Wednesday, January 31, 2024

From Prog Legend to Pop Maestro: Exploring John Wetton’s Extraordinary Life

Here’s an assignment for you before you dive into reading this piece: Put on “Starless” off King Crimson’s 1974 album Red and listen to that voice and bass guitar. 

By every conceivable measure, John Wetton’s performance on the 12-minute track is a creative and professional masterstroke that few musicians will ever achieve. The man was already a music industry veteran by the time he joined King Crimson for its classic ’72-’74 period, and “Starless” remains an undisputed classic of the era. If Wetton had ended his time as a musician at that moment, his status as a world-class creative force would have remained intact. Fortunately for us, what could have been a career apex ended up being a mere chapter in a sonic journey that carried on for another 44 years until his death seven years ago today. 

Of course, his greatest commercial success came in the early ’80s via Asia, a supergroup of fellow Prog Rock vets and a commercial juggernaut that put his powerful voice front and center via a string of radio hits that helped the group sell (in the man’s words) “shitloads of records.”

Mere weeks before Wetton’s passing, I had been fortunate enough to receive an advance stream of Asia’s then-upcoming live album, Symfonia - Live in Bulgaria 2013. While the musicianship exhibited throughout the album was exceptional, what stood out most for me was his soaring voice – especially on the tracks that feature the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra. (“The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” was one of many awe-inspiring highlights.) The guy still had it. I immediately fell in love with this release and was looking forward to possibly connecting with him once the press train for the album got rolling. I knew he had been experiencing health issues, but I had no idea that his condition was so grave. Sadly, an album that was meant to be another exciting chapter in an inspiring career instead became an epilogue—a final gift from a talented bassist, a master vocalist, and a musician whose gifts will be felt for generations.

Considering Asia’s massive success, it comes as little surprise that most casual Rock fans know Wetton for the group’s biggest hit, “Heat of The Moment.” While there are certainly worse fates that could befall a recording artist, listeners who think of him solely as the guy from Asia have missed out on a colorful career that also included stints with Family, U.K., Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, and Wishbone Ash as well as a sporadic solo career that yielded six albums over 31 years. This latter output is the focus of An Extraordinary Life, an extensive new box set that collects all six solo albums (each remastered and sprinkled with bonus tracks) along with 39 rarities from the vaults spread over two additional CDs. A beautiful 64-page book of lyrics, photos, ephemera, and words of love from friends and collaborators augments the 115-song package.

With all that out of the way, here comes a warts-and-all deep dive through this box set’s many peaks and valleys.  

To understand Wetton’s solo material from 1980 to 2011 is to embrace the idea that you’re getting nothing that comes within 100 miles of a Prog Rock epic. The man’s general philosophy as a solo artist is perhaps best summed up in this snippet from an interview he gave in 1997:

“During [the King Crimson] period, I would submit a four-minute song to the bandin which case, on Red, it was called ‘Starless’ […] The song would end up being a sort of 11-minute epic […] Now I just provide the four-minute song.”

Although Wetton would master this streamlined approach by the time Asia stormed the charts in ’82, his 1980 solo debut, Caught in the Crossfire, is the sound of an artist making an uneasy—and all-over-the-place—inaugural transition from Prog to Pop. Who was John Wetton as a solo artist at the time? The answer provided by the album’s 10 tracks was incoherent at best. Expertly performed but ultimately rudderless, Caught in the Crossfire failed to present a definitive identity for the newly solo artist steering the ship. That said, the album is far from terrible. (How could it be when it boasts Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre among its contributors?) The perfect Powerpop of “Turn On The Radio” lands somewhere between The Police and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour-era Moody Blues, while the slick “Baby Come Back” hints at the Asia sales maelstrom to come. The album’s two finest moments—the suave title track and the delightfully quirky “When Will You Realise?”—demonstrate that Wetton picked up quite a bit from his time with Brian Ferry and Co., while the brooding “Paper Talk” captures one of the strongest and most varied vocal performances he’d ever deliver on record. Is Caught in the Crossfire worth a listen? Absolutely. Is it at all shocking that it didn’t set the world on fire? Not at all.

