Friday, 13 January 2012

John Wetton

A player who can bridge the gap between ABBA and King Crimson,via Roxy Music. That is the high-fidelity first-class traveling section; that elite group of artists who will figure in your album collection if you have been buying them for the past four decades or so, He has been in Family, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Asia and a lot more. Prog Archives says, with a very reasonable claim to being accurate,  There is hardly any other progrock musician with a more impressive curriculum vitae than John Wetton!  His solo output, together with a number of significant collaborations, has guaranteed that Mr Wetton is a part of the fabric of our Rock Legacy, as will become clear from what follows. John Wetton has been on a life-journey like that of a spring tide - high highs and low lows. He is coruscating and frank about both, but as with many interviews of this kind it is right to begin with asking about musical influences. In some ways, I found his knowledge of music and favourites surprising, and then again, not really because all musicians who last as long as he has approach music with an open, inquiring mind and a delight in the work of their peers. 


JW: God Only Knows turned a light on in my head, not only for the lyrics but sonically it is absolutely beautiful. I could see me thinking in colour instead of monochrome. The Beach Boys, vocally, are absolutely fantastic. It seemed to me that all of the good stuff, up until about 1972, was coming out of Southern California. Obviously there was a lot of good stuff coming out of this country, with The Beatles, etc., but the Californian sound was absolutely sublime. Joni Mitchell changed the way I thought about lyric writing. On Blue, it was the confessional lyrics. Then there was Marvin Gaye’sWhat’s Going On”.  I felt that rock music was completely one dimensional up until then, with no substance and two chords. The Beatles were fantastic because they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments and they didn’t have one bloke stood at the front.
I came from a church music background. My brother is a church organist still. Everything I heard musically came out of a church. The Beach Boys were coming at music from a completely different angle. We had post-war austerity; they still had rationing when I was growing up and it was grim up North. I never realised, until I got to California, why Paul McCartney wrote songs like Back Seat of My Car. I heard that on the radio, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and I thought, “Ah ha, I get it!” And that was what you got from The Beach Boys; another world. You can hear classical music and church music in Brian Wilson’s songs. 

I had a choice in the early days. My brother was already leagues ahead of me in the church music department and I was never going to catch up. The alternative of rock music did not appeal because there was nothing there that was going to give me any kind of satisfaction. Then The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Procul Harem started working for me.
RL: Your last album, Raised in Captivity begs a lot of questions about your early life.
JW: It concerns absolutely my upbringing – really the first ten years of my life in the Midlands of post-war Britain. There was no emotion shown in my house. Everyone was grim and tight-lipped. No one ever mentioned love and no one was ever touchy-feely. It was like that game, Asteroids where you are floating around in the same space and only when you collide with someone is any emotion shown and it’s usually anger. I would then run off and sit in my corner for a while; go to my room or go for walks and commune with nature. Looking back on it that was my glimpse of a higher power. I wasn’t getting anything from my home life.  My grandmother lived just across the street and going into her house was different. It was a little cottage full of love and she adored me. I dawned on me that it didn’t have to be like it was at home. Battle Lines was a story of how I would have liked it to have turned out.

Hold Me Now from Battle Lines (1994)

Here ends another day
My emotions locked away
And my darkness is complete as the midnight sky
You steal my confidence
My smile is my defense
And I turn my face, so you won't see me cry

How can you be so cold, and so out of control?
As you pour salt into my deepest cut of all
My shattered heart, in pieces now
And I'm gazing at the fragments of my life

Hold me now, maybe just pretend I could be someone that you might have loved before
Hold me now, and let me believe in a kiss that means nothing to you…
'Cause it means the world to me

