John Wetton

John Kenneth Wetton was born on 12th June 1949 in the midlands town of Derby and spent his formative years in the small rural village of Willington where his parents, Kenneth and Margaret, ran the local general store. When John was ten, the Wetton’s upped sticks and moved two hundred miles south to the Bournemouth suburb of Westbourne, after they bought the small Alumhurst Hotel in Alumhurst Road (The property eventually made way for a Waitrose supermarket and then a Marks and Spencer’s food hall). His father, a lover of classical music, played the piano as did his older brother Robert, who became a telephone engineer by day and an assistant organist at a local parish church in his spare time. Although John took an interest in music and would play the bass notes on the family piano while his brother tackled the tricky melody parts, he didn’t have the same passion for classical or religious composition, as he preferred the visceral excitement of rock n’ roll.

Photo Alumhurst Hotel
The Wetton family home, the Alumhurst Hotel in Wesbourne 

In 1960 John passed his eleven plus exam and entered Bournemouth Grammar School where he befriended Alec James and Richard Palmer, older pupils who also happened to be avid music fans. In 1962 guitarist Richard and drummer Alec formed The Corvettes, along with vocalist Paul Mead, second guitarist Pete Mounty and bassist Clive Field. Around the same time, John had taken up the guitar after receiving lessons from Don Strike and had become a member of another local group, The Squires. When Richard discovered John had a musical talent, he invited him over to his family home for an audition on the bass guitar, which he passed with flying colours. To accommodate him in The Corvettes, Pete Mounty left and Clive Field switched to rhythm guitar, but he wasn’t up to the job and was relieved of his duties a matter of weeks later. The revamped quartet played one of their first dates at the Epiphany Church Hall in Castle Lane on 5th December 1964, with tickets changing hands for the princely sum of half a crown. Other gigs followed at venues such as The Wheelhouse, Corpus Christi Church Hall in Boscombe, Winton Congregational Church Hall, the Bure Club and further afield in towns such as Weymouth, Torquay and Gillingham, quite a trek in the old GPO Morris Minor van belonging to Richard’s father.

Photo The Corvettes 1964
The Corvettes in 1964, Left to Right: Richard Palmer, Paul Mead, Alec James & John Wetton (Photograph courtesy of Peter Viney & Richard Palmer-James)

The quartet was happy dispensing instrumentals and pop tunes until John and Richard happened upon The Classics, a blues band from Gosport, at the Lagland Street Boys Club in Poole. They were a morose-looking bunch with long unkempt hair, scruffy jeans and a habit of puffing on fags while grinding out dirty, amped up versions of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed songs. These guys looked the real deal which appealed to John’s rebellious nature, as far as he was concerned they ticked all the boxes on how a rock band should look and behave. The encounter with the raggedy arsed Classics triggered changes within The Corvettes, but not in the way you would expect. Instead of dressing down, they donned sober dark suits, adopted a new modish sounding name, The Palmer James Group, beefed up their sound with the addition of John ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson on Vox organ and up-dated their set list to include choice cuts of r&b interspersed with a liberal dose of Georgie Fame and Spencer Davis Group numbers. The changed proved to be popular in the dance halls and clubs however, in the autumn of 1965, Richard left for the University of Aberystwyth to study English Literature and Fine Art. His departure triggered another change in direction as the group brought in guitarist Dave Till, who had recently left Tony, Howard and the Dictators after they turned professional, and Derek Power on tenor sax. The band overhauled their repertoire to include Motown and Stax material by the likes of Sam and Dave, The Temptation’s, The Four Tops and Otis Redding.

palmer james group
The Palmer James Group in 1965, Left to Right: Richard Palmer, John Wetton, John ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson, Alec James & Paul Mead (Photograph courtesy of Peter Viney & Richard Palmer-James)

Three years later Richard returned with a Bachelor of Arts degree and grand plans for a contemporary band with John and ‘Hutch’ that would embrace the new air of experimentation and possibility. While he had been away, the musical landscape had changed markedly, with nascent progressive rock and blues acts such as Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Fleetwood Mac, Vanilla Fudge, Traffic and The Nice coming to the fore. The top twenty was no longer the sole point of reference as album sales began to outstrip singles and musical proficiency took priority over pretty boy looks and teen appeal.

Mike Gillingham on guitar and John Wetton on bass backing up the vocalist Helen Shapiro

Before they could make headway with what would become Tetrad, John had to fulfil a commitment to tour Romania with local band The Zoo. He had been recruited by their bassist, Paul Spencer MacCallum, to double on bass and keyboards backing the former child star and “Walking Back to Happiness” songstress Helen Shapiro and the long forgotten British crooner Tony Bolton. MacCallum was another Bournemouth musician and former Portchester school pupil along with Zoot Money. He was a regular on the local scene in the sixties with his band Soul Foundation and in the seventies played with Billy Fury, before he donned a fury costume and became Uncle Bulgaria in the Wombles. For most of his working life he was the brains behind the Wembley Loudspeaker Company. Paul sadly died of Multiple System Atrophy in 2019. But I digress; back in Romania, Shapiro was proving difficult to work with provoking John, Paul and saxophonist Kevin Drake to get their own back by sabotaging her final show at the Bucharest football stadium in front of thousands. As she was about to make her grand entrance, they launched into a cobbled together version of The Beatles “Lady Madonna”, much to the audience’s delight and to Shapiro’s annoyance as she was left fuming in the wings. The one positive to come out of the experience, apart from the money and getting one over on the diminutive Shapiro, was drummer Bob Jenkins, who John convinced would be the ideal candidate to become the final piece in the Tetrad jigsaw.

