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Farewell, Ol' Smokey Vocals: John Wetton 1949-2017

John Wetton died on Jan. 31, after a lengthy battle with cancer. The revered progressive music  bassist, vocalist and songwriter was 67.

Most media remembrances have  led with the fact that Wetton was in Asia, the mega-successful 80s pop-prog super-group known for hits like "Heat of the Moment" and "Don’t Cry." This is not untrue. But it buries the lede, as we say in my business.

Wetton was already fully tenured rock royalty by the time he teamed with Steve Howe, Geoff Downes and Carl Palmer as Asia, in 1981. His most groundbreaking work was done in the 70s, when he was a member of King Crimson and, later, U.K. His efforts with these two bands transcend the "progressive rock" tag. It's simply brilliant, ambitious rock music, and much of its power is delivered via Wetton's smoky, soulful tenor singing and his supple, pocket-oriented bass playing.

Asia is anomalous in Wetton's career, because it boasts an ingredient that none of his best work does – cheese. Big, chunky slabs of it. And it's not some fancy artisan cheese, either. We're talking Velveeta. (I should note that, at the age of 13, I attended Asia's show at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, more than willingly. I was in fact totally pumped to be there. The prospect of seeing so many of my musical heroes on one stage was tantalizing. Sadly, with the passage of time, to paraphrase a Wetton Asia lyric, the smile has left my eyes.)

What Wetton at his finest brought to the table was his awesomely in-tune and soulful singing, his way with a melody – no small feat, when you're working with material that often changes key and time signature several times within a single song – and a penchant for subtly romantic, wistful lyrics. He was also a beast of a bassist, balancing a flair for the melodic against dramatic shifts between beauty and all-out aggression.

Here are 10 ways you can celebrate Wetton's life and art without every once uttering the word "Asia."

King Crimson, "Starless" (1974) This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written, in my view. Wetton penned the melody and the lyrics, Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford most of the music. It's completely sublime.

U.K., "Danger Money" (1979) The Mark II version of the prog powerhouse U.K. found Wetton and co-founder Eddie Jobson (Curved Air, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa) joined by drummer Terry Bozzio (Frank Zappa), who replaced the departing Bill Bruford. (Bruford left the band when guitarist Alan Holdsworth opted out the previous year.) The title tune to this version of the band's sole studio album offers a dizzying display of musicianship married to melody.

Family, "Burlesque" (1972) A great snapshot of "Wetton-the-bassist" in action. He was really a sideman in Roger Chapman's Family, but he added much to the strutting, stuttering groove that is this song's hook, and his playing throughout the "Bandstand" album is uniformly superb.

King Crimson, "Easy Money" (1973) King Crimson founder and leader Robert Fripp, writing in the January 31 edition of his on-line diary, called Wetton "the leading bass player of his generation, a player of international class," and here, we are made to understand that Fripp is not merely waxing hyperbolic.

King Crimson, "USA" (1975) This document represents the Wetton-era Crimson lineup in all its jaw-droppingly grandiose glory. Wetton crushes it throughout. Get the 40th anniversary edition, because the live version of "Starless" is heavenly.

U.K., The "In the Dead of Night" suite (1978) That this version of the band – Wetton, Bruford, Holdsworth and Jobson – only made one album is a tragedy. Oh, but what an album it is, one that blends progressive rock, jazz-fusion and Wetton's unerring ability to throw legitimate hooks into the mix. The side 1 suite "In the Dead of Night" still sounds ahead of its time.

U.K., "Time to Kill" (1978) Proof that this band of virtuosos could also err successfully on the side of (relative) brevity. In my ideal world, this would've been  a pop hit.

U.K., "The Sahara of Snow" (1978) You can find this concert on You Tube. It's taken from a live broadcast, via Toronto's CHUM FM, of the Wetton-Bruford-Holdsworth-Jobson lineup playing at the El Mocambo. They play 9/10ths of the debut album, plus "The Sahara of Snow" and "Carrying No Cross." Stunning, and very good quality for a radio simulcast.

King Crimson, "One More Red Nightmare" (1974) He could melt your heart with a ballad, but Wetton could deliver a rocker with clarity and conviction, too.

John Wetton & Eddie Jobson U.K. Reunion, "Starless" (2012) In 2012, Wetton and Jobson recruited drummer Marco Minneman (Steven Wilson, the AristoCats) and Austrian guitarist Alex Machecek for a series of post-Tsunami flood-relief shows in Japan. You can find the whole show on You Tube, but this version of "Starless" is particularly glorious.

I was lucky enough to interview Wetton on one occasion, and to spend some time with him on another. He struck me as a kind, humble, witty and incredibly charming man. Which seems to be how his friends and colleagues remember him, too. Bill Bruford offered this post on social media on the day of Wetton's death, and it provides a fitting goodbye to a great musician.

"Even though you know it can’t be far away, it comes as a blow to the solar-plexus, enough to wind you. Ol’ Smokey Vocals will sing no more. We made some churnings and grindings and groovings and floatings together, fit for a King. We shall do so no more. Carolyn and I send our condolences to his family. May you rest in peace, JW."

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

 

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