John Wetton has an over-stuffed briefcase of appointments this year.
Coming off a well-received sixth solo project, he’ll reunite with the trio-era members of UK for a tour to begin on May 2, 2012, then with his blockbuster 1980s prog-pop band Asia for an album and tour in the fall. The well-traveled Brit rose to early fame collaborating with childhood friend Robert Fripp in King Crimson between 1972-74, before co-founding UK in 1978 and then Asia in 1982; he has also worked as a sideman with Roxy Music, Wishbone Ash and Uriah Heep over the years.
As he gets set to retake American and Canadian stages with Eddie Jobson and Terry Bozzio as UK for the first time in three decades, the singer-songwriting bassist stopped by for the latest SER Sitdown. We discussed reuniting with the progressive-rock era’s last supergroup, the enduring joys of collaborating with Geoff Downes and how turning away from alcoholism changed everything …
NICK DERISO: As you reunite with UK, what’s your sense of why the band never got its due? Was it simply a matter of timing, since UK arrived during the ascendancy of punk and new wave?
JOHN WETTON: All these years later, we’re finding out that people really liked it! (Laughs.) I think if we’d stuck at it, we’d probably have been able to succeed. I don’t think the new wave and punk things that were happening in 1976, ’77 really changed all that much. Genesis was still Genesis. Pink Floyd was still Pink Floyd. All it did was make a few dents. I don’t think it necessarily derailed anybody. We were on a pretty good trajectory. Business was on the up. The trouble was, Eddie and I at that time, in 1979, were headed in completely different directions. He wanted to be super prog-man, and I didn’t. I went and joined Asia, and he went and joined Jethro Tull – right to the prog end of the scale, while I went sort of pop-rock. The beauty of UK was that it walked the line between those two points. If Eddie had control, it would have progged out completely. If I’d have had it, it would have been a pop-rock band. We kind of trod this line which was half way between the two, and I think that is what made the stuff really good on the UK albums. But we, being impetuous young lads, couldn’t see eye to eye – so we just walked away from it.
NICK DERISO: That turned into a long walk. This is the first full-fledged official reunion that UK’s ever managed, right?
JOHN WETTON:It took a long, long time for us to be reconciled. (Chuckles.) A long, long time. The way I look at UK now is that it’s not me that’s driving the bus. It’s very much Eddie’s baby. I’ve got Asia, and Asia is very much my priority. But UK is a lovely thing to do, a nice way to go out and see some people that I wouldn’t normally get to see – people that wouldn’t come see Asia will go and see UK, because they know it’s a one-off. This isn’t going to happen again – or, I don’t think it will, anyway. (Chuckles again.) One of the best surprises, certainly of the last year, was getting an email from Terry Bozzio saying how much he was looking forward to working again. That really, really moved me. I hadn’t spoken to the guy in over 30 years. I thought that was really sweet. I’m very much looking forward to working with him again, as well. This is very, very special to me.
NICK DERISO: For all of the radio hits you had with Asia, you took some unbelievable musical risks – in particular, in concert – with bands like UK and King Crimson. Do you miss the sense of improvisational freedom that surrounded those bands? Why do you think audiences turned away from that?
JOHN WETTON: They were programmed to, really, weren’t they? In the 1980s, everything went global, and everything went mega. They moved all of the hippies out of a record companies – and they replaced them with suits who had previously been managers of supermarkets. The guys who were in charge saw how much tying up an album with a film could increase record sales – to put a zero on the end. Where you once were talking about thousands, now you were talking about millions. The tying up of a song with a movie suddenly put record sales into the stratosphere. In the 1970s, everybody was happy to develop an artist and you were allowed to have a first album that did OK, and a second that did a little bit better and, by the fourth or fifth album, you were starting to make money. In the 1980s, you weren’t allowed to do that – and I don’t think anything has changed. In fact, it has gotten worse today. You’ve got one shot, one single, and that’s it. We’re in a very, very lucky position, really, with Asia where we still have a conventional record contract. We make albums through Frontiers, a melodic rock-based label from Italy, and they put out the music on CDs and vinyl. If that were not the case, I don’t know where I would start today. Most people who download singles don’t even know which album it came from. It’s a different ball game. As we moved into the 1980s, and the hippies got paid off, the audience moved with them.
NICK DERISO: After so long working in sideman roles, there just seemed to be a torrent of built-up creativity in those early years with Geoff Downes in Asia.
