Gimme Five: John Wetton on Asia, King Crimson and standout solo songs

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On this special edition of Something Else Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to prog legend John Wetton, who discusses signature moments from his tenures in Asia, King Crimson and as a solo artist.

As he prepares for 2012 projects with UK and then with Asia, he took us inside the creative process on a decades-old album that, even today, Wetton says he’ll be hard-pressed to match. Find out how optimism has shot through Wetton’s work since he stopped drinking, and how the title track from King Crimson’s Starless and the Bible Black somehow ended up on the group’s follow up release.

Oh, and what Asia’s mega-hit debut — the biggest selling album of 1982 — has in common with Adele’s current blockbuster release …

“MY OWN TIME,” with ASIA (ALPHA, 1983): A deep cut from Asia’s multi-platinum follow up to its smash self-titled debut, “My Own Time” — with its tough-guy subtitle “I’ll Do What I Want” — struck a chord with anyone who has suffered through romantic entanglements. Like all but one track on this album, “My Own Time” was written by Wetton and Geoff Downes — who seemed to be in ascension as principal collaborators, with guitarist Steve Howe contributing only a B-side composition for the single “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes.” Alpha, however, would be the last album to feature all four original members of Asia until 2008’s Phoenix, following the subsequent ouster of Wetton over personal issues.

JOHN WETTON: One of the most identifiable Asia songs. The chorus is: “I’m going to do what I want, and I’m going to do it when I fucking want to.” (Laughs.) Two million American guys went: “Yes!” People still say to me, “That’s the greatest song you ever wrote.” I go, “Shit, it was really, really bitter.” Unfortunately, with Asia’s first record, there was a lot of bitterness in there. I was writing about stuff that had gone wrong romantically. Of course, there’s a lot of people who identify with that – vis-a-vis, Adele. She’s sitting in her little room, writing these venomous songs about this ghastly boyfriend who has really pissed all over her. Everybody goes: “Yes!” (Laughs.) That’s what they did with Asia: The first song is an apology (“Heat of the Moment”), the second song (“Only Time Will Tell”) is “You bitch, how dare you!,” and the third one (“Soul Survivor”) is “I’m going to get over this.” It’s the same thing, and people loved it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Wetton examines three of his most important musical stops – Asia, King Crimson and UK – while frankly discussing how drinking nearly ruined all of it.]

“GOODBYE ELSINOR,” solo (RAISED IN CAPTIVITY, 2011): Though Wetton recorded his first solo project since 2003’s Rock of Faith at producer Billy Sherwood’s LA studios, inspiration for this stand-out track actually came while on the Denmark-Sweden sea ferry en route to a Vilde Frang concert. The song boasts influences as disparate as the Beach Boys, sea-channel shanty songs and Genesis — in the form of featured guitarist Steve Hackett, who has collaborated on a pair of albums and a number of concert dates with Wetton over the years. More importantly, the shimmering and majestic “Goodbye Elsinor” might just provide the perfect imagery of departure for an artist who in many ways has spent the last decade or so rebuilding his private life and reclaiming his place in music.

JOHN WETTON: I had a rough sketch of an idea, coming into the studio with Billy. I was catching a ferry from Denmark to Sweden, for a concert. When you leave Elsinor on the ferry, it’s called the Hamlet. Everything is themed around Shakespeare. And much of it came to me, right there, with the mist splashing up. When I got back home, I started to formalize it a little bit more. By the time I took into the studio, it ended up being “Goodbye Elsinor,” with Billy contributing a huge amount. It became a really, really good song. And that’s the beauty of working with someone who is melodically and chordally and lyrically on the same page. Great stuff, love it.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Billy Sherwood talks about working with John Wetton on ‘Raised in Captivity,’ calling the prog-rock singer-bassist’s UK project a touchstone influence.]

STARLESS, with KING CRIMSON (RED, 1974): The trio of Wetton, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford recorded this underrated project with help from former King Crimson members David Cross, Ian McDonald and Mel Collins. Originally conceived by Wetton as the title track to Crimson’s previous recording, the song had been left out and reworked over the late spring tour of 1974 — eventually reemerging not as a straight-forward ballad, but as one of the band’s classic 12-minute musical explorations. That long gestation period led to some interesting twists in the song’s evolution: For instance Bruford, the drummer, suggested the bass riff which dominates the lengthy instrumental section — and, of course, the title had to be shortened, since the album Starless and the Black Bible had already been issued. Shockingly, Fripp disbanded King Crimson before Red could be released, and the album disappeared without any accompanying tour. Still, “Starless” has remained a staple of Wetton’s live shows, though he occasionally performs the shorter, original version.

