I bought myself a bass guitar shortly after my 18th birthday, a Fender Precision copy with a sunburst finish and no manufacturer’s details. I was aware that there were hundreds of budding guitarists of my age, all with a head start over me, so I chose four strings instead of six, reasoning it would be easier to get into a band as a dedicated bassist. By this stage, with five years of listening to progressive rock under my belt, I’d also worked out what sort of bassist I’d like to be; I’d figured out there was a small cohort of what I called ‘classic English rock bassists’ who didn’t necessarily have the flash of their fusion counterparts but despite the different rock idioms in which they operated, had a distinct harmonic style which suited their particular genre. Chris Squire’s bass work stood out; Martin Turner’s playing was perfect for the twin guitar approach of Wishbone Ash, propelling them to the verge of prog; Paul McCartney may have been highly regarded for his song writing but his bass work was clever if somewhat understated; John Entwistle’s trebly style influenced Chris Squire; and there was the inventiveness of John Wetton.
I’d missed out on Wetton’s early career in Mogul Thrash and Family and my introduction to his playing was in 1974, hearing The Great Deceiver played on Alan Freeman’s Saturday radio show when Starless and Bible Black was released. A few months later a friend bought the outstanding Red (1974) and my brother Tony bought the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). As my appreciation for King Crimson increased, it became obvious that the bass and vocals of John Wetton were an integral part of the sound of the incarnation of King Crimson that convened in 1972, unbelievably forceful and inventive. It wasn’t until I found a copy of USA (1975) in the record store local to my hall of residence at the end of the decade that I began to understand the power of the group in a live setting; Asbury Park is probably my favourite Crimson improvisation. All this was without realising that the bulk of Starless and Bible Black and Providence from Red were live tracks but the Night Watch playback and CD in 1997 put everything into context, further clarified by the superb Great Deceiver box set where not only the alchemy of David Singleton but also the diary notes and reflections of Fripp, Cross and John Wetton allowed the awesome sound of the band in full tilt to be fully appreciated.
Following the demise of Crimson, I regarded Wetton’s move to Uriah Heep as a retrograde step, though his later move to Wishbone Ash for Number the Brave (1981) was of note, as I harboured a begrudging regard for Wishbone Ash. I didn’t buy the album but I thought that Wetton’s playing was suited to the early Wishbone Ash style; restricting his song writing was evidently too much for him to take. I’ve never really been interested in post-Siren Roxy Music but that touring arrangement and working with Bryan Ferry proved to be a key, if temporary measure in Wetton’s trajectory. The King Crimson-Roxy Music shared management made it easy to help out friends and Eddie Jobson’s reciprocation on USA where he provided violin and keyboard overdubs was instrumental in the formulation of Wetton’s next venture.
The seemingly unlikely collaboration between Wetton, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman could have been amazing but the collapse of that project resulted in the formation of supergroup UK. Their eponymous debut (1978) was a slick progressive album with leanings towards jazz rock and quite different from long-standing progressive acts and newer groups like England. The song writing was mature with a coherent sound, as though the individuals were all treated as equals and were all pulling in the same direction. That meant it came as something of a shock when Bruford and Holdsworth departed, the former being replaced by Jobson’s former Zappa colleague Terry Bozzio and the latter not being replaced at all.
I didn’t manage to get to see the original quartet but I did manage to see the pared-down Danger Money incarnation of the band at Imperial College, their only British appearance before shooting off on tour to support Jethro Tull. As good as this gig was, my enthusiasm was tempered by the feeling that the band was under-rehearsed. Danger Money (1979) was a stylistic nod to the earlier progressive era but the balance present on UK had gone, ushering in a radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus direction with shorter numbers like Caesar’s Palace Blues and Nothing to Lose, the latter released as a single. Despite the more commercial slant there are some classic prog moments, especially the Jobson organ work. The evocative Rendezvous 6:02, another understated song, is one of my favourite Wetton tracks and his vocals would be the best they’d get on this album.