Tetrad endured a year of hardship traversing Britain in a clapped out van exacerbated by the amount of equipment they had to haul around. ‘Hutch’s’ back breaking Hammond organ and home built Lesley cabinet were a given, but the monstrous PA speakers they hand-built to save money were three times larger than they needed to be and their Axis amplifiers weighed a ton. Built by the Charminster electronics boffin Ian Prentice, Axis amps sounded great but were very heavy and tended to be unreliable. John had first-hand experience of their temperamental nature one night at the Pavilion when his amp blew mid song. Luckily Ian was on hand with a soldering iron to fix the problem, but cursed John’s insistence on using thunderous chords for causing the malfunction.

Photos Tetrad 1968
Tetrad in 1967, Left to Right: Richard Palmer, Bob Jenkins, John ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson & John Wetton (Photograph courtesy of Peter Viney & Richard Palmer-James)

In October 1968 Decca invited the band to their studios in London to record a demo tape, however, a dearth of original material let them down as their renditions of Cream’s “White Room” and The Zombies “Time of the Season” just didn’t cut it. No self-respecting record company would sign a band with nothing new or original to say. The problem lay in their dogged termination in sticking with tried and tested covers and not trusting in their own ability to write original songs. Deflated, they limped on with a new moniker, Ginger Man after the James P. Donleavy novel of the same name and picked up what should have been a plum date backing the legendary Clyde McPhatter at the American Forces Club in London. From the moment the former Drifter took to the stage, he wrong footed the band by changing the carefully rehearsed song list with no warning, making them look like a bunch of rank amateurs. The band struggled on trying to keep up with the chord changes until McPhatter abruptly beat an early retreat to his dressing room leaving them to face the disgruntled audience and an irate promoter. The incident hastened the band’s demise, and they pulled the plug after a final gig in Salisbury on 5th July 1969. Bob Jenkins went on to join local heroes The Room, as did John Hutcheson a year later, before he moved to California where he became an aeronautics engineer. John and Richard Palmer resorted to the musicians wanted ads in Melody Maker and attended auditions in London.

Richard turned up trumps fairly quickly, with a position in the newly formed Supertramp, while John found it harder to find gainful employment. He had a near miss with Atomic Rooster who put him on a shortlist then plumped for Nick Graham instead, before he found drummer Ed Bicknell and a keyboard player, Michael ‘Gootch’ Harris. The trio became Splinter and headed off to Germany for a residency at the Storyville Club in Cologne, where they played eight hours a night for next to no money to a bunch of drunks, gangsters and hookers. The gig finally lost any appeal that was remaining the night the promoter pulled a gun on them and fearing for their lives, they cut their losses and hightailed it back home. Back in Blighty the band took on a run of uninspiring gigs at the Batley Variety Club playing to the ‘chicken in the basket’ brigade and a string of shows backing Jess Conrad in cabaret, but eventually they realised the game was up and Splinter did what it said on the tin and splintered. ‘Gootch’ went off to join Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come, while John and Ed stuck together as a viable rhythm section.

Eventually they were picked up by the former Colosseum guitarist James Litherland for his new sextet Brotherhood, joining saxophonists Roger Ball and Malcolm ‘Molly’ Duncan plus ex-Eclection guitarist / trumpeter Michael Rosen. During rehearsals it soon became apparent that Bicknell wasn’t up to the job and was relieved of his duties. The sacking brought it home to him that drums were not his forte and he became a booking agent, later making his name and fortune as the manager of Dire Straits. Former Glass Menagerie drummer Bill Harrison was drafted in as his replacement. Before the band played a string of warm up gigs in Palermo, Sicily and Milan, Litherland dropped the Brotherhood tag and re-branded the band Mogul Thrash after a character from a Spike Milligan sketch. The Italian dates prepared the band for a series of well received shows in London at the Roundhouse, Marquee and the Speakeasy, where a host of fellow musicians including Jimi Hendrix and members of Deep Purple, Yes, The Nice and Jethro Tull gave them a warm reception. They followed up with a nationwide tour supporting John Mayall, before recording a self-titled, Brian Auger produced album. The outcome was a brass rock record of the highest order packed with punchy songs, bluesy vocals, Litherland’s excellent guitar and John’s thunderous bass high in mix. It gained plenty of airplay on Radio Luxembourg and spawned a fairly successful single in Europe with “Sleeping in the Kitchen”, although limited distribution back in the UK stymied its progress as it was difficult to find in record stores. After several bad decisions and underhand deals by their management team, Mogul Thrash broke up, with Ball and Duncan finding success as the Dundee Horns with The Average White Band.