JOHN WETTON: I was looking at that time, in 1979-80, to put a band together. The first person that I came across was Steve Howe. We started working together, and I had stockpiled most of the first Asia record in bits and pieces. A lot of choruses, a lot of bits and pieces. And when I eventually came to work with Geoff Downes, it was like a marriage made in heaven. We clicked instantly. Every time I had a chorus, he could provide a verse – and vice versa. And we never looked back. We’re still writing today, and it’s one of the easiest relationships that I have. We just don’t stop. That creativity doesn’t go away, and it’s a gift. For me to be able to do Asia as a full time job, but then to also have the time to be able to do something like UK and do the odd solo album or gig there, anything that takes my fancy, is great.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Geoff Downes took time out from Asia for a return to Yes, helping produce a comeback album in 2011’s ‘Fly From Here’ that was better than it had any right to be.]
NICK DERISO: Asia ended up moving across the musical landscape like a comet. You left on the heels of a huge Top 10 hit in “Don’t Cry” just two years after the band’s formation. What happened?
JOHN WETTON: In many ways, it was more successful than (Asia’s career-making Top 5 1982 hit) “Heat of the Moment,” because people bought the album instead. With “Don’t Cry,” they bought the single. It was monumental success. Unfortunately, the band then decided to dispense of my services. It only lasted through a couple of years at that point, which I thought was tragic. As we’re showing now, there was a lot more life left in the band. But I take responsibility for that as well, because I wasn’t very well at that point – and I was getting worse. I understand why people didn’t want to hang around with me. I’m much better now. I am much more of a safe bet than I was in those days. (Laughs.) Anyway, I think that’s just water under the bridge. It’s enabled us to have a second bite of the apple 25 years later.
NICK DERISO: Asia continued on in various forms for years, until the original lineup finally reunited in 2006. How has the band dynamic changed since then?
JOHN WETTON: Me being sober, having a clear direction – it’s been a lot easier for me. The way the machinery was set up then was, you made a record and then you went out and did a tour to promote it. Then you make another one, then you go out on tour again. We became part of that machinery, to the extent that it didn’t matter what the needs of the individuals were. You’ll notice that when the Beatles got really successful, they stopped touring. All they did was make records. There must have been a reason for that. But we weren’t going to have that luxury. It was very difficult for me to maintain a full-blown alcoholic’s lifestyle, and do all of the stuff I was expected to do. So, something had to go. That’s different now. I can devote all of my time to Asia now, and so I do. It gets 100 percent of my attention.
NICK DERISO: As time has gone on, your songwriting has become more and more personal. Was that part of the process of getting sober, as well?
JOHN WETTON: Oh, absolutely. I always admired people like Joni Mitchell, probably my favorite singer-songwriter of all time. Blue is still probably in the Top 3 albums for me of all time. She managed to encapsulate to me the kind of lyric that was almost like reading out of a journal. They were things so personal, and I had never heard anything like it before. When I heard Blue, it just completely flattened me. I didn’t know that anyone could be that straight forward and honest on a record – could just kind of be stripped naked like that. At that point, that encouraged me. The way that British art rock was, it was always observing someone else. It was always taking inventory of other people. Hearing Joni Mitchell encouraged me to be able to write about myself. I wasn’t completely comfortable with doing that actually until around about 1982, about 10 years later. All the way through King Crimson, I was still writing about other people, and pretty much with UK as well.
NICK DERISO: That was certainly the case with the emotionally direct Raised in Captivity, last year’s collaboration with Billy Sherwood.
JOHN WETTON: With Billy, we worked together for about five years. I’d sometimes do his Cleopatra (Records) compilations; they are great fun to do. He sends over backtracks, and it could be Beatles, it could be Jethro Tull, it could be John Lennon, it could anything. I just put my vocal on it, and send it back. We kind of got used to it; we knew what the other brought to the party. I knew I wanted to record in Los Angeles, because of all the stimulus that you get. I’ve got my little apartment, and just driving up to Billy’s – about three miles – there would be helicopters, guys with guns. It was fantastic. When I go to my local supermarket to do the shopping, you don’t see stuff like that. (Laughs.) Old people dying, that’s about the most dramatic thing that’s going to happen. All these things are going on, and by the time I’d get to the studio, I had a hundred ideas. I’d burst through the door, and say: ‘Run the machines!’ And, fortunately, he’s the same. It’s like two people who have drunk too much coffee. It was incredibly productive, from the moment we started. When we walked in, we had nothing. When we walked out, a month later, we had a shiny little CD in our hands. It was incredible.