John Wetton: Making The Most Of Now

By Ryan Sparks
Photos by Michael Inns

Progressive rock icon John Wetton has had one of the most storied careers in the music business. The extensive list of musicians he has recorded and shared the stage with over the past forty plus years is truly impressive and reads like a who's who of prog rock royalty.

The British born bassist / vocalist cut his teeth early on with outfits Mogul Thrash and Family before eventually being recruited by guitarist Robert Fripp for a reconstructed version of King Crimson in 1972. Along with drummer Bill Bruford and violinist David Cross, this revamped and highly acclaimed lineup blazed their way through countless tours and three full length albums in only two years before disbanding in the summer of '74. Over the next couple of years Wetton would adopt the sideman role, first by touring with fellow Brit's Roxy Music and then stepping in for the late Gary Thain in Uriah Heep.

In 1977 John was reunited with his old Crimson band mate Bruford in the progressive rock super-group U.K. which also featured violinist / keyboardist Eddie Jobson and guitar wizard Allan Holdsworth. On paper the lineup certainly looked promising, however the lines were divided early on with Wetton and Jobson on one side and Bruford and Holdsworth on the other. After issuing a stellar debut self titled album in 1978 the band splintered at the conclusion of their touring cycle later that year and both Bruford and Holdsworth were dismissed. Wetton and Jobson continued on as a trio with drummer Terry Bozzio, issuing two more albums, Danger Money and the live album Night After Night before calling it quits for good in early 1980.

It was with another super-group Asia in 1982, that would allow John to live out his wildest dreams and finally reach the summit of commercial success as their debut album eventually went on to sell well over four million records. Over the ensuing years the bands history would become increasingly more complicated due to a myriad of personal changes, however the bands core original lineup of Wetton, guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Carl Palmer and keyboardist Geoff Downes remains intact and there are plans for a new album and 30th Anniversary tour later this year. This spring also marks the highly anticipated return of the Jobson / Wetton / Bozzio lineup of U.K. who are touring again after a thirty year layoff!

I recently caught up with John to get the lowdown on how the reunion came about, as well as to get his thoughts on his time in King Crimson and the upcoming tour with Asia.

Ryan: 2012 is shaping up to be another busy year for you, but I'm sure what most fans are talking about is the buzz surrounding these highly anticipated U.K. reunion shows. I know you've made some appearances with Eddie's UK-Z project in the past...

John: Actually by the time we've gotten to the gig it's usually been billed as U.K. If he and I are on the same stage the local promoter usually manages to bill it as U.K. But it hasn't been a kosher U.K. because we haven't had Terry or Bill with us, so I'm really looking forward to working with Terry again. I haven't spoken to the guy for thirty odd years, but I got an e-mail from him last week and he said he's really looking forward to this on a personal, as well as a professional level and I feel exactly the same way. I think it's going to be really good.

Ryan: So how then did the reunion of the Jobson / Wetton / Bozzio lineup all come together?

John: Originally I said that I would like to do it, but that I would like Allan Holdsworth to be involved. I spoke to him a couple of times, he lives in California now, and he said that he was interested in working, but then he didn't return my calls, so I kind of thought that maybe he wasn't interested or that maybe it was the wrong time for him or whatever. Maybe there's something that I don't know, but that didn't happen. So really the only way that we could make it kosher would be if we could get Terry to do it, otherwise it would still be going 'round as UK-Z. It adds a bit more spice to it with the three guys from the second movement of the band.

U.K. was definitely two different animals. It was the four piece with guitar and then it was the three piece power trio. So what you're going to get is the three piece power trio, except in Europe where they'll get the four piece with guitar, but for North America and Japan it will just be the three piece. I think everyone is going to be happy.

Ryan: When I had a chance to speak with Eddie a couple of years back he mentioned then that UK-Z could have a fluctuating lineup and that each tour would be different and I guess this reunion is sort of an extension of that idea. As you just mentioned at the end of May the lineup will change a bit before Terry returns for some sold out dates in Japan in June.