John moved into the world of session work with The Beatles producer George Martin at his newly built Air Studios in Hampstead, until Jim Cregan gave him a heads up on a vacancy with the band Family. Their bassist / violin player John Weider, had thrown in his lot with Cregan and the former rhythm section of Rory Gallagher’s Taste, Charlie McCracken and John Wilson in a new band called Stud. Family originated from the midlands town of Leicester and had gained prominence in 1968 on the back of their excellent, highly original debut Music in a Dolls House. Further success followed with another two well-crafted albums, Family Entertainment and A Song For Me plus the patchy Anyway. However, they suffered several damaging line-up changes, most famously when Ric Grech, Weider’s predecessor, left them high and dry mid-American tour to join Clapton, Baker and Winwood in the ultimately doomed supergroup Blind Faith. John accepted the post and joined mainstays Roger Chapman, a dynamic, unique singer with a distinctive vibrato, guitarist John ‘Charlie’ Whitney, drummer Rob Townsend and the relatively new keyboard and flute player John ‘Poli’ Palmer. He came on board in time to record their fifth album, Fearless, a marked improvement on their previous half live / half studio effort Anyway. Ken, as he was known within the group due to the amount of John’s already present, contributed a solid backbone on bass, harmony vocals, additional keyboards and even though he had never played the instrument in his life, violin. Many of their older songs had signature violin parts, as Grech and Weider were both fairly competent players and John was under pressure to cobble together what he could, especially on their much requested showstopper, “The Weaver’s Answer”. To remedy the problem, John called into Don Strike’s on a visit home, bought a violin and learnt what was needed in a day. He appeared on their next album, Bandstand and two singles, the funky number thirteen hit “Burlesque” and the folksy follow up “My Friend the Sun”. Ultimately, John felt restricted due to the Chapman and Whitney songwriting partnership and the fact that Roger would always be the lead vocalist. Not content with being a sideman, there was an amicable parting of the ways.

Family on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971 promoting Fearless, Left to Right: John ‘Ken’ Wetton, John ‘Charlie’ Whitney, Roger Chapman, Rob Townsend & John ‘Poli’ Palmer

While visiting friends and family back home, (in the intervening years John’s parents had moved to the Boscombe area after buying a small hotel in Crabton Close Road), John met up with Robert Fripp in Wimborne and agreed to join King Crimson. He had turned down the job once before when Fripp wanted an ally to even up the sides between the warring factions, but this time it felt right. Apart from John and Robert, the line-up comprised of drummer Bill Bruford, violinist David Cross and the eccentric percussionist Jamie Muir. Initial rehearsals in Richmond, London were slow, as the band struggled to come up with any tangible ideas, but after a while the sessions gained momentum and new compositions began to take shape, apart from the lyrics. It soon became apparent that the role of lyricist vacated by Peter Sinfield needed to be filled and Wetton, as the designated vocalist, knew who to contact. His old school friend Richard Palmer-James (The James was added when he signed to a copyright agency and found that a Richard Palmer was already registered) moved to Munich in 1971 and was making a living playing guitar and writing music for TV and films. John mailed him a tape of sketchy demos and works in progress and Richard returned lyrics for three songs that would eventually become “Easy Money”, “Exiles” and “Book of Saturday”.

Photo King Cromson 1973
King Crimson in 1973, Left to Right: Robert Fripp, David Cross, Bill Bruford & John Wetton

After three warm up gigs at the Zoom Club in Frankfurt and an appearance on the German TV programme Beat Club, the band returned to the UK to undertake a twenty-seven date tour. Eschewing all that had gone before, the set list comprised of new compositions, half of which were improvisations making every night a different experience. During January 1973 they recorded Larks Tongues in Aspic, an experimental exercise in bludgeoning riffs, swathes of brooding mellotron, incendiary guitar, clattering percussion and Wetton’s unmistakable melodic and strident bass lines. As a warm-up for a forthcoming tour, the band returned to their old stomping ground the Marquee in Wardour Street for a run of shows but, by the final night, Muir had left to join a monastery citing a sense of spiritual awakening for his sudden departure. The remaining quartet carried on regardless and undertook an eighteen date European tour followed by a gruelling two-and-a-half month trek around the USA. By September they were back in Europe where their recording engineer, George Chkiantz, taped several concerts for their next release, Starless and Bible Black. Back in the studio, the band sculpted six of the eight tracks out of live improvisations enhanced with added overdubs and vocals. Yet again Palmer-James weighed in with lyrics on four of the songs. The album title came from a quotation in Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and was originally a song Wetton had been working on at his parent’s home in Bournemouth. The tune itself failed to make the cut, but the title was purloined for an improvisation recorded in Amsterdam.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1974 the band traversed America, where the rhythm section of Wetton and Bruford became a formidable unit in intensity and volume. Fripp just about kept up with the cacophony, but violinist David Cross struggled on an instrument unsuited to a heavy rock context. Feeling marginalised and forever turning up his amplifier, he gradually became dispirited and his morale ebbed away. The situation came to a head with a vote of no confidence in the violinist and an eventual parting of the ways on their return home. They closed the tour with a storming gig in Central Park, New York on 1st July 1974 which left the band elated, particularly Wetton who stated later that it was the “best gig he ever played”.

