You can spot a real professional by his or her punctuality. Right on time John Wetton and darling wife Jill enter the parlour of the Gaite complex in Brussels. They both greet me in a way like we've known each other for years although this is our first encounter (and hopefully not last!). Even without having prepared this interview we could've been chatting for hours on end. Wetton is my ideal spokesperson: the one that keeps on talking just like the pink bunny who keeps on banging his drums thanks Duracell! Witness the battle of the two talkative Johns!
JB3: 'Was Family your very first band?'
John Wetton: 'The very first hit I had, the very first TV I did was with a band called Mogul Thrash. Incidentally I scored that hit in Belgium with a track called 'Sleeping In The Kitchen'. It was a sort of jazzrock band with a horn section and although we did have a couple of good tracks, the band didn't do very well. In fact you could've compared us a bit with Frank Zappa. At one given moment it looked like there were two different ideas within the band. On one side there was me who wanted to go into a progressive direction. On the other side you had the rest of the boys who obviously were inspired by bands such as Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Inevitably the band split up but the horn section continued under the name of the Average White Band.'
JB3: 'Let's 'pick up the pieces' from here shall we? Was that where you really got the taste for the music business?'
John Wetton: 'The same day that I finished my studies, a friend of mine called me and asked if I would be interested to go on a tour of Romania for six weeks. Someone in the band worked for the government and at the time they had this rule which meant that you could not get into a communist country without taking three months off work, without pay of course. In fact they asked me to take over from the keyboard player but because the bass player also played keyboards it was possible to swap instruments. That's how the very first concert I ever did was one in a football stadium in Bucharest in front of 60,000 people! I was a member of the band Zoo and we were amongst others the backing band for Helen Shapiro and another artist who was quite big in the sixties but who later on didn't seem to be that important as I have forgotten his name ! The band and the other people on tour treated us so badly that we decided to get even with them on the last day of the tour. It concerned the biggest stadium of the tour and the biggest crowd we played to and just before the main act was to go on stage I started singing 'Lady Madonna'. The 60,000 people didn't want the main act to go on! It was brilliant. It was sort of our way to say thanks to them all. By doing this tour however it became clear to me that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I wanted to be a professional musician. That feeling once you get on stage, has become a feeling I can't live without anymore.
JB3: 'Did you decide from day one that you wanted to play the bass and sing at the same time?'
John Wetton: 'I started out on the piano playing classical pieces of music with my brother. My brother would later become an organ player and choir leader in church, a thing he still does to the present day. Each day our house would be filled with classical music. In church my brother played the organ where he could play the bass parts with his feet. At home though we didn't have an organ, only a piano. So at home I played all of the bass parts on the piano whilst my brother was playing the 'lead'. From the early age of six, seven years I managed to find the link between the bass and the melody and it kept me fascinated up until now. When you look closely at most of my songs you'll see that the melody is closely related to the bass line either where melody is concerned or by timing. Then I also decided I didn't want to become a keyboard player. Keyboard players were always doomed to remain seated and tucked away behind this huge instrument. As a bass player you could move more freely on stage. You have to bear in mind that I'm talking about 1969 here, a period where the keyboard player couldn't be compared with the same vacancy now. So bass and singing were the obvious choices also because there were so few people combining the two. You had Peter Cetera with Chicago, Jack Bruce with Cream and Paul McCartney with the Beatles and that was it.'
JB3: You mentioned Mogul Thrash as your very first band. Didn't you do any sessions?'
John Wetton: 'When I was in London of course I did many sessions especially for George Martin. He got me lots of jobs because he liked what I did on the bass. After about a year of doing sessions I decided this was not what I wanted to do. The pay was OK but I just had to play score after score without having my own ideas thrown in. I practically lived in the Air studios but had no time to work on my own songs. I decided to take the plane and fly to California because at the time it seemed something was happening there. A lot of great things were going on with the release of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue', Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the surfsound with 'God Only Knows' being my all-time favourite! That song has got everything ! There's harmony, melody, feeling, arrangement, it is simply divine! I remember very well that I was lying in bed with a tiny miniature radio tucked away under my pillow. I listened to radio Luxemburg on 208 metres and suddenly I heard 'God only knows'. It was like everything before had only happened in black and white and suddenly it all turned to colour. I also think it was one of the first songs with the word 'god' in the title without being a religious song; a very courageous thing to do at that time! Personally I have never been a fan of the real rock'n roll. I find it too ethnic, too prehistoric. I like classically inspired music but this 'God Only Knows' was and is the ultimate song for me. If you listen how the bass is played in that song it's pure magic. 'God only knows' to me meant that there was a future in rock music, things could be done differently. Strangely enough I met Brian Wilson a year or two ago at a friend's place in Los Angeles. I sat next to the man and wanted to tell him how much he meant to me but I didn't know how he would react. In the end I didn't do it and Van Dyke Parks did it in my name.'
JB3: 'Was London at the end of the swinging sixties burned out?'