John: That's right and that's because Terry was unavailable for the European dates and we had to get them booked by a certain time. I must stress that I'm not driving the bus on this one. This is Eddie's baby, and always has been, but I'm fully supportive and I stick my two cents in where it's not required, so I feel involved enough that I can contribute. Really though it's Eddie's baby, he's done all the hard work. Obviously my first love is Asia and that's what I'll be going back to later in the year because we have a 30th anniversary tour and album etc... so it's going to be a good year for me. There's a lot of stuff going on. I've mainly got my feet in the two camps, which is ok because they're quite compatible and it's nothing I can't handle. It seems like everyone else is doing the same thing in that band. Geoff and Steve are out with Yes at the moment and Carl is out on his own with his trio, but for me to be able to do this is perfect timing.

Ryan: How much time have you had to rehearse and what can fans expect to hear on this tour? Has there been any talk of any new material?

John: The answers to those questions are we've had no time to rehearse and we'll play everything [laughing]. I don't think there will be any new material because it's not that kind of a band, yet, even if it was going to be. But we will be playing everything from both albums. There could possibly be a couple of other tunes thrown in, but it will be mainly what you'd expect.

Ryan: So have you started rehearsals?

John: We will have rehearsals in Chicago, but it will only be for a couple of days. We should know this stuff, it's pretty much etched in stone or cast in steel or however you want to say it. The tunes are the tunes and Eddie and I have played them fairly recently, so if we all do our homework we should be fine.

The night before we start recording in Chicago I'll be doing a guest appearance with District 97. I don't know if you've heard of them.

Ryan: I have.

John: I'll be doing a guest appearance with them. I also sang a song with them called "Perfect Young Man on their new album. The song is called "Perfect Young Man" but I'm an absolute bounder. Typically they've chosen a Brit to play the villain, so I'm the typecast British villain on this piece, where I appear to be the ideal suitor for young Leslie (Hunt), but in fact I turn out to be a complete charlatan [laughing]. So I'm doing a guest appearance with them the night before and then we'll start rehearsing with U.K. for the first show which is on the 1st of May.

The tour will take us through the end of June and then I'll have a little bit of time to take my son, who's fourteen now, on vacation for a week or two. The as soon as I get back I'll start touring with Asia and that will go right through until Dec22nd.

Ryan: That's the rest of your year right there.

John: Yeah, just a couple of days before Christmas.

Ryan: Over the years there has been talk of getting UK back together and in the mid 90's both you and Eddie were actually working on a new album. What happened with that project and is there any chance that material from those sessions could surface in the future or perhaps be worked into the live set at some point?

John: No it won't be worked into the live show, just because there's too much on our plate at the moment. We are geographically pretty well spread out as Eddie is in Los Angeles, I live in the U.K and I believe Terry is in Nashville. If we all lived in the same city then maybe it might have been easier. The whole thing in the 90's just got shelved, it just fell apart. The deal fell apart and Eddie and myself fell out, but there are some really good tunes in there. I actually brought the subject up with Eddie not that long ago and we just decided to put it on the backburner and see how these gigs go. We may be able to resurrect that ghost, because there are some good tunes. If it's good enough it will come out, but these days everything comes out. But I haven't given up on it.

Ryan: So on this tour it's really just a chance to go out and really celebrate the music of the band and just have fun with it.

John: Yeah, we did three shows in the US last year and three in Japan. The reaction in New York was really just unbelievable. Right from the moment that we walked on until the last note, the audience was just on it. It's what really gave us the impetus and the confidence to come back and do a fully fledged tour. I know that Eddie has put a lot of effort into this as he's kind of booking it and managing it all himself. I take my hat off to him because I can't do that. I have to have a manager and a tour manager and people to help me. As long as I'm able to stay vertical for the two hours that I'm onstage and do a really good show then I'm ok, but I gave up trying to do the manager stuff years ago. It's just impossible.

One of the great roles that the manager has is to be the glue that holds the band together. He's supposed to be on your side and right now with Asia we have that. We have a really great guy in Martin (Darvill) and he's right on the money as far as that's concerned. When there's trouble he jumps on it and when there isn't he's very encouraging and makes all the right noises. If a band is managing itself it can lead to catastrophic clashes. Just like a producer in the studio, the manager has to be a referee and help keep the peace.

Ryan: I want to go back in time a little bit to when UK was put together. At that time you were coming off stints playing in Roxy Music and Uriah Heep. Were you looking to form a band that could go in a more commercial direction musically at the time?

