June 1, 2023

To say John Wetton led an extraordinary life is rather like saying Ronaldo scores goals, meaning it doesn’t even come close to giving the full picture. Any musician whose CV includes stints in bands such as Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, Wishbone Ash and, of course, Asia (every one of them being a ‘name’ band), as well as leading his own band and playing on numerous other sessions, not to mention some of the many songs he was involved in writing, is someone who’s surely left an inerasable mark on the scene.

And he did. Written by prog writer Nick Shilton, this is very likely the book John Wetton deserves. It isn’t a biography as such; rather, it’s a collection of comments and anecdotes drawn from Shilton’s interviews with many of the people who played in bands with him. One particular Geoff Downes anecdote stands out. He and Wetton, on their way back from a ‘liquid lunch’, were pulled over by police. Downes was breathalysed, over the limit and was taken into custody, leaving Wetton behind with the car. On the way to the station, a policeman asks, ‘was that John Wetton with you?’, ‘yes, mate, it was’. To which the policeman replies, ‘Oh, I’m a big Crimson fan, you think you could get me his autograph?’

The roll-call of those who offered positive comments … and sometimes not quite so positive … reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the prog world great and good, including those who played in bands with him (Fripp, Bruford, Howe, Palmer, etc), those who didn’t but who worked closely with him (Mike Paxman, producer, Phil Carson, exec, Atlantic records), friends (Hackett, Portnoy, Roger Chapman, etc), those who loved him, despite his faults and the demons which possessed him and occasionally reared their ugly head (wife Lisa, son Dylan) – and there’s even  a contribution from Phil McNulty, BBC chief football writer! It’s also a celebration of how he overcame those demons which cost him dearly down the years … love, money, friendships, bands … and how, with love, help and his own perseverance, he finally overcame them and restaked his claim.

John Kenneth Wetton was born in 1949 and spent his formative years absorbing the influence of American rock n’ roll. He was marked out early as a musical prodigy by his friend Richard Palmer-James (later to join Supertramp and write lyrics for King Crimson). ‘There was a buzz about him. He was unbelievably dexterous, he could sing, play bass and piano, and he was still only 13-14.’  His early career saw him backing pop singer Helen Shapiro in Bucharest in 1968 – earning enough to buy himself a Fender Precision bass – and then working on commercials in AIR studios under the tutelage of no less a person than George Martin. As Wetton said, ‘It was like having the Duke of Edinburgh for an uncle’. 

From here it was out on the road in bands, and his career began to take off. After a stint in Family he joined King Crimson and played on arguably the three albums which marked their creative apogee; Larks Tongue in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red, which was his favourite. It was his time with Crimson which saw him move from sideman to frontman, with the exploratory nature of Crimson’s music allowing him free rein, and he proved his worth, with Robert Fripp describing Wetton as ‘the best player of his generation’.  After Crimson split he spent the rest of the ’70s playing in various other bands, including Wishbone Ash, who turned down a number of songs Wetton offered them. The result? He took them to Asia and hit paydirt when their debut album went triple platinum, and they owned 1982, as a result of the fledgling channel MTV giving them saturation coverage.

Always known as a drinker, however, Wetton had by now become unreliable, which led his Asia bandmates to part company with him in 1983 (he was sacked) which derailed Asia’s momentum. It also derailed Wetton himself, and his mid-1980s were a kind-of ‘down time’ where he drank too much, offended the wrong people and was told by David Geffen he’d ‘never work again’.  Asia had a triple platinum album in the charts, yet Wetton was sitting around drinking and depressed. What if they’d known about ‘addiction’ and ‘recovery’ in the early eighties … how might his life have been changed?

But with the love and support of second wife, Lisa, and friends like Annie Haslam, who helped get him into treatment for his alcoholism, he turned his life around and spent his last years in sobriety making music with his friends, rejoining Asia for their 25th anniversary tour in 2007. As various friends testify, he suffered many personal and professional setbacks on the way to sobriety, but he overcame them, aided by his desire to go back to doing what he loved doing – playing in a band – and for the rest of his life, kept his demons at bay. He summed up his feelings in Asia’s song An Extraordinary Life, from Phoenix, when he sang ‘Enjoy today, come what may, this is an extraordinary life’.  He sadly died in January 2017, aged only 67, from complications arising from colorectal cancer, prompting Eric Clapton to write a short instrumental tribute, ‘For JW.’       

There are probably many younger rock fans who’ve not even heard of John Wetton, but for those ‘in the know’, his ‘rough but velvet’ voice and his playing stood out. Phil Manzanera said of him, ‘Wetton was my dream bass player.’  Billy Sherwood cites Wetton as a major influence. From his first tentative steps playing sessions, to his final stand with Asia, John Wetton lived a full music life and made his mark with whoever he played with. One comment Wetton made to Geoff Downes says it all … ‘put it all into the music, mate. That’s the only thing we know how to do, right? What’s more, we’re good at it’. No arguments here, mate.