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During rehearsals for their next record, Red, Fripp read a book by the philosopher J. G. Bennett which triggered a spiritual awakening, leaving the guitarist in a state of turmoil. He found the resulting recording process difficult and left Bruford and Wetton to make most of the decisions on content and performance. Wetton drafted in two ex-members, Ian McDonald and Mel Collins, to add further embellishments. Red was released in October too little fanfare or promotion, as Fripp had already reported to the music press that King Crimson had ceased to exist. Wetton and Bruford were both philosophical about the split, despite the band being more than capable of delivering stellar concerts and creating viable new music. As Fripp withdrew from the music-making process, he floated the idea of Wetton and Bruford continuing with Ian McDonald to the EG management team, but they had no interest in a version of King Crimson without Robert Fripp at the helm. During John’s two-year tenure with King Crimson he was their chief vocalist, contributed fully to the writing process and had a free rein to push his bass playing to the limit, in short they were his ideal band. In an endorsement of his involvement, his classical music loving father gave John the nod of approval after attending a concert at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens on 24th March 1973. The belated recognition pleased him enormously.

Roxy Music circa 1974, Back Row Left to Right: Eddie Jobson, Bryan Ferry & Phil Manzanera, Front Row Left to Right: Paul Thompson, Andy Mackay & John Wetton

While John waited to see what would happen to Crimson, he bided his time picking up the odd session and joining Roxy Music on the proviso that he would help them out until the reformation of his former band. At the time it was understood that they were on a short sabbatical however, news filtered through from Fripp via the press, that they were in fact finito. Roxy Music provided a steady income and a comfortable lifestyle as they travelled the world in comparative luxury, soaking up the plaudits and mixing with the exotic jet set associated with the suave Ferry. It was all a far cry from schlepping around in an old van and fielding probing questions from the mainly male obsessives associated with his previous band. As part of a UK tour, the glam rockers descended on the Bournemouth Winter Gardens with the Jess Roden Band in support for two nights on 13th and 14th October 1974 before heading off to mainland Europe and America. However, John soon became increasingly restless with the glitzy social life. Security was fine, but musically the situation mirrored his time with Family, as his creativity was stifled. When they returned home, he tendered his resignation.

Photo Uriah Heep
Uriah Heep Back Row Left to Right: Ken Hensley, John Wetton, Mick Box, Middle: David Byron, Front: Lee Kerslake 

Back in London he spent time in Olympic Studios with Bob Fripp and Bill Bruford mixing tapes for the live album USA, a document of King Crimson’s final American tour. Deficiencies in the original tape required violin and piano overdubs and instead of inviting David Cross back to fix his own parts, John invited Eddie Jobson of Roxy Music to lend a hand, a decision that would lead to them working together in the future. In the meantime, John succumbed to overtures from an old Bournemouth associate, drummer Lee Kerslake, to join the heavy rock band Uriah Heep. The vacancy arose when the previous incumbent, Gary Thain, was fired for his heavy drug use early in 1975 (Thain died of a heroin overdose later that year). During his yearlong stay, John recorded two albums, Return to Fantasy, a number seven hit in the UK despite scathing reviews from some sections of the music press, followed by the less successful High and Mighty. The Heep were no strangers to the road and enormous promotional treks across Europe and America took their toll, adding to the pressure cooker atmosphere within the band. Singer David Byron liked the odd tipple or two and would regularly down a bottle of Chivas Regal before taking to the stage, a recipe for disaster which alienated the rest of the band and sometimes the audience. There was also an ongoing power struggle between Byron and keyboard player Ken Hensley that came to a head in Spain, when a plate-glass window received the full ire of the Byron boot. The singer was duly sacked and John, uncomfortable with the situation, handed in his notice.

A couple of weeks later John was back enjoying the high life with Bryan Ferry on an extensive tour promoting two Ferry solo albums, Let’s Stick Together and In Your Mind. John featured on both and it’s his driving bass that helped propel Ferry’s most successful solo single, “Let’s Stick Together”, to number four in the charts. The tour finally wound down in July 1977 in Australia and it was while he was sitting in a hotel room down-under, that John wrote to Bill Bruford suggesting that they regroup and take care of unfinished business stirred up by the continued media interest in King Crimson.

At the time Fripp was living in New York with reformation plans nowhere on his radar, so the pair changed tack and initiated a project with the former Yes keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman. After six weeks of rehearsals Wakeman bailed, prompting John to suggest Eddie Jobson who brought his considerable keyboard and violin skills to the party and Bill came up with the talented guitarist Allan Holdsworth. The group adopted the moniker UK and recorded a self-titled album showcasing their light jazz and progressive pop tendencies. During a trek around America, divisions crept in when Holdsworth became increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of the music, forcing the band to split down the middle. John and Eddie recruited drummer Terry Bozzio and continued as UK, while Bill and Alan followed their muse in the jazz / rock fusion infused Bruford.

