John Wetton, one of progressive rock’s greatest talents, tragically passed away this morning after battling colon cancer. He was 67.
Given that Wetton was to be a featured performer on this year’s Cruise to the Edge, the news is hard to bear, especially for those of us who hoped to see him perform on board and meet him in person. For me, it’s sad just knowing that one of the most identifiable voices of prog’s whole is no longer with us.
Not many achieved the success Wetton did in hopscotching across three dynamic bands in the span of a decade, lifting each group higher into the mainstream and, in one strong case, multi-platinum territory.
As a lead for King Crimson, Wetton’s husky baritone shifted Robert Fripp’s musical ingenuity from flute-driven fairytales to the world of outliers, producing three of the group’s greatest albums – Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black and Red. All three were released within a span of two years.
With Crimson and former Yes drummer, Bill Bruford, Wetton then helmed the supergroup U.K., which also featured virtuoso guitarist Allan Holdsworth, of the Tony Williams Lifetime fame. It took only one album (their eponymous debut) to make an impact. Borrowing from Crimson’s dabbling with the macabre, the album hits hard with the one-two-three punch of its first three tracks, “In the Dead of Night,” “By the Light of Day” and “Presto Vivace and Reprise.”
Wetton’s greatest commercial success, though, came with Asia – featuring Yes guitarist Steve Howe, Buggles/Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes and ELP drummer, Carl Palmer. Their eponymous 1982 debut yielded a Top 5 Billboard hit (“Heat of the Moment”) and (astoundingly) became the biggest selling album that year. Asia would maintain success and rotating lineups over the ensuing decades, but with the release of 2008’s Phoenix, the original lineup was back and better than ever.
As we pause to remember Wetton, please take this opportunity to enjoy a sampling of his greatest tracks and understand why he will always be a true giant of the progressive genre.
King Crimson – “Easy Money” (1973)
A sly track given its subtle references to prostitution. Plus, you have to love the band’s unabashed ode to itself with a mention of “crimson suspenders.”
King Crimson – “The Great Deceiver” (1974)
A manic workout nearly bordering on danceable funk, this tune opens the Starless and Bible Black album. Wetton pushes the limits of his emotions and voice while playing with contradictions (“Cigarettes, ice cream, figurines of the Virgin Mary!”).
King Crimson – “One More Red Nightmare” (1974)
Red is a fascinating album. It features several moving parts all expertly masterminded by the trio of Wetton, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford. It’s also quite dark. This track marks the album’s midpoint, literally climbing to an apex before bringing the album’s entire tone down. Given that its lyrics are about a plane crash, the subject matter is startling, to say the least. However, its musicality is genius.
King Crimson – “Starless” (1974)
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain went on record as saying Red was one of his all-time favorite albums. Incorporating free jazz, hard rock and a symphonic mindset, the five-track masterwork closes with the 12-minute “Starless,” probably the greatest song in the King Crimson arsenal. On this, Wetton eases his vocals until singing out the title lyric with powerful force. Though its lyrics are only 12 lines, “Starless” is the band’s defining statement; it goes from soft to hard, slow to fast, ominous to gorgeous as Wetton pumps away at his bass in the track’s final minutes. No wonder it took seven years for the group to release another album – how do you top this achievement?
U.K. – “In the Dead of Night” (1978)
With his bass notes setting the tone, Wetton returns to form as he’s set on infusing speed into his cryptic lyrics. It works wonders here.
Asia – “Only Time Will Tell” (1982)
“Heat of the Moment” got the RIAA certifications, but this track from Asia’s debut album has the power. While the song’s lyrical content seems bleak (“How, sure as the sun will cross the sky, this lie is over. Lost, like the tears that used to tide me over”), the tune’s overall message is one of hope, all conveyed strongly by Wetton and his progressive brothers in arms.
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