John Wetton: 'At around 1969 London was very interesting. You could go to the Marquee club and watch Fleetwood Mac, Traffic, King Crimson, Spooky Tooth, Jethro Tull, East of Eden. There were hundreds of bands playing in numerous little clubs. In the meantime I had been to LA to search my 'thrill' and when I arrived back in Britain six weeks later I knew the Americans weren't waiting for my kind of music. What I wanted to do at the time was much more aggressive than what was happening in America. Even if my favourite songs were romantic and came from people like CSNY, Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys, I found that my songs needed to be much harder. Strangely enough the day I got back from America I got a call from a friend of mine who asked if I wanted to join Family. That time they were number three in the charts and they were one of my favourite semi-progressive outfits so of course I said yes. After two albums with them I quit because I didn't feel fulfiled. They already had some composers in the band and the vacancy for a singer was also taken so I had to be happy just playing the bass. I also have to tell you that, before I went to play with Family, I already received a phone call from Robert Fripp asking me if I wanted to join King Crimson. Crimson then consisted of Fripp, Mel Collins, Ian Wallace and Boz Burrell.
However I knew how Fripp thought and I also knew he wasn't looking for a musician but he was looking for an ally. He was on one side and the other three, four if you include lyricist Pete Sinfield, were on the other side. Although I would've jumped to the chance to join King Crimson I found this wasn't the right time so I continued another six months playing with Family. Around that time Fripp had disbanded Crimson, phoned me and asked me over for a coffee and a chat. In fact he came to my flat and told me he wanted to start from scratch and that he already had found a drummer in the person of Bill Bruford. When he asked me to join the band I gladly said : YES ! King Crimson has always been a band of which I hoped would last a lifetime. It was THE band for me, something I always dreamed of. The band gave me the opportunity to sing, compose, arrange without any obstacles. We had an agreement that every member of the band could do whatever he liked in each particular song. We had created certain signals which gave us the possibility to get back together again and continue the song as if nothing had happened. Right where it was all going too far and just before it got completely out of hand we all did this wonderful melody and joined each other in perfect harmony. In the eighties this was already becoming difficult. In the seventies it was perfectly normal.'
JB3: 'King Crimson is back together again now in a completely different line-up. Aren't you a bit bitter that you are no longer part of the band?'
John Wetton: 'Not at all. That door has been permanently shut. Recently I listened to the mini album 'Vrooom' and it sounds like the grandson of 'Red'! The material which we wrote in the beginning of 'Red' is to be found on 'Vrooom' in huge quantities: the same atmosphere, the same format. When King Crimson disbanded in 1974 both Bruford and myself felt cheated. We both had chosen the band prior to some lucrative deals and suddenly Robert Fripp decided to call it a halt. I can tell you I haven't been well for a long time afterwards!'
JB3: 'You then went for a residency with Roxy Music ...'
John Wetton: 'Around that same period some people from Roxy Music, who are great friends of mine, asked me to be present at an audition they were holding for a bass player. As they were looking for a guy that would go on a world tour with them they thought I would be the ideal guy to help them in their final choice. At the end of the day none of the musicians I felt were good enough so the band proposed I join them on tour. As I had nothing better to do I said yes. I first did the European tour with them, then the American and later the Australian and Japanese. I had the fun of my life and it was the only time where I got women's underwear thrown at me! You should know that Roxy was at it's absolute peak then. It was a great period but again I had no real say in the music so in fact I only was a session musician. During this world tour I met so many people who all asked me why I was no longer doing music in the King Crimson tradition. So I started thinking. Back in London I called Bill Bruford, told him what I had heard and asked him if he would be interested to create something similar to Crimson?'
JB3: 'That was what later became UK?'
John Wetton: 'About two years went by. Together with Bill and Rick Wakeman we had been working on certain songs for about six weeks. In the end we would have been called British Legion but one day Rick didn't show up. We drove to his house and saw him hiding behind the curtains. We then decided to stop the project. I do have a tape lying somewhere with a couple of recordings from that period. One of the tracks we then wrote, 'Beelzebub', was released on one of Bill's solo albums. Another song, 'Papertalk' got changed a great deal and ended up on the 'UK' album. I have to say that the role of Rick Wakeman was very small in all this. Some time later Bill and I tried it a second time. This time Bill had told me he wanted to try it again on one condition: that he could bring the guitarist. I agreed on the one condition that I could bring the keyboard player. During the Roxy tour I had witnessed that Eddie Jobson could do a hell of a lot more than what he was able to do in the Roxy set. We made an appointment to rehearse in south-London. Eddie Jobson, who was then working for Frank Zappa, had written a couple of ideas. Suddenly there were four of us in the studio and we were all looking at each other. I had never heard of Alan Holdsworth in my life but when he started to play I thought: this is in-cre-di-ble! Alan had only been playing in small clubs so very few people knew who he was. What would happen with this guy if he was to play large venues? I immediately knew we had to make sure there was plenty of room for improvisations in our music. In the end UK became the lighter brother of King Crimson. Crimson always had the monopoly to what we call 'devil's interval'. This is a heavy sounding dissonant, gothic, black sound. In certain periods in history it was forbidden to play this chord because if you played it in church everything started to move due to the low sounds. That's why people associated that interval with the devil which of course isn't true because it's all down to vibrations. Anyway, King Crimson holds the monopoly to this heavy sound. In the second phase of UK we became a little bit heavier because we were down to a trio then. We had seen that Alan Holdsworth, although he's an ace guitarist, didn't go down all that well when on stage. He had difficulty playing something twice, he didn't feel at ease. So we continued to go on as a trio. Shortly afterwards that was the end of UK as well. I did my solo album 'Caught In The Crossfire' and a year later I was in Asia.'