John: No, because what we did was exactly what was planned at that time. When King Crimson folded in 1974 I just jumped into the Roxy Music gig. It wasn't planned to be a musical step for me because all of the tunes were already written and everything was pretty much planned out, and it wasn't my band. It had nothing to do with me. When Crimson ended I was just really friendly with the guys. They were always in the office and we got on really well because we were in the same stable (EG Management) so to speak. One night all of the guys from Roxy and myself were sitting in the pub across from the office and they were talking about an upcoming tour and that they didn't have a bass player. They asked me to come down and help audition the guys. They wanted me there to tell them who I thought were really good, but when it got the end of the audition I told them that none of them were very good. So they asked me if I'd do it. That was at the height of their popularity and it was great fun. It was fabulous and I loved the guys. It was a very easy situation for me to slip into and it would have been very easy for me to stay there.

All the time I was on the road with Roxy Music guys would keep coming up to me and asking me "Why did Crimson end, what happened?" While I was doing that Bill Bruford was out on the road with Genesis and he was getting the same questions. One thing lead to another and Bill and myself always felt that there was some unfinished business and that Crimson had ended too quickly. We felt that there was a lot more life left there, especially the two of us as an entity with the Bruford / Wetton axis, we felt we had more to say. It all came to a head when I was in Australia with Roxy and a guy came up to me and asked me when I was going to work with Bill again and I told him "Like now!" [laughing] I went back to the hotel and I wrote to him and told him that I was getting this all the time and why don't we do something together? He was getting the same thing so he said "Yeah let's do it". We brought the guys that we wanted to into the band. I brought Eddie from Roxy Music and he brought Allan Holdsworth, who he had been working with for about a year when he wasn't out on the road with Genesis. The whole thing worked really well and I actually thought it was going to be more commercially viable than it was. But you have to remember that at that time, in '77 and '78, New Wave had been and gone and people were sort of readjusting. U.K. was actually pretty successful as it was. If we had kept it going I think it would have grown into a fairly respectable cult band by now. But again there were personal differences. I knew exactly what I wanted to do by the end of the U.K. which was I went off and made a solo album called Caught In The Crossfire, which was really a template for Asia.

I actually took U.K. to John Kalodner who was at Atlantic Records then and he looked at me and he said "You're really close John. You're really close, but it's not the cigar." After U.K. when I did Caught In The Crossfire he said "Yeah this is it, all you need now is a band". The musical direction was kind of set. So I started working with Steve Howe and then the next person to come onboard was Carl Palmer. We auditioned loads and loads of keyboard players before deciding on Geoff Downes. As soon as Geoff came into the band we had the four of us and we weren't going any further. But the template for Asia was really made with Caught In The Crossfire, which was kind of a rebound after the breakup of U.K.

Ryan: On the last U.K. album Danger Money, the music definitely seemed to be moving in a more commercial direction.

John: Yeah it was going that way. Eddie wanted to be really successful, but wanted to do it on his own terms and sometimes that didn't include doing it on my terms, so there was always going to be that clash there. The same thing applied in King Crimson. I was the guy who supplied the four minute song, which would then become an eleven minute epic. So what we did in Asia was chop out the other seven minutes and keep the four minutes. I got to do with Asia exactly what I'd always wanted to do, just once. But that was always the stumbling block in both King Crimson and U.K. I'm naturally inclined to write three or four minute songs, that's what I do. If you wanted to compare it to classical musicians, I write the aria. Then it's up to the others what they do with it. In King Crimson that would get expanded to anywhere from seven to ten to eleven minutes. The same thing applied in U.K. really, except that on the second album we kept a couple of tracks down to four minutes. I felt I had to do that because that's the natural way that I write, in kind of these four minute bites.

Ryan: The original band as you mentioned did seem in some ways like an extension of what you were doing in Crimson because it was a mix of progressive rock and jazz fusion. When UK ended did you have any regrets about stopping? When King Crimson ended there had to be a feeling amongst yourself and Bill Bruford that the band was on the cusp of greatness and that it had ended too soon.

John: Yeah the last show we did with Crimson was in Central Park in New York City and it was unbelievable. The electricity and the vibe in the air that night was incredible. One day I was in a store in Los Angeles and I put my credit card on the counter and the guy noticed my name and he said "I was there that night!" It took him right back to July 1st, 1974. People who were there that night were absolutely transfixed by it. They wanted more of it and that was the feeling that I had as well. When it ended both Bill and myself felt that it had ended far too soon, so we had planned to get back together at some point to do something that was in the vein of King Crimson, but of course you can never recreate that. It ended up being something different. The first U.K. album had jazz elements and fusion as you rightly said. The mainstream track from that album, "In The Dead Of Night" was pretty rocking. It was right in the pocket I thought. It was very accessible, but it wasn't straight 4/4, it was 7/4 in places which appealed to a lot of people.

