Voice of UK; Voice of America
By ProgBlog, May 5 2015 09:36PM
The bass playing and vocals of John Wetton were an integral part of the sound of the incarnation of King Crimson that convened in 1972. I first became aware of Wetton in 1974 listening to The Great Deceiver which was played by Alan Freeman when Starless and Bible Black was released and this was reinforced a few months later when Guy Wimble, one of the Infield Park Gang (IPG), bought the outstanding Red (1974) and brother Tony bought the ground-breaking Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973). I managed to find a copy of the powerful but elusive USA (1975) when I moved down to London as a student from the local record store near my hall of residence, Elpees in Bexley.
His move to Uriah Heep after the break-up of Crimson didn’t make us rush out and buy Return to Fantasy (1975) or High and Mighty (1976) even though Wimble owned copies of The Magician’s Birthday and Demons and Wizards but his later move to Wishbone Ash for Number the Brave (1981) did rouse some interest, enough to look at the record sleeve in the shops, anyway. I’d have thought that Wetton’s bass style was suited to the early Wishbone Ash style; I’d class Martin Turner alongside Wetton in terms of sound and technique but when I first went to see Wishbone Ash in 1979 at Keele University, they were plying mindless boogie, despite having produced No Smoke Without Fire the previous year, an album many considered to be a return to form because of its leaning towards prog with the two-part Way of the World, a track that strongly reminds me of The Pilgrim from 1971’s Pilgrimage. Never truly prog, the Ash did have a rather annoying habit of following good albums with poor efforts. I was never really interested in post-Siren Roxy Music.
I didn’t manage to get to see the original quartet version of UK but I did manage to see the pared-down Danger Money incarnation of the band for their only UK appearance before shooting off on tour to support Jethro Tull. My enthusiasm for this gig was tempered by the feeling that the band was under-rehearsed. A mix-up with dates meant that I didn’t get to see the last ever UK gig on UK soil but I did see them at the same venue, Under the Bridge, in May 2012. The eponymous debut album was brilliant, arriving just in time to show that progressive rock had a future but the departure of Bruford and Holdsworth changed the balance of the band and though the trio were eminently able to cope with complexity, they chose to head in a radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus direction. Despite this, there are some classic prog moments on Danger Money, especially the Jobson organ work which seems to have inspired Adam Holzman; the evocative Rendezvous 6:02, though understated, is one of my favourite Wetton tracks and his vocals would be the best they’d get on this album.
When you think of Wetton’s contribution to Jack-Knife’s I Wish You Would (1979) it’s possible to imagine him playing that kind of material because of his remarkable versatility but it was hardly challenging for the players or listeners and that was the reason I gave it away to a charity shop after buying a copy I came upon by chance in a small, obscure record shop in Tooting in the early 80s. I didn’t really know what to expect before I bought it, with cover versions of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little Schoolgirl and Eyesight to the Blind and a self-penned song called Mustang Momma yet somehow I was seduced by the inclusion of Richard Palmer-James in the line-up when the dreadful cover artwork should have been enough of a clue. Perhaps I was just being completist because I’d acquired the Jack-Knife album after finding Wetton’s first solo album, Caught in the Crossfire (1980) in a sale in WH Smith in Streatham. Despite a guest appearance by Martin Barre, Crossfire was quite removed from progressive rock; the track When Will You Realize? which is included here was apparently cited by Eddie Jobson as the song most responsible for the demise of UK. It’s slightly surprising that I never got rid of that, too.
I was originally looking forward to the first Asia album; Wetton was back with prog luminaries and the result could only be positive. I wasn’t aware that he was deliberately choosing to depart from the band members’ pasts and eschew long instrumentals in favour of short songs, an approach that I wasn’t going to enjoy. I dutifully bought the first three albums when they came out, Asia (1982), Alpha (1983) and Astra (1985), divesting the latter when I came across the part-compilation on CD Then and Now in 1990, disgruntled that Steve Howe appeared to have been ejected from the band after Alpha. Though I could have gone to see the reformed Asia at the High Voltage festival in 2010, I decided against it, preferring to spend my cash going to witness a reformed ELP who were headlining the next day.
Towards the end of the 90s I went to see John Wetton with his band on three occasions. The first was at the Astoria that used to stand in Charing Cross Road, in November 1996, where I didn’t really know what to expect. The material was a mixture of Crimson, UK, Asia and solo songs and I was impressed enough to buy Akustika – Live in Amerika (1996) from the merchandise stand. The support band turned out to be David Cross who was promoting his about-to-be-released Exiles (1997) which turned out to be uncompromising prog. Five months later I saw Wetton at Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre and in September 1997 I saw him along with other members of the 72-74 King Crimson for the Night Watch playback at London’s Hotel Intercontinental where he performed a solo acoustic version of Book of Saturday. In November 1998 I saw him play in a room at the Pavilion, Bromley. His band evolved over these performances and I used Starless as a measure of their competence; guitarist Billy Liesgang wasn’t too impressive though drummer Tom Lang was good and these two were eventually replaced by Dave Kilminster and Steve Christey (ex-Jadis) respectively. Martin Orford was a constant and consistent presence on keyboards.
In 1998 I began subscribing to ARkANGEL, the official John Wetton ‘infomagazine’, a labour of love put together with a cheap word processing package by Gary Carter who doubled-up as merchandise stallholder; I submitted a review or an op-ed but it didn’t get printed even though it seemed like Carter was forever haranguing the readership for material. This still exists in email format and a link can be found on the official website http://johnwetton.com
It was through ARkANGEL that I discovered a host of Wetton solo material and added Battle Lines (1994), Chasing the Deer (1998), Arkangel (1998), Hazy Monet (1998), Live at the Sun Plaza Tokyo 1999 (2000) and Sinister (2001). 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. To complete my collection I invested in a copy of the authorised Wetton biography, My Own Time by Kim Dancha, which 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 a live album (Live in the Hood, 2000) but sadly, plans for a studio album were abandoned