Of course, Wetton didn’t have to wait much longer before chart domination with Asia became a reality. After fronting one of the biggest acts of the ’80s, he revived his solo career in 1994—certainly not the most hospitable time for a 45-year-old musician who had been kicking around the industry for decades. While Caught in the Crossfire suffered from a lack of direction, Battle Lines sank due to pursuing the wrong one. Firstly, the album was produced to soulless extremes by Ron Nevison, whose history of neutering Rock acts in a quest for commercial radio glory dates back to Thin Lizzy’s tepid Nightlife in 1974. He may have been the perfect producer for Heart circa 1985, but his saccharine sheen had no place on a mid-’90s album by a middle-aged rocker whose most musically adventurous days had occurred 20 years prior. Subsequently, Battle Lines is a victim of needless overproduction that makes Yes’ Big Generator sound like Motörhead. With Nevison on board and no less than seven songwriters in tow, the album sounds exactly like what it is—a safe and sanitized product created by committee. Nothing sounds the least bit organic. The album ranges from lyrically lazy (“You know you sell your soul/Every time you lose control”) to bloody unlistenable. (The godawful “Jane” is particularly odorous). Battle Lines was comfortable when it needed to be urgent. It’s the sound of a recording artist who had seemingly lost his art.

While my assessment of the proceedings may be harsh, there was an equally unenthused listener out there: Wetton himself, who shed light on the creative constraints he had felt at the time in the aforementioned 1997 interview:  

“When I was making [the album], I had a producer and a record company breathing down my neck all the time, keeping me within the bounds of what they saw as being palatable.”

While largely a snoozefest, Battle Lines is saved by its strong title track, which proved that Wetton could still sing from the depths of his soul despite being weighed down by thick layers of sonic gloss.

Fortunately, Wetton’s next journey led to perhaps his finest moment as a solo act. Stripped of Battle Lines’ excesses, 1997’s extraordinary Arkangel finds him charting considerably darker and more challenging waters. The somber orchestration of the instrumental opener “The Circle of St. Giles” sets the tone for a 12-track album that finds its creator in an often sullen and introspective mood. Three releases into his solo career, Wetton finally delivers an album that convinced the listener that he feels and believes every word he sings—even if those syllables don’t paint the rosiest picture of his mental state. Here’s a sample from “I Can’t Lie Anymore:”

Mama said it would be alright

Keeping it all to myself

Johnny’s secrets would stay out of sight

If they all could stay on the shelf.

Papa swore he’d lose his temper

If I breathed a word to a soul

And that no one would remember

Or believe the stories I told.

The apparent darkness of Wetton’s upbringing also makes its presence known on the stand-out title track:

I feel your presence

Your voice I know so well

You caught me when I stumped down

The steepest steps of Hell

The trials of my childhood will be the death of me

Stay with me, Arkangel, with me.

Elsewhere on the album, the melancholy “After All” finds the singer/bassist seemingly contemplating the loneliness that often comes with being a traveling stage performer:

After all the songs are sung

All the actors come and gone

The stage is dark and empty

But one candle burns alone.

Arkangel is deep stuff—the kind of album you confront rather than merely listen to—and arguably the most powerful music Wetton ever released under his name.

The album’s other highlights include the acoustic ballad “Emma,” the urgent rocker “Nothing Happens for Nothing,” and the closing instrumental “The Celtic Cross.” Without the weight of needless overproduction, Arkangel is allowed to breathe and exist as a morose masterpiece that is both challenging and indispensable.

“It’s a lot more daring than [Battle Lines],” commented the album’s creator in the year of its release. “I sort of found my feet, really […] I feel comfortable with myself and what I do now, and I feel able to make certain moves I would not have felt comfortable with before […] I just had complete free reign in the studio, and what’s come out is absolutely me.”

Unsurprisingly, Wetton praised Arkangel as “the best thing I’ve done” in a 1997 interview with Eric Blair. While any recording artist worth their salt will pump up their latest album in interviews, it’s impossible to disagree with the man’s sentiment in this case.

Four years passed before the release of 2001’s decidedly more commercial Welcome to Heaven. Although the songwriting and delivery were a touch dated by early 21st-century standards, the album soars where it should—with big hooks, big choruses, and Wetton’s magnificent voice stealing the show. After the sonic dark alley that was Arkangel, Welcome To Heaven is a safely played (but solid) palate cleanser that finds Wetton at his AOR-friendly finest.

Of course, no discussion of Welcome to Heaven would be complete without a mention of the lovely “Real World,” two minutes and 44 seconds of acoustic-driven Pop perfection co-written by Wetton and a promising young songsmith by the name of Richard Starkey. (Hopefully, Richard’s clear talents took him somewhere in this crazy business.)

