John Kenneth Wetton, singer, bassist, guitarist and composer (b. Willington, Derbyshire, 12 June 1949), died 31 January 2017 in Bournemouth, Dorset, of colon cancer, aged 67.
John Wetton enjoyed relating how in 1982, when record sales and tour receipts indicated that Asia were the biggest band in the world, his mother Peggy would tell him: “This is all very well John, but when are you going to get a proper job?”
Growing up in Dorset, Wetton showed a ready aptitude for music, rehearsing pieces for church services with his brother proving a formative experience. An early road outing saw him backing Helen Shapiro on a mini-tour of Scotland, an interlude he remembered none too fondly. Back in Dorset, Wetton formed several bands with life-long collaborator, future Supertramp member and King Crimson lyricist Richard Palmer-James. He also made the acquaintance of Robert Fripp.
In 1971, after stints in Mogul Thrash and Renaissance, Wetton passed on Fripp’s invitation to enrol in King Crimson (then in a state of turmoil) and instead joined Family for two of their least Proggy but commercially most successful albums, Fearless and Bandstand. Hit single Burlesque saw him on TOTP and his harmony vocals on the beautiful My Friend The Sun remain one of many career highlights. Wetton was, however, itching to develop as a player, vocalist and composer and in 1972 Fripp finally got his man. “John was the leading bass player of his generation…” the guitarist remembers: “a player of international class.” The reconstituted Crimson, widely perceived as the primo configuration of that protean outfit, paired Wetton with Yes defector Bill Buford in a monstrously powerful rhythm section. The volume and tone of his bass could be described as brutal, but for its harmonic sophistication and melodic inventiveness. Wetton’s vocal deliveries in this period ranged from the harsh rasp of Lament to the tenderness of Fallen Angel and soulful melancholy of Starless. The latter has been covered memorably by The Unthanks. Kurt Cobain cited the Red album (1974) as the template for grunge. Nevertheless, Fripp split the band before it was released.
After service with Uriah Heep and Roxy Music, Wetton reunited with Bruford in 1977 to try and recapture the elusive Crimson magic in U.K., with Eddie Jobson replacing David Cross on violin and Allan Holdsworth taking Fripp’s guitar seat. Bruford and Holdsworth soon split, feeling that the band was going in too commercial a direction. Terry Bozzio was recruited on drums and UK continued, in stark refutation of Bruford’s charge, as JW and two Zappa alumni…
That band folded in 1980 and after lending his talents to Wishbone Ash, Wetton took a genuine tilt at the mainstream with supergroup Asia, comprising fellow Prog titans Steve Howe, Geoff Downes (Yes) and Carl Palmer (ELP.) Restraining their virtuoso chops in favour of radio friendly AOR, Asia cleaned up internationally with hits like Heat Of The Moment and Only Time Will Tell, plus their platinum selling eponymous debut album. The band persisted through various fluctuations of fortune and line-up (Wetton was to have participated in the band’s 2017 world tour, co-headlining with Journey, before his final illness overtook him.)
While pursuing a near-40 year solo career Wetton continued to share his writing and performing talents promiscuously, in Asia offshoots Quango (with Palmer) and iCon (Downes), one-off and short lived collaborations with such peers as Steve Hackett, Ian McDonald and Phil Manzanera, also endorsing young up’n’comers like District 97 by sharing a stage with them (documented on the album One More Red Night – Live In Chicago.)
A serious musician and a deeply thoughtful man, Wetton is also remembered by his various collaborators for his wicked sense of fun. He was not above performing the lyrics of Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s A Dustman to the tune of Crimson’s epic Prog chestnut In The Court Of The Crimson King (try it!) Somewhere along the way hedonism shaded off into excess… Wetton was scathingly honest about his long battle with alcoholism and active in his support of those facing the same and similar fights. In later life he achieved sobriety and happiness in his marriage to Lisa. He bore his final struggle, against colon cancer, with the same courage and good grace, regularly posting social media messages of positivity and stoicism, encouraging his followers to take their health seriously and seize the day.
Geoff Downes remembers: “His bass playing was revolutionary. His voice was from the gods. His compositions – out of this world. His sense of melody and harmony – unreal. He was literally a ‘special one’.”
John Wetton did a proper job. He is survived by wife Lisa, son Dylan, brother Robert and by Peggy.