Photo Jacknife 1978
Jack-Knife, Left to Right: John Wetton, Richard Palmer-James & John ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson (Photograph courtesy of Peter Viney & Richard Palmer-James)

During a lull in UK activities, John and ‘Hutch’ Hutcheson flew to Munich to meet up with their old Tetrad bandmate Richard Palmer-James at Musicland Studios. The trio were joined by three German musicians, drummer Curt Cress, saxophonist Michael Lohmann and Kristian Schulz on mini-moog. Over the next ten days they recorded I Wish You Would under the name Jack-Knife. The album contained a handful of their favourite blues covers from their school days such as “Good Morning Little School Girl”, “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” and “Dimples” buffed up with a seventies make over, plus four originals penned by Wetton and Palmer-James. The album was a minor detour in John’s vast discography, although it still sells steadily to this day.

After his German sojourn, John returned to London where he and Jobson considered adding a guitarist to the UK line-up but drew a blank after extensive auditions failed to unearth a suitable candidate. The band remained a trio and put out a second album, Danger Money, which displayed a new commercial direction. After the final show of a European tour in Nijmegen, Holland, they went their separate ways with Jobson and Bozzio flying back to America and John returning home to England. The unexpected hiatus lasted over thirty-three years until Wetton, Jobson and Bozzio came together in 2014 for a series of concerts in America and then Europe, where Bozzio made way for Gary Husband and Alex Machacek joined on guitar.

In 1980, John took a break from tiresome band politics and launched his solo career with Caught in the Crossfire, aided by Bad Company’s Simon Kirke on drums and Martin Barre from Jethro Tull on guitar. The collection of short melodic songs about love and loss remained mainly unheard because of Polydor’s failure to sink resources into its promotion. They cited that his age was against him, he was thirty years old. In an interim move, he fleetingly joined Wishbone Ash on a recommendation from Ash’s manager, John Sherry, as a replacement for their original bassist Martin Turner. He appeared on their eleventh album Number the Brave contributing one song, “That’s That”. He left shortly after the sessions, making way for Trevor Bolder from Uriah Heep.

Photo Asia
Asia, Left to Right: Carl Palmer, John Wetton, Geoff Downes & Steve Howe 

In early 1981 seeds were sown that would catapult John into the realms of superstardom when he, manager Brian Lane, Geffen A&R man John Kalodner and ex-Yes guitarist Steve Howe hatched a plan to form a new band, Asia. The search for a drummer threw up Alan White from Yes, but he failed to turn up for an audition and his place was taken by Carl Palmer from the newly defunct Emerson Lake and Palmer. Geoff Downes another former Yes man completed the line-up on keyboards. Their self-titled album appeared in 1982 with a cover and logo created by the artist Roger Dean and garnered a small amount of acclaim, along with plenty of condemnation and derision from the critics. Creem magazine remarked, “I won’t cry if the Asia album dies a quick death”. Rolling Stone poured bile on it by commenting, “Asia is the sound of talented players rolling over and playing dead for the sake of airplay” and unsurprisingly in the UK, Melody Maker really put the boot in with, “Designed by computer, hand-built by robot, completely calculated and thoroughly contemptible Asia is every bit as hollow, shallow and nasty as anyone has a right to expect”, they weren’t holding back.

However, American radio loved, them as did the new television channel MTV. Launched on August 1st 1981, with the inaugural promo “Video Killed the Radio Star” by Geoff Downes former electro pop duo Buggles, MTV sparked a second British invasion by broadcasting pre-recorded promotional films. Many of the new bands coming out of the UK such as The Police, Duran Duran and Asia supplied videos directed by former 10CC members Godley and Crème to satisfy the demand. Heavy daily rotation did the rest and made them a phenomenon. The Asia album spawned six top fifty singles in America, two of which, “Heat of The Moment” a number four and “Only Time Will Tell” a number seventeen, became much requested radio favourites and sing along anthems at top US sporting events. Back in the UK Asia couldn’t catch a cold, as the country was in the grip of the New Romantics and four thirty something former prog rockers forming a supergroup elicited no interest. Unperturbed, the band forgot about the home-market and concentrated their efforts on America, where their debut sat on top of the Billboard album charts for nine weeks, selling over ten million copies worldwide. Their live shows pulled in huge crowds wherever they played, necessitating a step up from theatres to arenas. The icing on the cake arrived at the end of the year with two Grammy nominations for ‘Best New Band’ and ‘Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal’, they lost out to Men at Work and Survivor respectively.

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The impetus created by their debut faltered as the difficult second album syndrome kicked in with Alpha. Recorded in Quebec, Canada for tax reasons, the environment hindered the bands creative juices as they struggled with the cold and isolation. Acrimony set in and each member resorted to recording their parts separately, destroying any camaraderie that had been fostered over the previous year. Although the album achieved multi-platinum status and contained a top ten single in “Don’t Cry”, the pressures brought on by trying to repeat their initial success caused tensions resulting in the band travelling separately to shows. John thought they needed a well-earned break, but the schism was much deeper than he realised.