JB3: 'Was Asia your own idea or was it put together by the record company?'
John Wetton: 'When I was in LA with Roxy Music I was approached by someone from a major. He gave me his card and asked me to have lunch with him another day. He told me I had enough potential to have my own band. He kept on supporting me for over four years. Each time I was in LA he would come to see me and give me the latest CD's. When 'Caught In The Crossfire' was released he told me: 'close, but not quite'. From then on I started to write songs which would finally become the backbone for the first Asia album and the rest ... is history.'
JB3: 'You were also a member of Uriah Heep and even Wishbone Ash !'
John Wetton: 'One has to eat you know! You have to see both commitments as jobs. I virtually got no opportunity to work on the songs so I kind of did what they asked me to do.'
JB3: 'If you were to put everything in perspective how would your ideal line of bands look like?'
John Wetton: 'Without any doubt I have to start with King Crimson, secondly you'll find UK followed by Asia and the material I am currently involved in. In fact this is the very first time I go out to promote something purely of myself. It's a great feeling to do something of your own whether it's the production, the recording or the promotion of the product.'
JB3: 'For 'Battle lines' you wrote no less than 45 tracks but in the end only ten made it on the album. What do you do with the rest of these songs?'
John Wetton: 'Of course they are with my publisher. It's like putting money on the bank.'
John 'Bo Bo' Bollenberg: 'Before the debut of Asia you already had recorded 'Here Comes The Feeling' with the French band Atoll ... '
John Wetton: ' 'Here Comes The Feeling' was written in the same period as 'Caught In The Crossfire'. I was given the opportunity to make a demo in a studio in Paris with Atoll. Unfortunately no deal came out of it. Without changing too much on these songs I put them on the Asia debut and the album sold in excess of 8 million copies! It's a very strange world : it all depends on the record company, the right moment, the right band. A track can flop due to a certain production and just when you decide to leave the idea someone else might cover the song and score a worldwide hit with it! You need to be very very lucky in this business! Unfortunately for Asia it all happened too quick. It's one of these days you've been dreaming of all your life and suddenly it's all there. For the very first time in my life my music was available in every record store in the world, we got loads of airplay. When you get in such a situation obviously there's a lot of money involved and before you know it bankers, accountants and other non musicians want to say a word or two. Before we realised what was happening Asia was no longer a band but a firm who was responsible for paying out wages to people who in turn had responsibilities towards their families. In the end it was no longer possible to be busy with music. You were constantly thinking about all these people you had to pay and their families. The idea alone that you could decide what would happen to all these people was a nightmare. In the end it had to happen the way it did.'
JB3: 'Isn't it in these circumstances that you take a complete different direction, that you start making uncommercial music? If you look at Bill Bruford who waves away the big bucks and says hello to the less accessible!'
John Wetton: 'When you are in Bill's house it's true that you will see a platinum disc for 'Close to the edge' on the wall and next to it at three times the size will be a sleeve for the Earthworks CD! Bill has a passion for Earthworks but he knows he can't live from that. So he does other things in order to pay the bills. That's when he pops up behind the kit with Genesis and Yes.'
JB3: 'I can't imagine John Wetton doing these kind of things.
John Wetton: 'In fact I have always been the three-minute song-man. What happened with King Crimson was that my songs were put through the Fripp-machine so in the end they were very long. Like 'Starless' on the 'Red' album which I originally wrote as a three minute song but it finally arrived on disc as a fifteen minute epic! When I perform as John Wetton then that song remains three minutes, like it was intended in the first place. My biggest wish remains the fact that I would love to write a song like 'God Only Knows'. What you hear on 'Battle Lines' is a collection of these try-outs.'
JB3: 'If you had given the songs on 'Battle Lines' to Robert Fripp we probably would have ended up with a five CD box set!'
John Wetton: 'Exactly!'
JB3: 'Any final tit-bits to keep us happy?'
John Wetton: 'Well, by the time you read this the recordings for the new UK album will be finished. Together with Bill Bruford, Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth I will be releasing a new album which you can expect in the shops in the first half of '96. This time we'll go even further than what we did on 'Danger Money'. The album will be darker and heavier that much is true. There will be no live dates with UK though but this album's going to be a real killer.'
As you can see, John Wetton hasn't finished yet. Although he admits that the current scene is much more difficult than twenty five years ago, he will continue delivering superb music whether on his own or with a band. Everyone who takes saccharine in his coffee should be OK for another fifty years!