By the end of U.K. the personality differences were irreconcilable. It's funny because there's a really strong bond between Eddie and myself, but as with anything that is that intense, things can go either way. It can be quite volatile and can turn from quite a good understanding into something heated very quickly, or at least it did back in those days. Also back in those days we were both pretty much immovable objects, but hopefully everybody has mellowed out a bit since then because I know I certainly have. I've learned quite a few life lessons in the last decade. My life is too short to be spent arguing and always wanting my way. I could go to my grave singing Frank Sinatra [laughing], but I don't want to do that these days.

Ryan: Looking back on two of the most powerful bands from that era that you were a part of, they both kind of imploded. Especially with King Crimson, take me back to what it was like to perform this incredibly powerful music onstage amidst dealing with inflated egos and whatever else was surrounding the band at the time. Because one thing that I love about that era of KC was that the band wasn't afraid of walking a tightrope on stage when it came to improvising. One had the feeling that the band could either take things to another level or that it could crash and burn at any moment. Was it really like that?

John: Yes, but we did have certain parachutes in place to prevent the crash 'n burn. We had one golden rule that was essential and that was that if one person would start something then the rest would follow. We wouldn't take anything away from the person who started it, we would follow them and provide support. That was absolutely brilliant because it always sounded like we knew what we were doing.

Ryan: There was that trust amongst the musicians.

John: Absolutely. So it all sounded like it was formal playing, but most of the time it was improvised. Then on a certain signal from anyone it could go straight into a formal piece. When it was going completely over the top and about to crash 'n burn, we'd pull the ripcord and go into a formal piece. This was not only a relief for us onstage, but also for the audience as well who were probably just about to commit hari-kari [laughing]. Sometimes they'd be visibly relieved when we'd go into a formal song. It did tread a very fine line that could go either way at any minute, but that's what I thought the beauty of the beast was. I've since witnessed a few Crimson shows and I don't want to be critical, but where we could be tantalisingly irritating to an audience, we would then give them the sweetener or the sugar coated bit, which would then make it all right. With later day Crimson that didn't happen. You just got the pill, there was no sweetener afterwards. Like I said I don't want to be critical, but I found that to be a little abrasive, but with our version of Crimson I thought we had a really good balance. You could take the audience just so far, to the point where they're about to go completely mental and then reel them in and give them what they wanted, so everybody would be happy.

Ryan: It's like what you said about U.K. in that it was two different bands and two different animals.

John: Well with Crimson, that was a band that was born to improvise and we loved it. When I look back on what I played and when I hear some of the live recordings, I have no idea how I did some of that stuff. I have no inclination or the ability to do that now. Back in those days I would do some things with my left hand that kind of astonishes me now. I place much more emphasis on my voice than I do on the bass now, mainly because I have carpal tunnel in my right hand which is very disabling. I can't play the kind of stuff that I could back when I was in my mid twenties. I had an operation on it, but it just gets worse. I'm lucky that I can actually still play, but I just have to simplify stuff.

Ryan: In King Crimson you were really given the opportunity to not only shine as a player but also as a vocalist as well. I have to be honest when I say that some of my favorite John Wetton performances of all time are on those King Crimson albums.

John: Oh, there you go. Thank you.

Ryan: You brought your old friend, lyricist Richard Palmer James into the fold as well. One of my favorite tracks from that era is "The Night Watch".

John: Oh yeah, that was beautiful.

Ryan: Tell me about the challenges you faced recording that track.

John: We couldn't do that one in the studio. We tried and tried but it just didn't happen. So we took the introduction from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam where it was perfect. It might have been a little scratchy here and there, but the atmosphere was bang on. When the edit goes into the formal tune with the guitar harmonics, I thought that was very, very cool to go from a live recording into a studio recording, which was typical of Crimson in those days. Rather than most bands who would be adding applause to studio tracks to make them sound live, we were subtracting the applause from live tracks to make them sound like they were done in the studio. We did lot's of that, where we would use a live recording and just remove every speck of applause. So it wasn't unusual for us to do that. When we couldn't recreate the opening passage we just took it from the Amsterdam show. It's a beautiful lyric and I take my hat off to Richard because he does that so well.