I didn’t speak with my mother for 15 years but we are closer now. At any rate it is considerably better than it was.
(In the early 1970’s George Martin took John under his wing and presented him with a variety of projects.)
JW: I needed some cash. He kept suggesting things for me to do, and Larry Norman was one of the albums I worked on, which went on to be the Number One Christian album of all time (Only Visiting This Planet, 1973).  I worked with George for about a year.
RL: You have this belief in a higher power – I can’t think of anything that exemplifies that more than God Walks with Us.
JW: Absolutely. I was just starting to glimpse that again when that song was recorded. There is no doubt in my mind that when you pick up a drink, you un-plug yourself from that. Your drink becomes your higher power. It seems to do all the tricks to start with; even for years and years it works and then your best friend turns its back on you. The last two years before I stopped I was physically addicted to the stuff and it wasn’t working. If I stopped all Hell would break loose and I was insane, literally round the bend.
RL: When was your point of decision?
JW: I was going to die and I chose life. It was a fairly simple decision but not an easy one. Giving up was horrendous and I never want to be in that position again.
RL: Were there relationships that had to be repaired.
JW: Absolutely. One of my main focuses is to try and make amends and repair relationships with people that I had just pushed out of my life. Some people don’t want to know but I try and make things better.
RL: Where did you draw your inner strength from?
JW: I ran out of ideas. I had nowhere left to go. It brought me to my knees before whatever I believed to be the God of my understanding.
RL: Going back, you were thrown out of Asia.
JW: That was 20 years before. Such is the arrogance of the functioning alcoholic that it was unthinkable that they would want to get rid of me. The fact is I was a liability. The way it was done was really unpleasant. Part of believes now that I deserved it but I wouldn’t treat someone else like that.
RL: It is not as if you had the confidence to change anything at that point. Your upbringing didn’t provide you with the capacity to deal with it, did it?
JW: It’s probably why I drank in the first place. The drink took away my inhibitions and enabled me to do what I could not do. Alcohol was the piece of the jigsaw that was missing from my life.  When it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to, then I was in trouble.
RL: I don’t want to harp on about it too much..
JW: Well, it’s good to get it out because it possibly only then that one can understand God Walks With Us and Raised in Captivity. Raised in Captivity is all about that. In fact the last 6 or 7 albums are in some way about celebrating what I have now. Phoenix is about creating a new life out of the ashes of the old.
(John Wetton’s life came into sharp focus once again when he was deemed to need major heart surgery)
JW: They did the angiogram and the next morning it was done. A six-hour operation. One side of the hospital looked out over Abbey Road and the other side over Lord’s cricket ground and I thought that this is a fitting place for it all to end if it does end. The surgeon came round the night before and said that I might die and how did I feel about that, and I said “I’m ok with that”. If I finally meet my creator I’ve got a lot less explaining to do than I would have done five years ago. When I meet my maker I hope I shall be meeting an old friend, not saying “Oh my God, I wasn’t expecting this!”
RL: This year you were guesting with Steve Hackett, no responsibility, you just turn up!
JW: I can’t go wrong. I go on and I sing Firth of Fifth. The audience are die-hard Genesis fans. Steve and I have history on that song anyway. It’s preaching to the converted!
RL: You have this incredible dialogue on your website’s guestbook.
JW: Not that many people know about it. I will talk to anyone on the guestbook. Some have been there for fifteen years and I sometimes bump into them. They introduce themselves and I place a name to a face. Sometimes people come on to the Guest Book and they are drinking too much and they ask, “How did you get out of that one?” I’ll PM them and try and refer them to someone.
RL: King Crimson?
JW: Fantastic, it was like going to university. It was extremely demanding in terms of mental alacrity and actual muscle. We did an awful lot. We’d play a two-hour set of which about 70% was improvised. You had to think on your feet. I was surrounded by people who were extremely good players and I had to hold my own. Robert Fripp is actually a really good friend now. He comes round for tea and we just talk and talk and talk.
RL: I have heard stories of people who couldn’t cut it with KC because of the discipline.
JW: Yes, it’s a pretty high bar. For me, nobody could knock my musical credentials after I came out of that.
RL: Returning to The Beach Boys, if I may, there are a couple of songs on the latest album which are kind of drenched in the Beach Boys sound, such as in Goodbye Elsinore and New Star Rising.
JW: If I get the opportunity I always put in a little paean to Brian Wilson. There’s one on an Asia Record, Voice of America – a complete lift in fact, from Good Vibrations. There’s a vocal chord and it’s so Beach Boys it’s ridiculous! I don’t mind that because I am just saying, “Thanks, Brian”.
RL: Did you ever meet any of the Beach Boys?
JW: I met Brian. He was almost asleep. I was sitting next to him and there was a long boring monologue going on and by the time I had plucked up the courage to speak to him during the break,  about how much he had influenced me, I turned around and he was asleep.
RL: And then there is ABBA!
JW: I’m a big fan of Agnetha – Anna – as she is known to her friends. I did write a song for one of her solo albums. Geoff (Downes) and I went over to Stockholm to record it. It’s called We Move As One, on Eyes of a Woman. She’s lovely. Absolutely adorable. Geoff and I were huge fans of ABBA and we still are. As good as they are they would have been nothing without her voice. I just melt every time I hear Name of the Game.
RL: You enjoy Classical Music?
JW: I rarely listen to anything else. One of the best experiences for me was that I hopped on a plane to Copenhagen and then on the Helsingor – Helsingborg Ferry. I was on my way to see Vilde Frang. She is fantastic. We have been waiting for a superstar violinist for a long time now, and she is the one. Out of that came Goodbye Elsinore which I began to compose on the Ferry.

Thankfully, John is alive and well and still gigging after all these years. For details about his  extensive 2012 diary, please visit and bookmark

Here's a track from Raised in Captivity. John is in remarkably fine voice throughout the album, but here he is sharing the work with Dutch Goth Rocker, Anneke van Giersbergen:


1 comment:

Dave said...

Good article Ged. Keep it up.