Forgive the nostalgia showing, but hearing any recording featuring John Wetton shoots me back to the ‘70s. He wasn’t any kind of generational pop star back then. That honor would hit him in the next decade. But for the better part of the ‘70s, Wetton was prog rock’s prime utility man. He was a mercenary bass guitarist who purposely shunned the spotlight during brief touring tenures with Roxy Music and Uriah Heep but found a comfortable role as front man with the all-star quartet (and, later, trio) U.K. And for those who grew up in the golden age on MTV, he was the vocalist for the more overtly radio friendly ‘80s music generated by a pack of more commercial conscious prog vets known as Asia.
By my preference remains the mountain of wondrous music Wetton cut in a scant two years as a member of King Crimson. As a vocalist, he was as recognizable as he was distinctive. His warm but modestly coarse wail was complimentary to any mood piece the 1972-74 era Crimson would serve up, from demonstrative rock adventures like “Easy Money” and “The Great Deceiver” to epic funereal mood pieces like “Starless.” That voice was what would later launch Asia to such brief charttopping heights, but it was only part of what made Wetton such a versed artist.
The rest dealt with his musicianship, which went largely unheralded through the years. Sample the bounty of concert material Crimson has issued from those years – 1975’s “USA” and 1997’s “The Night Watch” being the most readily obtainable (although the band’s website has a ton of wickedly inventive 1973 and 1974-era live recordings for purchase) – and you will hear a monster improviser at work. Guitarist Robert Fripp, drummer Bill Bruford and violinist David Cross were featured more prominently, but the way Wetton detonated huge, fuzzy bass patterns around their playing was the crowning touch in what remains Crimson’s most daring and rewarding improvisational lineup.
By all written accounts one of rock music’s genuine nice guys, Wetton died yesterday at age 67 following a battle with colon cancer. Want a crash course in the beauty of his vocal chops and instrumental smarts? Then take a listen to Wetton’s final studio album with King Crimson, 1974’s “Red.” The trip gets a little dark at times, but the sights and sounds are sublime.