MTV planned to film Asia in concert at the Budokan in Tokyo, for a live broadcast to be beamed around the world via satellite during December 1983. Billed as ‘Asia in Asia’, pre-planning behind the scenes ran into trouble when discussions between band members and management resulted in a scheme to replace John. Geoff Downes alerted him to the conspiracy going on behind his back but it was too late, he was fired. John was accused of not being a team player and drinking too much, all charges he didn’t deny, but he still didn’t think he deserved to be dumped at such short notice. Now the band was on the horns of a dilemma, should they pull the plug and loose an awful lot of money, or soldier on. They chose the latter and packed Carl Palmer off to persuade his former ELP bandmate, Greg Lake, to help them out. With much trepidation, Lake accepted. On the night of the broadcast, John watched from home with mixed emotions, sometimes finding it almost laughable and sometimes rather sad. Overall the show was deemed a success, but Lake didn’t stick around and left after completing the remaining Japanese dates, stating that the music was too pop orientated for his liking. John never forgave Greg for the betrayal. After Lake’s departure the band relented and invited John back into the fold, however, he would only re-join on one condition, he believed Steve Howe to be the main protagonist for his firing and would only come back if he was ousted. A deal was done and Howe was replaced by Mandy Meyer of Krokus. The new line-up started recording album number three, Astra, but the sessions dragged on for months after two producers walked out, leaving Geoff Downes to oversee the final sessions and mixing. On its release, the critics were less than enthusiastic as were the buying public and it stalled at number sixty seven on the American chart. The lead single, “Go”, fared no better barely scraping into the top fifty. Even though Astra sold over half a million copies, Geffen withdrew the funding for a proposed tour and the band split.

Four years later an opportunity arose for John to reform Asia for half a dozen festival appearances throughout Europe with The Beach Boys. He contacted Carl Palmer who agreed immediately and Geoff Downes, who turned him down because of a previous commitment to work with Greg Lake. Determined to get the show back on the road, he drafted in keyboard wiz John Young and guitarist Alan Darby along with a brace of female backing singers. The band played to ecstatic audiences and further shows followed with a change to the line-up when Darby stepped aside for Holger Larish. The successful comeback birthed Then and Now, a smorgasbord of an album culled from their first three LP’s, plus a smattering of new songs including the hit single “Days Like These” featuring Toto’s Steve Luthaker on guitar. The album sparked enough renewed interest for a tour spanning Europe, Japan and Russia and a return of the prodigal son, Geoff Downes. A further change occurred when Pat Thrall came in on guitar for Larish. On completion of a visit to South America, John felt the band had gone stale and after discussions with the other members put Asia on ice. Controversially, Downes had other ideas and kept the band going throughout the nineties with John Payne taking Wetton’s place and a revolving door of musicians filling the other rolls. This version of Asia operated against John’s wishes, as an unsigned agreement stipulated that two original members of the band had to be involved to carry on the name, but Downes believed he negated this by involving Carl Palmer in the recording of the next album Aqua in 1992.

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Putting disagreements over name ownership behind him, John went for a clean break and moved to California with his wife Jill, where he signed with a new record company, Eclipse and spent the next six years working on his solo career. The first recording to see the light of day, Battle Lines, highlighted a change of direction in his writing with a set of highly personal songs. He toured the album with guitarist Andy Skelton, keyboard player John Beck and drummer Bob Dalton from It Bites and released a live CD Chasing the Dragon recorded in Osaka Japan. A succession of further live recordings kept things ticking over until Arkangel in 1997 and then 2001’s Sinister, partly recorded at Room With a View Studios in Ringwood.

In 2002 John attempted to instigate yet another Asia reunion with Carl Palmer, Geoff Downes and Dave Kilminster on guitar, but Downes resisted as he was still persevering with his own version of the band. Fearing a conflict of interest between the two camps, John formed the short-lived Qango with Palmer, Kilminster and John Young. The quartet only managed a dozen gigs, mostly in small venues around the UK, two of which took place at The Brook in Southampton. Performing music drawn mainly from the Asia and ELP songbooks, a limited edition CD, Live in the Hood, taped at the Robin Hood in Brierley Hill, was the only record of their existence.

When Quango folded after an American tour failed to materialise, John released another solo album, Rock of Faith, featuring two songs co-written with Geoff Downes. The songwriting partnership proved fruitful, resulting in 2005’s “Icon” and a tour which revisited their past glories. The inevitable outcome came to fruition the following year, when Asia reformed with original members Carl Palmer and, surprisingly, Steve Howe. Tours of America, Europe and the UK ensued followed by further dates in Japan resulting in Fantasia Live in Tokyo. A new studio album, Phoenix, was officially the bands tenth, but in reality only the third to feature the original line-up.

All was going well until the summer of 2007, when John undertook a routine health check and MRI scan that revealed he had advanced cardiac disease. The doctors wasted no time in rushing him into hospital for life saving open heart surgery. The years of heavy drinking and smoking had finally caught up with him. After a period of recuperation, he was deemed fit to resume touring with Asia in the new year, starting in the UK with a date at the Bournemouth Pavilion on 2nd March 2008 attended by his relieved mother. World tours followed and a further studio album, Omega.

