'Stuff happens and you learn from it': John Wetton talks King Crimson – then and now

Before he transitioned back into the role of frontman of Asia with this week’s new single “Face on the Bridge,” John Wetton took some time to talk about his earlier association with King Crimson.

Asia has announced a new studio album (the forthcoming XXX, on Frontiers Records) and worldwide 2012 tour in celebration of its 30th anniversary. XXX will be released in Europe on June 29, 2012, in England on July 2 and in North America on July 3. Wetton will then reunite with fellow cofounding members Geoff Downes, Steve How and Carl Palmer for concert appearances to begin in September.

Prior to joining that supergroup, Wetton had been part of a quartet of seminal Crimson albums, 1973’s Lark’s Tongue in Aspic; 1974’s Starless and Bible Black and Red; and 1975’s live document USA. The period saw Robert Fripp’s long-standing prog-rock amalgam make some of its most experimental and influential early recordings, but also begin to lose sales momentum.

For instance, Kurt Cobain later cited Red as having a key impact on him, but the album would spend just one week on the British charts, reaching No. 45 – thus ending a run of consecutive Crimson releases to reach the Top 30. By the time the project was issued, in fact, Fripp had already disbanded the group in favor of a short-lived retirement. “King Crimson,” Wetton allows, “was nothing if not a paradox.” And that starts with its founder, a childhood friend with whom Wetton remains close – though he’s quick to add that the pair rarely discuss Crimson.

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

The posthumous concert recording USA would be the King Crimson’s last output until 1981’s Discipline — which, with the addition of second guitarist Adrian Belew, would take Crimson on a more modern bent that continued into the 2000s. By then, Wetton was in the midst of launching Asia, but he’s kept an eye on his former band – and stopped by, in the latest SER Sitdown, to talk about his time in King Crimson, and what he thinks about the way things turned out …

NICK DERISO: Though it was put together as the band broke up, Red to me is the best example of your collaborative successes in King Crimson in that it’s both powerful and intimate, as well.
JOHN WETTON: Red had it all. If you look at Red, as much as any album we did, it has the lot. Very concise, very to the point. It hits you like a sledge hammer, and at the same time, it gives you mouth-to-mouth respiration just when you need it. It’s a beautiful album. I thought so at the time, though nobody else did. (Chuckles.) That’s just the way it was. When we finished the album I thought: ‘This is a exactly what I wanted to do.’ (Co-founding Crimson saxophonist) Ian McDonald (who appears on both “One More Red Nightmare” and “Starless”) was coming back into the band and I thought: ‘Oh, yeah, everything was looking really good.’ But that wasn’t the way it was going to be for someone else in the band.

NICK DERISO: Did you continue to follow King Crimson?
JOHN WETTON: I have to explain something: Robert and I are better friends now than we’ve ever been – and we’ve known each other for more than 50 years. We see each other regularly. We sit and talk for hours – usually about everything except King Crimson, because it’s probably better that way. (Chuckles.) I went to see them in the 1990s, and I thought: ‘OK, what is lost for me is that beautiful combination of the slashing, heavy metal, insect-like guitar – the mathematical thing going on – and that lyrical, mellotron balance that we used to have.’ It lost that completely. All there was, was the one side of the coin. The only time when the lone voice came out in a melodic sense was the second encore, when they did ‘Walking on Air’ (from 1995’s Thrak). I thought: ‘OK, there it is.’ I had been waiting all night on that. It was like there was nobody in there fighting for what my job was in King Crimson, to provide the foil for all of the instrumental stuff that was going on. Before me, it was Greg Lake, and now there was nobody doing that. It was like the vocals had joined into the insect army. (Laughs.) I’m not being derogatory, just stating facts. That’s what happened! I didn’t feel that there was anything carrying the flag for the progressive ballad in King Crimson. They kind of lost me.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Greg Lake takes over our One Track Mind feature to talk about key songs from Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson's seminal debut and his collaborations with Gary Moore.]

NICK DERISO: Live recordings from your time in Crimson underscore how the group moved with remarkable freedom from things that sound composed into free-form experimentation.
JOHN WETTON: Well, nobody knew where the improvisations started and where they stopped – including us, by the way. (Laughs.) There were formal pieces, and then improvisation took over again. Between 40 and 60 percent of the stuff that we played on stage with Crimson was improvisational. We had it down to fine art, as to how each piece dovetailed into the next one. And it was always different. Every night would be different. The one rule that we had was that if one person went out on a limb, the rest would follow. It was as simple as that. If you apply that rule, it always works. Whatever happens, if the person who stands up becomes the leader, the rest follow. Whoever it is, if the rest follow, it sounds like everyone is doing what they are supposed to do.

NICK DERISO: Was it difficult to move on after Robert Fripp’s decision to disband?
JOHN WETTON: I don’t regret what happened there. Stuff happens and you learn from it. It makes us what we are now. I thoroughly enjoyed my two or three years in King Crimson. It was like going to college, really. You come out with a qualification that no one can take away. When it was working, it had everything: Just when you would get sick of the riff churning around, something would happen — and it would turn into this beautiful, lyrical passage. It was magical. It was really magical, very powerful.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.