Thursday, February 2, 2017

John Wetton - RIP

Dammit all, we lost another one today.  John Wetton lost his battle with cancer today [1/31/17].

He wasn’t a household name, but if you were alive in 1982, you heard him on the radio a lot, whether you wanted to or not. John Wetton was the voice of Asia.  Heat of the Moment and Only Time Will Tell were both in heavy rotation in 1982.  Heat of the Moment was at #1 for six weeks [but I thought the b-side, Ride Easy, was a better song].  The album from whence it came [Asia] was at #1 for nine weeks.  Before he was in Asia, John Wetton was the singer/bassist for King Crimson, with whom he did three studio albums [Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red].  After King Crimson’s premature demise in 1974, John Wetton was a wandering minstrel.  He recorded several albums with Bryan Ferry, became a member of Uriah Heep [recording Return to Fantasy (1975) and High and Mighty (1976)].  After his time in Uriah Heep he founded UK with Eddie Jobson, with whom he did two albums [UK (1978) and Danger Money (1979)].  UK split because of the old musical cliché, “musical differences”.  But they really did have differences.  Jobson wanted to do longer instrumental pieces, and Wetton wanted shorter songs.  Wetton then joined Wishbone Ash for one album [Number the Brave (1981)], replacing founding member Martin Turner.  His stay in Wishbone Ash was a short one.

When I was a freshman in college, I heard that Carl Palmer [ELP], Steve Howe and Geoff Downes [Yes] had formed a band with a guy from King Crimson, of whom I’d never heard at the time.  That guy was John Wetton, and the band was Asia.  I thought “hmmm…Yes is prog, ELP is prog, King Crimson is prog, this ought to be interesting.”  I bought the album.  There were some really good songs on it [see my playlist].  If I never hear Heat of the Moment or Only Time Will Tell, I’m ok with that.  Good songs?  Yes.  Overplayed?  Definitely.  Despite the progressive rock pedigree of all the members, Asia was anything but progressive.  They’re albums had short, concise pop songs.  I also thought a band with Steve Howe would have more guitar playing.  The first album had a good balance between Steve Howe’s sounds and Geoff Downes’ sounds. 

They lost that balance on their second album, AlphaAlpha was ok, but not nearly as good as the debut.  My thought was they turned into a British version of Journey [songs about girls, romance, lots of keyboards, etc].  Apparently the record-buying public and their record label [Geffen] thought the same way, and Asia sacked Wetton.  Greg Lake took his place for the Asia in Asia thing on MTV [back when they actually played music on that channel], but that was just a stop-gap thing.  Wetton came back on the condition that Steve Howe would leave.  I wonder if he had the same musical differences with Steve Howe that he had with Eddie Jobson.    Howe left, and Asia brought in a guy from Krokus (?!?) named Mandy Meyer.  His guitar was more hard-rock than Steve Howe.  The one album with Meyer [Astra] tanked.  There were a few songs I liked [again, see my playlist], but the rest of the album was extremely ordinary.  The band folded due to lack of interest.  That all having been said, I like John Wetton’s voice. I thought [and still do] that he was the vocal equal of Greg Lake.  

But what about his music outside of Asia?  When King Crimson remastered their entire catalog I found that I liked the three studio albums he did with them [Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red] as much as the first two with Greg Lake [In the Court of the Crimson King and In the Wake of Poseidon].  His bass playing is loud, and it’s aggressive.  My favorite of the three albums is Red.  Said Wetton of the album:

“At the time we were recording, Robert Fripp said he wanted to take a backseat, because we wasn’t sure where this was going… Bill Bruford and myself knew exactly where it was going. We took the front seat on it, and pushed for that very up-front … in-your-face guitar [sound]. Yeah, definitely. We did that. You can hear it from the first track. This band is not f—ing about.  It was balls-to-the wall progressive rock. It was s–t-hard rock ‘n’ roll. It was heavy metal, really.”

The title song is a very angry-sounding instrumental, one that is exactly as Wetton described it.  It is the most emblematic of the album's overall direction.  Fallen Angel has beautiful acoustic guitar based sections for the verses, and thunderous chaos in the chorus – loud electric guitar, louder bass, and a cornet blasting away.  One More Red Nightmare is a classic, with funny lyrics about Wetton’s apparent fear of flying, and some excellent drumming from Bill Bruford.  Starless was a leftover from Starless and Bible Black, which Fripp and Bruford didn’t like then.  While most of Red was loud and in your face, Starless was the quiet Mellotron ending which would be at home on In the Court of the Crimson King.  Suffice to say, in my opinion if you’re going to own any King Crimson albums, get both In the Court of the Crimson King and Red.  They dovetail quite well.

Between his stints with Asia, John Wetton had a solo career.  There two albums from that period I can recommend – Battle Lines [1994] and Rock of Faith [2003].  They lean toward the ballad side of things, as do the three Icon albums he did with Geoff Downes [think “Asia without the guitars”].  He didn’t leave his prog roots behind him, though.  He managed to record a live album with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett called The Tokyo Tapes [to which I’m listening as I write this].  It has a mix of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Greg Lake-era King Crimson, Steve Hackett’s solo catalog, one Asia tune [guess which one], and one solo John Wetton tune.  In addition to John Wetton and Steve Hackett, Ian McDonald and Chester Thompson [the drummer, not the keyboard player].  There’s some very good stuff here, including a very interesting All Along the Watchtower.