Old Nick Boscombe 1
Old Nick looks down from his lofty perch onto the Opera House (Photograph John Cherry)

John spent part of 2011 recording what was to be his sixth and final solo album, Raised in Captivity, at Circa HQ studios in California with the multi-instrumentalist Billy Sherwood and musicians from his past including Eddie Jobson, Victor Box and Robert Fripp. One song, “The Devil and the Opera House”, was inspired by the statue of ‘Old Nick’ sited on a roof opposite the former Opera House in Boscombe. Installed by an outraged shop owner at the turn of century in protest of the supposed bawdy goings on in the venue, the inscription beneath the sculpture reads “The Devil Comes Into His Own”. In 2012 Asia reconvened to celebrate their thirtieth anniversary with a new CD, XXX and that album also contained a song inspired by his adopted home town, “Al Gatto Nero”, named after his favourite Italian restaurant in Westbourne.

Asia 2014 tour, Left to Right: Sam Coulson, Carl Palmer, John Wetton & Geoff Downes

The following year Steve Howe announced his retirement and was replaced by Sam Coulson in time for a promotional tour for their latest release Gravitas, which included a sold out hometown concert for John at the Regent Centre in Christchurch on Friday 31st October 2014. Sadly, in 2015 John underwent surgery for colon cancer and finally succumbed to the disease after a long battle at the Macmillan unit in Christchurch Hospital on 31st January 2017. He is survived by his second wife Lisa, who he married only a matter of months prior to his death, his son Dylan and brother Robert. His mother, Margaret, died in January 2020, aged 104. Since the turn of the millennium he had been living in the Kings Park area, close to AFC Bournemouth’s football ground.

Photo John Wetton 2016
Left to Right: John with old school friends Peter Viney & Richard Palmer-James in Wimborne 2016 (Photograph courtesy Peter Viney & Richard Palmer-James)

John was a musician that could turn his hand to almost any instrument he chose to pick-up, whether it be keyboards, guitar or even the violin, but it will be his formidable bass playing and powerful voice that he will be remembered for. Just listen to his early work with Mogul Thrash and King Crimson to hear where his reputation was forged. Over the years he played on countless sessions, collaborated with numerous musicians, has released a plethora of live albums and guested with many bands and artists. The discography below only scratches the surface and is a long way from being complete. For a taste of his solo work try the 2015 double CD Anthology: The Studio Recordings on his own Primary Purpose label and for a best of Asia, Heat of the Moment – The Essential Collection on Spectrum.

Special thanks go to John’s friend Peter Viney for additional information and photographs.