Wetton’s Jack-Knife project resulted in I Wish You Would (1979), an album recorded in Munich over 10 days. This was a reunion with Richard Palmer-James and covered material that the two played together in Tetrad. More a demonstration of his remarkable versatility, it included Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Eyesight to the Blind and a self-penned song called Mustang Momma - hardly challenging for the players or listeners. Presented in an awful cover, my copy cost 99p and I subsequently gave it away to a charity shop. I have kept Wetton’s first solo album, Caught in the Crossfire (1980) where, despite a guest appearance by Martin Barre, the content is well removed from progressive rock and the track When Will You Realize? has apparently been cited by Eddie Jobson as the song most responsible for the demise of UK.
The formation of Asia where Wetton was united with other former prog luminaries promised so much, but I was disappointed with the end product. I wasn’t aware that he was making a deliberate departure from the music of the members’ past and eschewing long instrumentals in favour of short songs, an approach that runs counter to my love of long-form. I dutifully bought the first three albums when they came out, Asia (1982), Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985) and even bought the compilation on CD Then and Now in 1990. I was pleased that the venture was successful though I was confused and concerned over the band politics, perturbed by Steve Howe’s ejection from the band after Alpha and puzzled by Wetton’s departure, to be replaced, briefly and ironically, by Greg Lake.
Towards the end of the 90s I went to see John Wetton with his band on a handful occasions, at the Astoria in Charing Cross Road, in Croydon and in Bromley. I didn’t really know what to expect but I thought his re-emergence, with progressive rock no longer a dirty word, was something to celebrate. I was able to track his progress over a couple of years from the quality of playing of the music that made up set list, a mixture of Crimson, UK, Asia and solo songs, watching the evolution of the band. I wasn’t a fan of guitarist Billy Liesgang though drummer Tom Lang was good. Their eventual replacements Dave Kilminster and former Jadis drummer Steve Christey were much better; Martin Orford was a constant and consistent presence on keyboards.
The Night Watch playback at London’s Hotel Intercontinental in September 1997 was a major highlight, when Wetton appeared alongside other members of the 72-74 King Crimson and he performed a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday and signed copies of the double CD at the end of the event. Unfortunately, mine was stolen from the boot of a taxi in Miami in 2003.
In 1998 I began subscribing to ARkANGEL, the official John Wetton ‘infomagazine’, a labour of love put together with an of-its-time word processing package by Gary Carter and it was through this fanzine that I discovered a host of Wetton solo material, adding Battle Lines (1994), Chasing the Deer (1998), Arkangel (1998), Hazy Monet (1998), Live at the Sun Plaza Tokyo 1999 (2000) and Sinister (2001) CDs to the copy of Akustika I’d bought from the merchandise stand at an Astoria gig. The vast majority of this is well-produced AOR but there are some stand-out tracks like The Circle of St Giles and E-Scape and I enjoy all of Chasing the Deer. I also invested in a copy of the authorised Wetton biography, My Own Time by Kim Dancha, which is a bit short on detail and concludes in 1997.
Qango were a short-lived band that attempted to recreate the highs of prog. Alongside Wetton on bass and vocals were Carl Palmer on drums, John Young on keyboards and Dave Kilminster on guitar. I saw them play at the Ashcroft Theatre in Croydon, using material from Asia and ELP, plus Wetton favourite All Along the Watchtower. They released the CD Live in the Hood, (2000) but sadly, plans for a studio album were abandoned.
I managed to catch a re-formed UK at Under the Bridge in May 2012, a great venue with the right level of intimacy, somehow just right for the return of a premier-league prog act. The performance included more than just material from the two studio albums, notably Starless, Jobson’s favourite King Crimson song. Wetton and Jobson were joined on stage Alex Machacek who beautifully recreated the Holdsworth guitar licks and Gary Husband was an inspired choice to fill in on drums. It seemed to me that Wetton’s voice was a little strained at times but these moments were neatly covered with some effective echo; he managed to keep in tune throughout and hit the higher notes. I’m delighted I got to see the show.
John Wetton was one of the reasons I picked up the bass guitar. I followed his career from true prog great (the King Crimson improvisations) to polished AOR and though it’s his time with Crimson and UK that remain a highlight for me, all his work, the collaborations and the ‘solo’ material are all very much respected. Wetton’s death is another huge loss to the prog world.
John Wetton b. 12th June 1949 d. January 31st 2017