Remembering John Wetton (1949-2017): His Twelve Most Essential Albums

by Jeff Fiedler

Casual music fans may not recognize the name John Wetton at first glance, but you’re almost certainly likely to have heard something he’s played on. Wetton got his first big break by serving as bassist for the late ‘60s/early ‘70s rock band Family, who never quite caught on in America but landed several major British hits with songs like “In My Own Time” and “Burlesque.” But it wasn’t until he was tapped by Robert Fripp to become the new lead singer and bassist for King Crimson that Wetton truly made a name for himself as one of the most sought-after vocalists and bass players in all of prog-rock and art-rock. He’d even briefly serve as a member of Roxy Music and would be utilized extensively by that band’s frontman, Bryan Ferry, on his own solo albums such as Another Time, Another Place, Let’s Stick Together, In Your Mind, and The Bride Stripped Bare, while Roxy Music members Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera would similarly recruit Wetton to play on their solo outings. (Wetton and Manzanera would even team up for a full-blown duo album in 1987 on Geffen Records.) But Wetton is perhaps best known more than anything for his stint as the lead vocalist in perhaps the most famous supergroup of the ‘80s, Asia, who became one of the biggest success stories of 1982 with the release of their massive-selling self-titled debut and its thunderous lead-off single “Heat of the Moment.” Though he first attracted notice for his bass playing and would remain a sought-after bassist in the prog-rock world throughout his career, it’s Wetton’s vocal abilities that were arguably his biggest strength, and the sheer power of his voice was a thing of beauty. So where should you go if you want an ideal introduction to the best representation of Wetton’s many talents? Let us walk you in chronological order through the following twelve highlights of his long and admirable career …

Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, King Crimson (1973, Atlantic)

The Robert Fripp-led prog-rock band spent much of the early ‘70s going through a seemingly endless parade of personnel changes, not in the least in the lead-singer department. (Interestingly enough, among some of the singers who auditioned for King Crimson in its earliest years and were turned down include Elton John and Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry.) After Greg Lake left the band to join Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Gordon Haskell and future Bad Company bassist Boz Burrell each took a crack at the lead-singer role on Lizard and Islands, respectively. By 1973, Fripp had overhauled his band completely, right down to replacing longtime lyricist Pete Sinfield with former Supertramp guitarist Richard Palmer-James, who stayed behind the scenes to focus on crafting the best lyrics the band had to work with in years. Wetton would become the band’s new bassist and lead vocalist, a role he’d retain for the remainder of the band’s ‘70s output, while former Yes drummer Bill Bruford would simultaneously come aboard, along with percussionist Jamie Muir and violinist David Cross. The new lineup gels remarkably well, and the result is the band’s best album since its famed debut In the Court of the Crimson King. Though Wetton doesn’t get much of a chance to flex his vocal chops – most of the cuts here are instrumental, though Wetton does shine on “Easy Money” and “Exiles” – his bass playing here ranks among his very best ever captured on record, and it’s hard not to marvel at just how tight the band sounds during even the most complicated of numbers, most notably the jaw-dropping title cut, which is divided into two halves that bookend the album to winning results.

Starless and Bible Black, King Crimson (1974, Atlantic)

Only ever-so-slightly inferior to its predecessor, the second album from the Wetton-fronted lineup of King Crimson thankfully devotes a bit more attention to Wetton’s vocal abilities, and he shines on cuts like “The Night Watch,” “Lament,” and especially “The Great Deceiver,” arguably the highlight of the disc. But it’s still the band’s tight playing and remarkable chemistry that steal the show, and the musical interplay on tracks like the instrumental title cut, the eleven-minute “Fracture” and the entirely improvised “We’ll Let You Know” are awfully spellbinding.  

Red, King Crimson (1974, Atlantic)

This would sadly turn out to be the last album Wetton would ever make as a member of King Crimson (the band would fall apart shortly after the release of this album and would not make another album until 1981’s Discipline), but he goes out on quite the high note. The instrumental interplay might not be quite as dazzling this time around (although the instrumental title cut is one of the most underrated guitar songs of the classic-rock era), but the band still sounds fantastic, and Wetton delivers his best vocal performances for the band yet on such winning cuts as the strangely catchy “One More Red Nightmare” (the closest this lineup of King Crimson ever came to crafting something that could conceivably pass for a single), “Fallen Angel,” and, most memorably of all, the album-closing twelve-minute tour de force “Starless.”

U.K., U.K. (1978, E.G./Polydor)

Following the split of King Crimson, Wetton would briefly play with Uriah Heep (appearing on Return to Fantasy and High and Mighty, though primarily as a bassist rather than as a vocalist) and would also briefly take the place of John Gustafson in Roxy Music (he’d sadly never appear on a studio album from the band, though you can hear his bass work on the 1976 live disc Viva! Roxy Music). But in the late ‘70s, Wetton would hook up with former King Crimson bandmate Bill Bruford and former Roxy Music bandmate and violinist/keyboardist Eddie Jobson in the supergroup U.K., rounded out by Soft Machine alumnus Allan Holdsworth on guitar. Their excellent – and sadly much-too-overlooked – self-titled debut is an appealing blend of prog-rock sounds that splits the difference between the musical complexity of King Crimson and the more radio-friendly sound of Yes, still maintaining the adventurousness of the best prog-rock but not completely foregoing hooks, either. It’s also refreshing to hear Wetton back behind the microphone again, and he shines as always on such standout cuts as “Time to Kill” and, best of all, the album-opening three-part suite “In the Dead of Night,” arguably one of the most underrated prog-rock songs of all-time.

Danger Money, U.K. (1979, E.G./Polydor)

The second – and, sadly, last – studio album from the supergroup features a significantly different lineup. Bruford is sadly gone – he’d briefly lead his own band before resurfacing in the reformed King Crimson – and has been replaced by former Frank Zappa sideman and future Missing Persons drummer/co-founder Terry Bozzio, while Holdsworth is gone as well. Interestingly, the band has opted here not to replace Holdsworth, and Wetton instead doubles as the band’s new guitarist in addition to his usual bass duties. It’s not quite as magical as the debut, but it’s still a very strong and underrated prog-rock disc, and cuts like “Rendezvous 5:02,” “Nothing to Lose,” and “The Only Thing She Needs” definitely warrant repeated listens.   

Caught in the Crossfire, John Wetton (1980, E.G.)

Wetton’s first solo album might not be his best, but it’s certainly one of his most fun. Wetton very nearly functions as a one-man-band here, playing all the bass and keyboards and helming most of the guitar work as well, also penning all the material on his own (save for one cut co-written with Pete Sinfield) and co-producing the disc as well. The few guests here are all quite notable, Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre lending lead guitar to several tracks, while the Average White Band’s Malcolm Duncan contributes saxophone to a pair of cuts and Bad Company’s Simon Kirke handles the drums throughout the record. It’s more pop-oriented than most of his other work, so fans hoping for the prog-rock of King Crimson or U.K. or even Asia are likely to be a little disappointed, but as a pop album, it’s very appealing, and cuts like “Turn on the Radio,” the title cut, and “Cold Is the Night” are quite good.

Asia, Asia (1982, Geffen)

Arguably the quintessential John Wetton album, this multi-platinum self-titled debut from Asia – a supergroup rounded out by guitarist Steve Howe, formerly with Yes, keyboardist Geoff Downes, formerly of The Buggles of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame, and drummer Carl Palmer, formerly with Emerson, Lake & Palmer – boasts what might be the most captivating vocal performances of Wetton’s career. The whole band sounds fantastic – and Palmer’s drumming in particular is so thunderous, you’d almost swear it had to have been recorded in an airplane hangar – but Wetton can’t help but steal the show with his dramatic vocal work on such album highlights as the massive Top Ten hit “Heat of the Moment,” the epic “Sole Survivor,” and, perhaps most memorably of all, the wildly underrated Top 40 hit “Only Time Will Tell” – just try not to get chills when Wetton sings the first verse backed only by Downes’ keyboards and the high-hat on Palmer’s drum kit. It’s a stunningly beautiful moment.

Alpha, Asia (1983, Geffen)

Nearly every bit as great as its predecessor, this album is noticeably a bit more pop and a little less prog-rock than their debut, so some critics naturally complained at the time, but the songwriting remains as strong as ever and the band still sounds fantastic. Wetton and the band channel Emerson, Lake & Palmer on the dramatic, near-theatrical “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes,” while still showing off their knack for a pop hook on cuts like “My Own Time,” “Eye to Eye,” and the insanely catchy and thunderous Top Ten hit “Don’t Cry.” Fans of the band – or of John Wetton’s work in general – are highly encouraged to scout out the non-LP B-sides “Daylight” (the flip side of “Don’t Cry”) and “Lying to Yourself” (the flip side of “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes”), which are both absolutely fantastic – not to mention quite hooky – and really, really should have been included on Alpha.

Astra, Asia (1985, Geffen)

It got poor reviews at the time, but in hindsight, Astra is a very underrated ‘80s rock album and doesn’t pale to its two predecessors nearly as much as many critics would have you believe. The major difference between Astra and the last two albums is that Steve Howe has left the band and has been replaced, rather unpredictably, with Mandy Meyer from the hard-rock band Krokus. Naturally, this wasn’t going to sit very well with Yes fans, but Meyer actually fits in surprisingly well and also helps the band to toughen up their sound ever so slightly. Wetton – who had actually temporarily left the band following the release of Alpha and had been replaced for the album’s supporting tour by, fittingly enough, Greg Lake, who had similarly also once been lead singer for King Crimson – sounds just as good as ever and acquits himself quite nicely on standout cuts like “Go,” “Too Late,” “Hard on Me,” and “Wishing.”  

Rock of Faith, John Wetton (2003, Giant Electric Pea)

Wetton’s finest solo album unfortunately came much too late after his commercial heyday in the ‘80s to attract much notice from anyone on American shores, but this is undeniably one of the finest albums of his career, solo or otherwise. Wetton gets some writing assistance here from his Asia bandmate Geoff Downes (who also handles much of the keyboard work here as well) and, much more unexpectedly, even old King Crimson lyricist Richard Palmer-James, who co-writes the delightful “Who Will Light a Candle,” and the material throughout is first-rate, while Wetton sounds better than ever as a vocalist, remarkably enough. The Japanese edition – issued via Avalon – is the one you want to get: it contains a pair of extra cuts, one of them a chilling cover of the Beach Boys’ timeless ballad “God Only Knows,” a must-hear for fans of Wetton’s singing.

Phoenix, Asia (2008, Frontiers)

Unexpectedly enough, after years of seemingly neverending personnel changes, Asia – which never completely went away and had quietly continued to craft albums throughout the ‘90s to little sales response or critical notice – managed to surprise longtime fans in 2008 by reuniting its original lineup of Wetton, Howe, Downes, and Palmer on disc for the first time since 1983’s Alpha.  This could have conceivably been a bad idea – you risk detracting from the legacy of the original albums, of course – but, thankfully, the chemistry of the four men is still very much intact and they’ve brought some fine material to the table as well, highlighted by such catchy cuts as “Never Again” and “Alibis.”

XXX, Asia (2012, Frontiers)

Shockingly, the band – still retaining the original foursome that had reunited for Phoenix and had delivered the follow-up Omega in the intervening years, though Steve Howe would sadly once again leave following the release of this 2012 effort – delivers, thirty years after its first album, what might be their finest platter since at least 1983’s Alpha, if not even possibly their famed self-titled debut. The band still sounds great and hits with just as much force as ever, but they’ve got an even superior set of songs than normal this time around, and there’s hardly any filler here at all. Cuts like “Bury Me in Willow,” “Tomorrow the World,” “No Religion,” “Face on the Bridge,” and “Ghost of a Chance” are absolutely superb, and it’s hard to listen to any cut here without marveling at the fact that, nearly forty years after Wetton became the lead vocalist for King Crimson, he still sounds nearly just as good in 2012 as he did in 1973. His powerful voice will certainly be missed.