 
A Selective John Wetton Discography
  Mogul Thrash Single

Sleeping in the Kitchen c/w St. Peter: RCA (RCA 2030) 1970

Mogul Thrash Albums

Mogul Thrash: RCA (SF 8156) 1970

Mogul Thrash: Flamed Gems (GEM 62) 2011 CD with 7 Bonus Tracks

 Family Singles 

Burlesque c/w The Rockin’ R’s: Reprise (K14196) 1972

My Friend the Sun c/w Glove: Reprise (K 14218) 1972

Family Albums

Fearless: Reprise (K54003) 1971

Bandstand: Reprise (K54006) 1972

King Crimson Single

The Night Watch c/w The Great Deceiver: Island (WIP 26189) 1974

  King Crimson Albums

Larks Tongues in Aspic: Island (ILPS 9230) 1973

Starless and Bible Black: Island (ILPS 9275) 1974

Red: Island (ILPS 9308) 1974

USA: Island (ILPS 9316) 1975 Live

The Young Persons Guide to King Crimson: Island (ISLD 7) 1975 A retrospective

 Uriah Heep Albums

Return to Fantasy: Bronze (ILPS9335) 1975

High and Mighty: Bronze (ILPS9384) 1976

 UK Albums

UK: Polydor (2302 080) 1978

Danger Money: Polydor (3184 123) 1979

Night after Night: Polydor (2310 689) 1979

 John Wetton Solo Albums

Caught in the Crossfire: Polydor (2311 028) 1980

Kings Road 1972-1980: EG (EG MC-70) 1987

Battle Lines: Eclipse (084-46552) 1994

Chasing the Dragon: Eclipse (085-46562) 1995 Live

Akustika-Live in Amerika: Blueprint (BP226CD) 1996 Live

Hazy Monet Live in New York City May 27th 1997: Voiceprint (BP 296) 1997 Live

Live in Tokyo: Voiceprint (BP 289) 1997 Live

Arkangel: Eagle Records (EAGCD020) 1997

Sinister: Avalon Records (MICP 10207) 2001

Rock of Faith: Giant Electric Pea Records (GEPCD 1033) 2003

Raised in Captivity: Frontier Records (FR CD 522) 2012

Anthology: The Studio Recordings: Primary Purpose (PP004CD) 2015 Compilation

 Asia Singles

Heat of The Moment c/w Time again: Geffen (GEF 2494) 1982

Only Time Will Tell c/w Ride Easy: Geffen (GEF 228) 1982

Don’t Cry c/w Daylight: Geffen (7-29571) 1983

Go c/w After the War: Geffen (A 6737) 1985

Days Like These c/w Days Like These: Geffen (PRO-CD 4144) 1990

 Asia Albums

Asia: Geffen (GHS 02008) 1982

Alpha: Geffen (GHS 24008) 1983

Astra: Geffen (GHS 24072) 1985

Then and Now: Geffen (9 24298-2) 1990

Fantasia Live in Tokyo: Eagle (ER 20115-2) 2007

 Phoenix: Frontier Records (FR CD 370L) 2008

Omega: Frontiers (FR CD 455) 2010

XXX: Frontier Records (FR CD 560) 2012

Heat of the Moment – The Essential Collection: Spectrum Music (SPEC2137) 2013 Compilation

Gravitas: Frontier Records (FR CD 643) 2014

 Quango Album

Live in the Hood: Manticore (MANTVP 101CD) 2002

John Wetton and Geoff Downes Albums

Wetton / Downes: Stallion Records (STALL 103CD) 2002

Icon: Frontier Records (FR CD 242) 2005

Icon Live: Never in a Million Years: Frontier Records (FRCD 306) 2006

Icon 2 Rubicon: Frontier Records (FR CD 309) 2006

Icon 3: Frontier Records (FR CD 406) 2009

John Wetton Albums as a Guest

Edward Hand: Stranded: RCA (LSP 4452) 1970

Peter Banks: Peter Banks: Sovereign (SVNA 7256) 1971

Gordon Haskell: It Is and It Isn’t: Atco (K40311) 1971

Larry Norman: Only Visiting This Planet: MGM (2315135) 1972

Malcolm and Alwyn: Fools Wisdom: Pye (NSPL 18404) 1973

Peter Banks: Two Sides of Peter Banks: Sovereign (SMAS 11217) 1973

Brian Eno: Here Come the Warm Jets: Island (ILPS 9268) 1973

Rare Bird: Somebody’s Watching: Polydor (PD 6502) 1973

Pete Sinfield: Still: Manticore Reords (ANTI 2001) 1973

Bryan Ferry: Another Time Another Place: Island (ILPS 9284) 1974

Roger Chapman and John Whitney: Streetwalkers: Reprise (K 54017) 1974

David Byron: Take No Prisoners: Bronze (ILPS 9342) 1975

Phil Manzanera: Diamond Head: Island (ILPS 9315) 1975

Roxy Music: Viva; Roxy Music: Island (ILPS 9400) 1976

Bryan Ferry: The Bride Stripped Bare: Polydor (2302 081) 1978

Phil Manzanera: K Scope: Polydor (POLD 5011) 1978

Roger Chapman: Mail Order Magic: Line Records (6.24 515) 1980

Roger Chapman: Hyenas Only Laugh For Fun:  Line Records (LLP 5125) 1981

Atoll: Rock Puzzle: Eurodisc (913.300) 1981

Phil Manzanera: Primitive Guitars: EG (EGED 14) 1982

Phil Manzanera: Guitarrisimo: EG (EGCD 69) 1986

Phil Manzanera and John Wetton:  Wetton / Manzanera: Geffen (GHS 24147) 1987

Phil Manzanera: Southern Cross: Expression (EXPCD 1) 1990

Duncan MacKay: Score: EMI (EMC 3168) 1977

Philip Rambow: Jungle Law: Parlophone (PCS 7216) 1981

Phenomena: Phenomena II-Dream Runner: Ariola (258 626) 1987

Vow Wow:  V: BMG (74019) 1988

The Name: Promise: China Records (839 701-1) 1989

Steve Hackett: Genesis Revisited: Reef Recordings (SRECD 704) 1996

Billy Liesegang: No Strings Attached: Escape Music (ESM 804) 1996

Daniele Liverani: Genius a Rock Opera Episode 1: Metal Frontier Music (KICP 896) 2002

Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash: Argus Through the Looking Glass: Mystic Records (MYSCD 201) 2008

Steve Hackett: Genesis Revisited II: Inside out Music (IOMLTDCD 363) 2012

District 97 One More Red Night: Live in Chicago: Primary Purpose (PP0022CD) 2014

8 thoughts on “John Wetton

  1. John Wetton was one of the best progressive bass player and singer. It´s a pity that that he died, he could have done so much more. R.I.P. John

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    1. Hi Tigran, Thank you for looking at my blog, John was a very talented guy and is sorely missed. John

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  2. John was a fantastic bass player and a great vocalist. He was a great song writer whose lyrics were super charged with both emotion and symbolism. I had the pleasure of getting to know him a bit over the years at Asia meet and greets. He is sorely missed. I think of him often. God rest his soul.

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    1. Hi Art, John was a special talent. I was listening to the Mogul Thrash album only a couple of days ago and I’m still amazed by his bass playing, even in those early days of his long career. John

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