Keith helped to define my approach, part of my style came about by playing with [original Who drummer] Doug Sandom. He had a weak-sounding snare drum and couldn’t afford to buy another, so I used to slap the strings with my right hand to emphasize the snare on 2 and 4. Of course once Keith turned up all hell broke loose. I remember one of the first gigs we did together was a wedding! He set up his drums – it was a small set, Premier I think – and went around the entire kit with a nylon rope. Of course, we were curious. Anyway, at one point in the reception, the power went off, so we pointed to Keith to take a drum solo and then we realized why: He was hitting so hard the drums were spilling out and falling over [laughs]. Later on, one of the reasons we had to build up our amplification was because he was so loud. I mean, think about it – having to get big amps because the drummer is so loud, but the drummer isn’t even miked up! On most of the gigs we did with our double Marshall Stacks, he wasn’t even miked.

What track reminds you most of Keith?
I think the track that really epitomized Keith is “The Ox” (from The Who Sing My Generation), which is an instrumental. There’s a lot of really great drumming on Quadrophenia. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (from Who’s Next) is classic.

As Keith’s closest friend in the band, how would you describe his attitude towards his playing?
Well, he used to always look at other drummers who were more accomplished technically and say, “They’re good, but I don’t want to do that.” One sentence he said kind of sums up his attitude towards himself. He became outraged once because one of us had a go at his drumming ability after a frustrating recording session. He said, “Look I’m the best Keith Moon-type drummer in the world.” In other words, “This is me, this is the way I play.” And that says it all.