Cover Story: Johnny Can You Hear Me?!

The Ox holds down the bottom end for one of the summer's Rock & Roll nostalgia tours

Ryan Greis

John Entwistle

It's the same thing every summer. Pick up the season's concert schedule and you'd swear it was the 1970s again. Had someone told me in '76 that, 25 years later, I'd still be able to see Deep Purple — who are probably about as old now as the Andrew Sisters were then — I would have bet them a S.W.A.T. lunchbox full of bicentennial quarters that they were out of their heads.

But here it is, 2001, and not only are Deep Purple on tour, but so are longtime Rock offenders like Journey, Styx, The Doobie Brothers and that poontang crazy, gun-toting wank, Ted Nugent. Don't get me wrong. I'm no Alt-Rock snob. If they put together a summer tour featuring Wishbone Ash, Montrose and Spooky Tooth, I'd be down there puking in the front row with the rest of my mulleted brothers. I'm all for nostalgia, but it seems to me, for the most part, that the groups headlining these oldies tours are the ones who were the most insufferable when they were around the first time.

Probably no better or worse than most of the stuff hitting the sheds this summer, but a little more intriguing, is a tour called "A Walk Down Abbey Road: A tribute to The Beatles." Starring a cast of hoary FM rockers, "A Walk Down Abbey Road" features Todd Rundgren (who sucked like nobody's business when I saw him at the Electra nightclub here in town a few years ago), Ann Wilson from Heart, and, masterminding the whole thing, Alan Parsons, whom I've spoken of before in these pages, perhaps inaccurately, as a musician of incomparable genius.

Of course it's easy to poke fun at Alan "I-never-met-a-concept-album-I-didn't-like" Parsons, but he does have some real Beatles credentials. He was an engineer at Abbey Road when the Beatles recorded Abbey Road, and I bet you anything he still has Ringo's home phone number. But the real reason we're even telling you about this tour is because John "The Ox" Entwistle is on the bill.

For those of you who don't know Rock & Roll from Sheena Easton's hot little Scottish cupcake, Entwistle was the bassist for The Who, that group of second-wave British Invasion rockers who turned the musical world upside down with their smash hit "Squeeze Box" in 1975. When I heard that The Ox would be available to the press, because of the upcoming tour, I was determined to hitch my wagon to the old boy for an interview. As a longtime Who fan, I couldn't resist the opportunity.

For days I crowed to my harder-rocking office mates that CityBeat was getting an interview with The Ox. "He's deaf, you know," said one of my co-workers. I was sure he was talking about Pete Townshend, whose hearing has been an issue since Keith Moon detonated a slab of dynamite in his ear on the Smothers Brothers show in 1967. But then I heard the same thing from someone else. Of course, who wouldn't be a little hard of hearing after 30-plus years with one of the world's loudest bands?

So it came as no surprise when my interview with The Ox turned out to be a conference call with Entwistle and longtime John Entwistle Band drummer Steve Luongo. Basically, I would ask a question, and Luongo would repeat it to Entwistle, who would usually ask him to repeat it again and then reply in deep, hushed, almost inaudible English tones. It was very much like having a conversation with Boris the Spider.

As Luongo explains during our three-way chat, Entwistle's band (Entwistle, Luongo and guitarist Godfrey Townsend) will act as the rhythm section for the "Abbey Road" tour. As rehearsals do not begin until June, neither Entwistle or Luongo were sure of some of the tour's particulars, but they did know that they would open the show as the Entwistle Band and later be joined by the rest of the musicians for sets featuring Heart and Rundgren hits and, of course, a set of Beatles tunes.

When discussing the logistics of the tour, Entwistle seems vaguely disappointed to find out from Luongo that he will be playing the entire concert with all the different performers.

"Doesn't Ann Wilson play the bass?" he asks hopefully, which gets a big laugh from Luongo and myself. "When am I going to get a cigarette break?"

For their part of the set, the John Entwistle Band plans to play a few songs from Entwistle's solo records (their new album, Music From Van-Pires is out in June) and some Who material like "Boris" and "My Wife." Entwistle, of course, will also be singing some Beatles' tunes. When asked if there are any Beatles songs he is particularly keen on doing, Entwistle shows his deep admiration for Lennon and McCartney by picking an Isley Brothers cover.

"I always used to sing 'Twist and Shout' when The Who were like a cover band," Entwistle says. "We had to play pubs and covers and stuff. We learned the whole of The Beatles' first album because everybody wanted to hear all the songs off of it. So I used to sing 'Twist and Shout.' I used to sing it about four times a night."

Entwistle is, however, planning on playing an actual Beatles tune, "You Can't Do That" from A Hard Day's Night. It's a perfect choice for the bassist, whose raspy voice is, as he says, a little more like Lennon than McCartney.

One can't talk to John Entwistle without, of course, asking about The Who. A rumor has recently been circulating about a new studio album, and apparently there is something to it.

"We're very interested in doing another album," Entwistle says. "But as to where, how and who with, I'm not really sure. The Who are still an entity. I don't know whether a tour will happen or an album will happen, but we have plans to carry on."

Although The Who have taken a lot of criticism since their never-ending string of farewell tours in the 1980s, anyone who has seen them in recent years with drummer Zak Starkey can tell you that they are, once again, a phenomenally good live band. But The Who won't return, if they return at all, until next year. This summer, for Rock & Roll nostalgia, "The Ox does the Fab Four" is about as good as it gets.

A WALK DOWN ABBEY ROAD: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES hits Fraze Pavilion in Kettering on July 6.

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