‘It will take some doing for me to better that’: John Wetton remembers Battle Lines

Battle Lines, originally issued 20 years ago as Voice Mail in Japan, found John Wetton beginning anew as a solo artist after an on-again, off-again initial period with Asia. He brought along a few famous friends, including ex-King Crimson bandmate Robert Fripp, Toto’s Steve Lukather and Simon Phillips, guitarist Michael Landau and Survivor’s Jim Peterik, who co-wrote “Space and Time.” He also brought along some of the best songs he’s ever put to disc.

“I was living in Los Angeles,” Wetton tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “and 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.”

In the end, it may be the best Asia album that Asia never put out, right down to the inclusion of “Walking On Air” — which was also tried as an amped-up collaboration with Wetton’s Asia collaborator Geoff Downes, and later included as part of 2002’s Wetton/Downes. Still, Battles Lines isn’t simply a rehash of ideas he’d already had with that 1980s-era supergroup. To this point, Wetton hadn’t made a full-length album project with Asia since 1985 — and he was clearly bursting with ideas.

“I had about 45 songs stockpiled for Battle Lines,” Wetton confirms. He and producer Ron Nevison “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.”

Lukather, who had earlier worked with Asia on 1990’s “Days Like These,” completes a pair of anthemic tracks in “Right Where I Wanted to Be” and “Jane,” which was co-written by his longtime bandmate Phillips. (Fast forward to last year, and Wetton was approaching Lukather to take over for Steve Howe in Asia, but the guitarist was simply too busy with other projects.) “Space and Time” soars into its chorus, underscoring Wetton’s enduring vocal command, while the title track explores an orchestral reminiscence. “Hold Me Now” was as brutally honest, and as emotionally raw, as anything Wetton had yet done.

Then there was the darkly intriguing “Walking on Air,” which proved to be one of more difficult — though, ultimately rewarding — moments on an album that Wetton has grown to appreciate as one of his very best.

“What we had was that 24-track demo, with this really cheesy synthesizer on it,” he tells me. “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 explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso