John Kenneth Wetton was born in 1949 in Willington, Derbyshire.
"My parents had a general store in a little village in Derbyshire, which probably had a population of about 600 people. A very rural community, I grew up in a very agrarian community, it’s almost like the Amish country. It’s very conservative, not cosmopolitan at all. Very, very English. When I was nine, my parents decided they’d had enough living there. They came down to Bournemouth and opened a hotel, a little bed and breakfast type of thing. It was just at the time when I changed school from junior to high school, so it was perfect timing."
"All the time growing up, my brother was a church organist. He’s seven years older than I am, and that’s where I got my basic interest in music. It was completely from church and choral music. I had never really encountered rock-n-roll in any form at all until I moved to Bournemouth, I music have been nine or ten years old. It was a hell of a culture shock!"
"Bournemouth has a lot of language schools. It gets flooded with students who come to town to learn English. There were so many people – 200,000 students come into the town in the summer and all need to be entertained. So every pub, every club, every restaurant, every bar had a live band in those days. They didn’t have karaoke – it all had to be live entertainment."
"I wasn’t too impressed at first, I didn’t really go for all this surfing stuff. It took a bit longer to filter through to me. I realized I never was going to be as good as my brother was at playing organ, so I had to move onto a different way of expressing myself musically. And The Beatles really did it for me. I saw them as the melodic side of rock. The Beatles had everything. The most impressive thing was when I saw them on TIV and they all played their own instruments, and more than one of them sang in the band. I thought, wow, that’s never happened before. All of the artists up until that time had been Johnny what’s it and the what’s its. There had been a singer and the backing group and they never wrote their own material. Now, suddenly you’ve got The Beatles. A lot of bands came after The Beatles, but they truly started the progressive music revolution. I was converted on the spot. I though okay, this is what I’m going to be doing!"
John’s schoolmate was Richard Palmer-James, and they had a series of bands together in the mid-to-late 60s.
"Here were all these students piling into Bournemouth in the summer and they all needed to be entertained. So the opportunity for live performances was quite incredible. When I was at school, I was working three or four nights a week in bands, different kinds of bands. It was a very, very healthy music scene and it spawned a lot of local bands, one of which eventually became King Crimson. Gentle Giant wasn’t too far away, in Portsmouth, lot of musician came from this area, also Colin Allen from Stone the Crows, Andy Summers from the Police, Al Stewart… the list goes on. It was a great place to be at that time."
"Richard Palmer-James and I had the Corvettes when I was 12, 13, 14 years old. That eventually became the Palmer-James Group when we became a little more sophisticated and cool. It eventually became Tetrad when we went progressive. But that didn’t last too long. When the progressive movement really started to kick in, for me, it was time to move up to London and see what I could get going there."
John’s first hits the timeline with Mogul Thrash, a band he joined with guitarist James Litherland.
“Mogul Thrash, basically, it was the brass section from The Average White band. We were sharing apartments, living on nothing and starving for our lots in Ladbroke Grove, 1969 and 1970. We weren’t going anywhere really. We had one hit single in Belgium. When it came to an end, I’d been doing sessions to supplement my negative balance with Mogul Thrash and I ended up working a lot with George Martin, which was wonderful, absolutely wonderful - a great guy and just a genius to work with!"
"I’d been supplementing my income with sessions, so I could afford to go to California. All the good stuff was coming from there at that time, particularly Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Crosby Still Nash, so I decided to see what’s happening. I picked up a gig at The Troubadour for about a month and that gave me enough money to live on while I was there. But things didn’t really work. It was a totally different mentality than what I was used to in the UK. It’s very, very laid back and I was used to being a bit more aggressive, a bit more pushy. I don’t want this to sound arrogant because it’s not, but I thought the music was really quite simplistic. What I was looking for was something more complex. I loved the lifestyle in California, and Joni Mitchell was one of the biggest influences as afar as lyric writing is concerned, but I came back, slightly disillusioned."
"Virtually the day I came back to England I was offered the job with Family. One of the reasons I got the gig was because Roger Chapman was looking for somebody to fill out the vocals. He was sick of being the only voice in the band. It was kind of a stepping stone. They were incredibly popular at the time, a kind of cult band that suddenly you could see them on the television. It was great fun but it wasn’t the end result I wanted to see. I wanted to write and I wanted to sing, but those positions were already taken so I was always looking for something else. That led me to King Crimson.”
John spent the next few years in King Crimson as part of the monster rhythm section with Bill Bruford.
"There wasn’t that many people doing that kind of stuff at that time. It was quite experimental but in fact the more work we did on the road, we turned into a kind of metal rhythm section, that was just crazy. We were much louder than the main instruments and a bit more muscle too. Bill was at the time, and he still is if he wanted to put his mind to it, one of the greatest rock drummers ever. We toured nonstop yet as the mover van toured around, the more people we shed. One guy in the middle of the British tour, then another at the end of an American tour, in the end there was just three of us, but we made a pretty impressive noise for three people!"
These impressive noises can be heard on the excellent 4CD live set The Great Deceiver (Virgin 1992)
“There’s a moment for me, when you get to “Peace – A Theme” played on an acoustic guitar and it leads into “Cat Food”, the bass is just so loud! But why not? At that point it’s a lead instrument. We pretty much turned everything on its head as far as how one perceives a rock band being mixed. It was a great experience and it stopped about 20 years prematurely for my liking. I could have gone on with that a long, long time.“
John discusses the birth of Asia, the change in the music industry in the early 80s and the amount of work that went into the band’s success.
“Asia was a long time coming. It started with an idea from John Kalodner, I believe he was at Atlantic Records then. Sometime in the mid-70s John came to see me at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium when I was playing with Roxy Music. He came up to me afterwards and he said, “This is great, but you're worth a lot more than this and I would personally like to put a band around you.” So the next thing that I did was UK, which I took to him and he said, "Close but no cigar. This is not quite what I'm looking for." We tried various combinations until I’d just done a solo album, Caught in the Crossfire, which was pretty much the direction that I wanted to go in for the 80s. He liked that, but he said, “it must be a band”.”
“I then got a gig with Wishbone Ash, which meant spending two months in Miami at Criteria Studios. They would work until about 6 o'clock at night and then they'd go off and have dinner and then disappear. So I was sitting in Criteria Studio and it had a beautiful Bechstein piano and there was an engineer and a tape running. I just stayed behind every night and just wrote. I was totally exposed to Americana, listening to the radio, being in Miami and writing really good stuff. When I came back from that Wishbone Ash album, I had about six or seven songs in my pocket, which would become the basis of the first Asia record.”
“When I met Geoff Downes, my output kind of quadrupled because we got on so well. We come from the same kind of background, same musical background - every time we get together we write a song. So many people think the basis of Asia was Steve Howe and Carl Palmer. It was not. It was myself and Geoff Downes. It may have started off with me and Steve, but actually as soon as I met up with Geoff we started producing songs, which gave us the deal, which made it possible to record that album.”
“What happened at the end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s, was that record companies and some movie companies suddenly realized if you put the two together you can quadruple your sales. You can actually put a decimal point selling what you like. If you have a hit song with photos of the movie, everybody wins. Everybody wins. So what were considered to be respectable sales for the 70s suddenly became a kind of chicken beak in terms of what you could sell if your song was attached to a movie. And so once that mechanism was in place, that you could get songs over to a movie audience, you could sort of sell in the numbers that movies had, rather than the numbers of records."
“The whole thing became very, very much money orientated. You only just have to look at MTV and videos, the marriage was made. It sealed the nuptials, you know? It was just a kind of license to print money from those record companies. Quite incredible. So it sort of would have been in the thinking, they're pretty much a cottage industry. Suddenly it became ridiculous, bands could sell millions rather than hundreds of thousands. And that's where Asia came in. Suddenly the suits at the other company could see that we were capable of selling millions of records, and we did. For two years we could do no wrong, basically.”
“For me, there's so many things that have to happen simultaneously in order to be that affective. When people say the Asia's success was now that we had a hit single, well it wasn't just that. It was all these things that had to happen at the same time. To be with the right record company. To be the first big release on a big record company, a new record company. To have someone within the company who would die for the band. All of these things are incredibly important. And just the atmosphere and MTV being there. There’s so many things, so many factors that went into that success that you couldn't really put it down to one thing. It's a great album. It sounded incredible on the radio. There were people who loved it or hated it but it sounded great on the radio and you could not dispute the fact that it did, that it was quality.”
“It came out like a ton of bricks on the radio because if you look back at what was popular then, it was Flock of Seagulls and Human League, that really light weight synth stuff. And then you've got intro to “The Heat of the Moment”. One of the DJs at the time, when they’d announce it, they go, "Okay, so you thought you knew what this was going to be like, eh? Well take a listen to this!" If we came out with something proggy and a kind of watered-down Yes, ELP, or King Crimson tribute thing, it wouldn't have worked, people would have hated it. We were entering a new decade where music was changing so fast and the whole business was changing, we had to do something different. We couldn't still do the same old, same old…”
“Somebody had shone a spotlight on these prog guys and we were suddenly in the limelight. It was absolutely wonderful. Because one thing we did have in our favor was -- if you get out in front of an audience on stage, we could actually carry it out because we had the right musical experience. The trouble with pop acts is that they don't tend to come over very well on stage. Whereas, you gather the progressive guys - you take Genesis - they'd been on the road for about 15 years before they had that kind of massive success. But that’s how you ought to do it. Which is why eventually King Crimson would have fitted into that category, but that wasn't to be.”
John Wetton sadly passed away in the early hours of Tuesday 31st January 2017, after a long and courageous battle against colon cancer.