Ryan: It was quite a bit of a mouthful for you to deliver as well.

John: Absolutely [laughing]. I used to do it as part of my solo shows and it always went over really well because people absolutely love that track. I managed to find a Night Watch fridge magnet in Amsterdam one day and I sent it to Richard as a reminder of our time during the making of that album.

Ryan: The rather sordid alternate lyrics for "Easy Money" are great. Tell about how those came about and I guess it's fairly obvious why those weren't included on the original recording.

John: Yes [laughing]. Nowadays those are so non-pc it's ridiculous. The song always limped towards the lewd and lascivious and sometimes it would go a little bit further each night. There would be the temptation to go even further down the greasy pole of depravity [laughs]. Robert would spice it up by playing some unbelievably, naughty sounding guitar parts. There was an enormous amount of humour in Crimson which I enjoyed very much. It wasn't all serious or doom and gloom, or people sort of drinking real ale into their beards. It was a lot of fun and that came through in the music too. That fun included Richard-Palmer James, he was always putting in lines that were sort of risqué. I think that's part of our grammar school education, that we have to introduce Benny Hill into even the most serious occasion.

Ryan: Were you ready for the commercial success that came in the wake of that debut Asia album or did it catch you kind of by surprise?

John: Yes it did. Without the single "Heat Of The Moment", which was the last thing we recorded, and wasn't going to end up on the album, you probably could have taken two zeros off the total record sales. In fact what "Heat Of The Moment" did, and when you put that together with MTV, which had just started, the impact of that single and the video with the four of us clearly enjoying ourselves, we were a boy band with serious connotations. It took everyone by surprise and nobody was prepared for how successful it was going to be, including the record company. Nobody had any idea. I remember seeing the president of the record company in Los Angeles and he said "The logo is ineligible, the sleeve is very dark and frankly we don't hear a single". I thought "Oh ok". Then the next week it jumped into the charts around number 28 I think and the week after that it was up to number 10, then 5 then 3, 2 and 1. Then it stayed at number 1, so that guy had egg all over his face. They weren't prepared for it at all. It was incredible all that summer and it was still in the charts a year later. We could have dined out on that record for the next 5 years, but no we went straight back into the studio and that's pretty much what broke the band up.

Ryan: You've talked openly about it in the past that you were going through some personal issues at that time as well.

John: Yeah I'm a dyed- in- the- wool alcoholic, but I don't drink these days. All I can tell you is that people would say "Oh it was the pressure", but no it wasn't, it was just the course of that particular illness. It's gets worse no matter what happens. If it's a lovely day, it gets worse, if it's a bad day, it gets worse. Yes I was in a shocking state. I'd like to say that I wasn't the only one, but the responsibility ultimately lay with me so I have to take that responsibility. If I had been the rest of the band I'd have gotten rid of me too.

Ryan: What was it like to watch the band performing on television and seeing Greg Lake up there replacing you?

John: I saw it the night that they did it. Greg is great and he's a friend of mine, but they're not his tunes. It would be the same if I went out and tried to sing ELP songs. I could do it, but it just wouldn't ring true and it wouldn't feel right for me, just as I don't think it felt right for him. When a band writes its own stuff and the guy who writes most of it also sings it, then when you take that element out of the band you've lost an awful lot.

Ryan: You've gone through some serious health issues over the past decade and these must have been the biggest challenges you've faced in your life.

John: The heart surgery made the divorce seem like a day at the beach. It was brutal. But I'm very, very grateful for the team that did it. It's been five years now since the surgery, so touch wood but everything seems to be ok.

Ryan: Something like that must really alter your outlook on life.

John: Yeah, very much so. I have a pretty good ethic of taking things one day at a time and I try to keep everything within one day. I don't look forward too much and I don't dig into the past too much. For me it is very much down to what can I make out of today and how good can I make the day.

The night before the surgery the heart surgeon came around and he asked me if I had any questions and I said "Am I going to die?" and he said "You might, but I doubt it because I'm really good at what I do". I said "Ok" and he said "You're taking that very well" and I said "Do I have a choice?" and he said "No" [laughing]. So I accept the fact that I might not be here tomorrow, but having said that, having come through it you feel great. It gave me a completely new outlook on life, that it could all end tonight while I'm asleep, so let's make the most of today. Let's make the most of now! Â@