The original Asia band reunited in 2006 and immediately started touring.  They released a live album, Fantasia Live In Tokyo, the following year.  It consists of songs from the first two Asia albums, but there’s a twist – the band does one song from each of the members’ prog past – Roundabout, In the Court of the Crimson King, Fanfare for the Common Man, and the very un-proggish Video Killed The Radio Star.  I wondered how Wetton would do on Roundabout since his voice isn’t high and squeaky like Jon Anderson’s.  Not only did Wetton nail the vocal, he crushed Chris Squire’s bassline.  Singing and playing bass simultaneously is hard enough, but to do so on Roundabout is quite impressive.  After the live album, they did three more studio albums [Phoenix, Omega, and XXX] before Steve Howe left at the end of 2012 to concentrate on Yes and his solo career.   John Wetton’s voice showed no signs of wear and tear.  He sounded as good as he did during the 1980s.  And these Asia albums addressed two complaints I’ve had about their albums dating back to Alpha [1983] – the songs got longer, and Steve Howe has a bigger role to play.  In fact, the first song from Phoenix [Never Again] has Steve Howe coming out the gate breathing fire, while John Wetton sings of having changed his ways since he was a nasty alcoholic.  The final song from the album [An Extraordinary Life] sees Wetton evaluating his life after he’d had triple bypass surgery prior to making Phoenix.  In the midst of recording these Asia albums, John Wetton managed to put out a solo album in 2011 [Raised In Captivity].  After Steve Howe left, Asia made one more album [Gravitas], this time with guitarist Sam Coulson.  The final song, eerily titled Till We Meet Again, was the last song they recorded.

John Wetton was supposed to participate in Asia’s North American tour with Journey [see?], but his health prevented him from doing so.  He had been in and out of the hospital over the past 2 years for cancer treatment, including a 2015 surgery and struggles with sepsis.  He said just three weeks ago:

"While I am naturally disappointed to miss the beginning of what I know will be an historic Asia tour, I am intending to return to the stage with Asia later in 2017 - dates soon to be announced. I know this decision will be in the best interests of my health and our fans in the long run."

John Wetton died in his sleep the morning of January 31st.  Yes bassist Billy Sherwood [who ironically has filled in for Chris Squire since Squire’s death] will replace Wetton for now.

His writing partner Geoff Downes wrote this about John Wetton:

Many of his personal life experiences were reflected in his lyrical contributions to the songs. His heart was always in the music. That was John, through and through. It was always about - the music.  His bass playing was revolutionary. His voice was from the gods. His compositions - out of this world. His sense of melody and harmony - unreal. He was literally a 'special one'.

Carl Palmer, who has had to do this too often in the past year, said this:

 “With the passing of my good friend and musical collaborator, John Wetton, the world loses yet another musical giant. John was a gentle person who created some of the most lasting melodies and lyrics in modern popular music. As a musician, he was both brave and innovative, with a voice that took the music of ASIA to the top of the charts around the world. His ability to triumph over alcohol abuse made him an inspiration to many who have also fought that battle. For those of us who knew him and worked with him, his valiant struggle against cancer was a further inspiration. I will miss his talent, his sense of humor and his infectious smile. May you ride easy, my old friend.”

Here’s a playlist of my favorite songs from John Wetton:

Fallen Angel [King Crimson – Red (1974)]
One More Red Nightmare [King Crimson – Red (1974)]
Starless [King Crimson – Red (1974)]
Let Me Go [Wetton/Downes – Icon (2005)] 
The Hanging Tree [Wetton/Downes – Rubicon (2006)]
Steffi's Ring [Raised In Captivity (2011)]
I Stand Alone [Wetton/Downes – Icon (2005)]
Battle Lines (Acoustic) [Battle Lines (1994)]
Mondrago/Rock Of Faith [Rock of Faith (2003)]
Goodbye Elsinore [Raised In Captivity (2011)]
We Stay Together [Raised In Captivity (2011)]
Whirlpool [Wetton/Downes – Rubicon (2006)]
I’ve Come To Take You Home [Rock of Faith (2003)]
Rendezvous 6:02 [UK - Danger Money (1979)]
Book of Saturday [King Crimson - Larks' Tongues in Aspic (1973)]
Lament [King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black (1973)]
The Night Watch [King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black (1973)]
The Great Deceiver [King Crimson - Starless and Bible Black (1973)]
Hold Me Now [Battle Lines (1994)]
Who Will Light A Candle [Rock of Faith (2003)]
Heart Of Darkness [Sinister – 2001]

Ride Easy [Asia – Single B-side (1982)]
Roundabout [Asia - Fantasia Live In Tokyo (2007)]
In the Court of the Crimson King [Asia - Fantasia Live In Tokyo (2007)]
Never Again [Asia – Phoenix (2008)]
An Extraordinary Life [Asia – Phoenix (2008)]
There Was a Time [Asia – Omega (2010)]
Through My Veins [Asia – Omega (2010)]
Holy War [Asia – Omega (2010)]
Light The Way [Asia – Omega (2010)]
Face on the Bridge [Asia – XXX (2012)]
Midnight Sun [Asia – Alpha (1983)]
Open Your Eyes [Asia – Alpha (1983)]
The Heat Goes On [Asia – Alpha (1983)]
Never in a Million Years [Asia – Alpha (1983)]
Sole Survivor [Asia – 1982]
One Step Closer [Asia – 1982]
Time Again [Asia – 1982]
Wildest Dreams [Asia – 1982]
Cutting It Fine [Asia – 1982]
Here Comes the Feeling [Asia – 1982]
Go [Asia – Astra (1985)]
Suspicion [Asia – Astra (1985)]
After the War [Asia – Astra (1985)]

If I haven’t said it before, I’ll say it now:  cancer sucks.

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