JOHN WETTON: Sometimes I play the whole thing but then, when I’m doing solo stuff, sometimes I want to show you just the song, the way it was written — so you will get a stripped-down version. I provided three minutes of a formal tune for “Starless,” and part of the lyric — and then Bill Bruford provided the demonic bass riff. King Crimson was nothing if not a paradox. Everybody assumes that the bass part was written by the bass player, but it was written by the drummer! (Laughs.) Sometimes the bass part was written by the guitar player. That happens in any band. When people try to dissect what Geoff Downes and I do, they inevitably get it wrong, too. In rehearsal or in the recording studio, when you get the song down, it sometimes doesn’t sound anything like it did in your head. Someone else’s contribution will stand it up on its head. That came come from anywhere. Sometimes a tape machine does not behave like it’s supposed to. You record something and it doesn’t sound the away it should. (Chuckles.) Sometimes you think the machine has a mind of its own. The whole process of recording is so mysterious and arcane. There’s nothing straight forward about it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With ‘Danger Money,’ John Wetton and UK showed they could combine the intricacies of prog with enough musical hooks to resonant like great pop music.]

“PEACE IN OUR TIMES,” with ICON (ICON 3, 2009): A moving moment of anti-war sentiment found on the third studio album from John Wetton and fellow Asia album Geoffrey Downes as Icon. The duo, fresh off of Asia’s long-awaited 2008 comeback release Phoenix, clearly had a creative head of steam built up after years apart. “Peace in Our Times” is distinctive, though, in that it swerves away from their core group’s signature sound by pairing featured guitarist is David Kilminster with legendary ELO cellist Hugh McDowell, for a fuller, more classically inspired feel. (Kilminster, an alum of the 1990s-era John Wetton Band, has played with Keith Emerson, Carl Palmer, Uriah Heep’s Ken Hensley and, perhaps most famously of late, with Roger Waters — on both his 2006-08 Dark Side of the Moon and 2010-12 The Wall tours.) Then, there’s this tune’s overtly positive message — another signpost in Wetton’s journey toward the light after years of personal struggles.

JOHN WETTON: My stuff now tries to carry a little bit more of a positive message. I try and slip in a positive message, even at the end of a piece of bitterness. In general, my stuff tries to carry a message of “carpe diem,” “look for the best in things,” “be optimistic” — because that’s the way I’ve had to be, particularly over the last five years, since I’ve had heart surgery. That reminds you that you’ve only got today. My life changed completely, about seven years ago, when I stopped drinking. All of it pointed me toward a more positive outlook on life. I can’t write the way I used to. I have to write like life is for me today.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The title track from 2011’s ‘Raised in Captivity’ found John Wetton reuniting with old King Crimson mate Robert Fripp, producing an album highlight.]

“WALKING ON AIR,” solo (BATTLE LINES, 1994): One of the legendary unfinished songs in Wetton’s catalog, this early version appeared on 2002’s Wetton/Downes, which featured a series of demos recorded between 1982-1990 — many of which eventually saw the light of day as completed Asia tunes. “Walking On Air” ended up on Wetton’s 1994 release Battle Lines, just his second studio solo effort ever — and a recording that Wetton still counts among his very best. At this point, he hadn’t made a full-length album project with Asia since 1985, and Wetton was simply bursting with ideas. His ace backing group for the project (including Simon Phillips, Steve Lukather and former King Crimson bandmate Robert Fripp) matched that torrent of enthusiasm stride for stride.

JOHN WETTON: I did the when I was living in Los Angeles. I was making the record for Virgin Records America in the early 1990s, and I was in a perfect environment with so much stimuli — working with some of the really, really good songwriters and having the choice of all the great musicians of LA. I was really like a pig in shit. I had about 45 songs stockpiled for Battle Lines. We trimmed it down to 10, one of which was the unfinished “Walking on Air.” When we went into the studio, we rerecorded everything – with superb players and really top-notch studio digital recording. There was an unlimited budget for orchestral arrangements. I had everything I wanted. But when it came to “Walking on Air,” what we had was that 24-track demo, with this really cheesy synthesizer on it. By this time I had written the lyrics, and I had decided it was going to be about death – my take on it, that it was a long corridor. We sat down to rerecord it and we just couldn’t get the synth to sound anywhere near as ghostly and as spooky and as funky as the one that was already on there. So we took the original synth and put everything else around it. I redid the vocal in the studio, and that was the only part that we kept from the demo. We had millions dollars of equipment but we just couldn’t reproduce this 50-dollar cheesy synth, so we kept it! So, it’s got the spook. I love it. It’s one of my favorite tracks — and, really, I love the whole album. It will take some doing for me to better that.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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