While 2003’s Rock of Faith isn’t Wetton’s most adventurous solo release, it represents his many gifts as an artist (solo and otherwise) in one extraordinary place. Expertly produced and performed, the album is a collection of new songs that sounds like a greatest-hits package. In addition to playing to every strength found his on his previous four albums (and masterfully driving the esoteric edge of Arkangel into more accessible terrain), it just sounds fantastic. Wetton’s vocals are at a career peak, and the pristine mix lets every second of music shine. Every song is a highlight, but the gorgeously orchestrated “I Believe In You” (which gives more than a passing nod to the intricacies of King Crimson without favoring Prog over Pop sensibility) and the Asia-esque “I’ve Come to Take You Home” are great places for curious listeners to start. The former is one of two album tracks (the other being “I Lay Down”) cowritten by Wetton’s past Asia bandmate Geoff Downes, whose contributions seemingly sowed the seeds for the long-awaited reunion of the original Asia lineup three years later.

The classic Asia foursome went on to produce three more studio albums: 2008’s Phoenix, 2010’s Omega, and 2012’s XXX. (Of course, “XXX” in this context refers to the group’s 30th anniversary, but whatever you, don’t google “Asia XXX” to learn more about the album.) Between Omega and XXX, Wetton released his sixth solo album, Raised in Captivity. Largely conceived in collaboration with singer/multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood (later of Yes and—after Wetton’s death—Asia), the 11-song release features guest spots by a who’s who of Prog royalty and past Wetton collaborators. Uriah Heep guitarist Mick Box turns up on “New Star Rising,” Geoff Downes appears on “Goodbye Elsinore” and “Steffi’s Ring,” U.K.’s Eddie Jobson adds violin to “The Devil and the Opera House,” and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp has a co-writing credit on the title track. Other guests include organist Tony Kaye (Yes), guitarist Steve Hackett (Genesis), and Dixie Dregs/Steve Morse Band/Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse. (According to online sources, Anneke van Giersbergen duets with Wetton on “Mighty Rivers,” although a performance credit for her work doesn’t appear anywhere in the album’s credits in the box set.)  

Overall, the results are … okay. Wetton’s voice is fantastic as always (especially on the exceptional “The Devil and the Opera House”), but the album is easily outshined by brighter moments from the man’s past. It’s enjoyable enough, but it’s nowhere close to reaching the repeated-listening appeal of Arkangel or Rock of Faith. But hey, it still beats Battle Lines by a mile. Ultimately, Raised in Captivity is a serviceable (if not terribly exciting) final chapter in Wetton’s story as an artist creating music under his own steam.

Naturally, the big draw of any box set of this nature is the promise of previously unreleased bonus material. An Extraordinary Life boasts 39 rarities (spread over two discs) culled from an archeological dig through two large suitcases briefcases full of decades’ worth of analog cassettes. Very often, the reasons for this material’s lack of inclusion on past Wetton releases become obvious upon first listen, but the bonus discs still offer plenty of worthwhile moments that will appeal to … well, to anyone who’d buy an eight-CD John Wetton box set.

Believed to be a castaway from the Arkangel era, the well-crafted “Raven” fits the dark tone of that time, while the all-too-brief “Wings of Angels Intro” delivers 59 seconds of sheer beauty. Other highlights on the first disc include a strong cover of Bryan Adams’ “Straight From The Heart,” a sedate rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” and a delightful demo of “Real World” complete with charming banter between Wetton and that Starkey guy.  

To put it bluntly, the second disc of bonus material is largely a bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping exercise in aural nausea. (Whoever greenlit the inclusion of “Boys of the Diamond City” and the appropriately titled “Bad Thing” in particular should be brought up on charges.) Remember Sylvester Stallone’s so-bad-it’s-brilliant 1987 arm-wrestling-themed epic Over the Top? Well, it turns out that Wetton demoed three tracks for possible inclusion in the film. They’re pretty dismal. The most tolerable of the lot, “Winner Takes It All,” was eventually recorded by Sammy Hagar for the soundtrack. It was the right choice, as Wetton’s demo version drowns the song’s potential Rock edge in the kind of synth-driven drivel that dominated the vast majority of ’80s Pop.  

All in all, the second bonus disc contains about as much soul as the background music in a typical McDonald’s commercial. For the more masochistic Wetton completist only.

While the bonus material is dodgy in spots, the gorgeous book included in An Extraordinary Life is a treasure in itself. In addition to featuring lyrics and liner notes for each solo album, it includes a foreword by Asia/Yes album artist Roger Dean, insights from Wetton biographer Nick Shilton (and John himself), and heartfelt tributes and remembrances from a host of colleagues and friends.  

Ranging from the heartbreakingly beautiful to the frustratingly banal, An Extraordinary Life ultimately delivers a mixed bag of output. Honestly, the ups and downs in quality from 1980 to 2011 are to be expected—after all, whose life doesn’t have ups and downs over a 31-year period? Not everything in this box set is as extraordinary as its title suggests, but the world is certainly less so without John Wetton in it.

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John Wetton