Authored by Dale Nickey:
As if 2016 wasn’t enough….
Time marches on and the parade to heaven has turned into a stampede. Progressive Rock giant John Wetton has passed at the age of 67 from cancer.
I saw John Wetton live before I even knew who he was. The year was 1973. A buddy had a spare ticket to a King Crimson show supporting their (then) new album “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic”. I was familiar with Progressive units like ELP, Yes and Genisis. All I knew of King Crimson was that ex-yesser Bill Bruford was now in the band and that Greg Lake used to front the outfit.
The venue was the Long Beach Auditorium. Now long since demolished, even at the time it had an ancient, musty ambiance not unlike a manure werehouse. However, in this case, the smell was decidedly herbal in nature and enveloped the entire audience in a dense fog. Even a non-smoker (at the time) like me couldn’t ignore the psychotropic effect of breathing common air fouled by two thousand androgynous, longhaired stoners.
Guitarist Robert Fripp was the featured player, but it was Wetton and Bruford who stole the show. Bruford played around, under and over the pulse of the music while Wetton matched him step for step. The snap, crackle and thunder of Wetton’s bass underpining his smooth, masculine lead vocals. The crowd was out of its mind and hung on every note played. It was a true testament to Wetton’s talent that he could step in for the likes of Greg Lake and take the band to new levels of popularity in his place.
Wetton then joined the ranks of Roxy Music and (with new recruit Eddie Jobson) helped catapult the band into the elite league as a live act. Listen to the band’s live album “Viva’ Roxy Music”. Three bass players are featured on the album. However, Wetton’s tracks slam with an epic energy that the band has yet to recapture.
After a brief fling with Uriah Heap, Wetton pilfered Jobson from Roxy and formed U.K.; a band that not only introduced the world to guitarist Alan Holdsworth, but set the template for what would eventually become Prog-Pop super group Asia.
After U.K. folded, Wetton took in Yes refugees Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes and formed the archetypal super group Asia. Drummer Carl Palmer rounded out the line-up. Surprisingly, they pivoted away from lengthy, segmented compositions and turned in a Pop-Rock masterpiece with their debut (1982) album “Alpha”. Wetton was the main writer (with Downes) and his vocals were resplendent. “Alpha” shot to number one in America and multiplatinum status. Predictably, egos clashed and the group disintigrated at the speed of light. No matter, Wetton could finally boast his first worldwide chart topper.
After that, Wetton kept productive with solo albums, side projects and session work. You’ll find his name on a slew of legendary albums with Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Peter Banks and Steve Hackett. He would leave Asia to be replaced temporarily by Greg Lake (oh the irony), only to return in the early part of the century and tour the world again with the original Asia lineup.
I would see him again some 30 years after the King Crimson gig. It was at a club called The Canyon Club in Agoura. They played their first album in it’s entirety. They seemed far too big for the room. Wetton (of course) shook the room to its foundation. The staff at the club said they had never seen a crowed that large at the venue. We were packed like sardines, but I feel lucky and honored that was my last view of the man; commanding, virtuosic and playing his own music to an adoring throng.
Somehow Wetton has remained in the dark unvisited corner of the Rock pantheon when it comes to celebrity. Many lesser talents clog the celebrity pages and magazine covers. Wetton was a musician first and a star second and third. However, he was indeed a star. His legacy will only accrue more depth and resonance as the years pass. RIP John Wetton.
Another touchstone of my youth taken far too soon.