“If there’s a message it’s live every day as if it’s your last. I went through a very sticky patch… The freedom of not being enslaved by addiction is marvellous”: John Wetton’s return from the darkness

John Wetton
(Image credit: Mike Inns - ©John Wetton Estate )

Free from the shackles of alcohol and back on an upwards trajectory with Asia, John Wetton returned with solo album Raised In Captivity in 2011. That year the late King Crimson and UK bassist/vocalist discussed his wilderness period with Prog.

“I don’t have much to grumble about these days,” John Wetton muses at home on an unseasonably warm early spring Saturday afternoon. While he later refers to having been “locked up inside my own head for the best part of 25 years” courtesy of alcohol addiction, Wetton is one of rock’s survivors. In 2011, aside from suffering carpal tunnel syndrome in his right wrist – “It’s difficult doing a button up, let alone rattling off some of those UK riffs” – Wetton is in rude health.

During the short, dark days of a British January, many of us hanker after sunnier, warmer climes to cast off the post festive season gloom. Now aged 61, Wetton could be excused for escaping the wintry UK for some leisure and pleasure. But instead a trip to Los Angeles in January this year was dedicated to recording a new solo studio album, Raised In Captivity.

“I’m probably working harder than when I was aged 25,” Wetton enthuses before adding, “I’m glad to be active.” Active indeed he is, having released no fewer than five other studio albums in the past six years – two with the “original” Asia line-up of keyboardist Geoff Downes, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Carl Palmer, plus three under the Icon banner with Downes.

While he is best known for his work fronting Asia, UK and the incarnation of King Crimson that released the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless And Bible Black and Red, Wetton also has five previous solo studio albums to his name. But with Asia in particular making extensive demands on his time, of late Wetton’s solo career had taken a back seat. Indeed it is eight years since his last solo album, the underrated Rock Of Faith, which featured Downes on two tracks and got the original Asia ball rolling again.

The impetus for Raised in Captivity was simple: “I had the time, a record company with funds and my manager has been kicking my arse for five years to do this.” Wetton readily admits he was subject to “a kind of directive” from his label, Frontiers, which he duly followed with collaborator Billy Sherwood.

“For Frontiers it always has to have a rock edge,” Wetton says, conceding that it did represent a constraint. “But it’s either that or don’t make the record – although I still slip a few ballads in there.”

He previously encountered Sherwood when the latter helmed various tribute albums on which he participated. “We’ve ping-ponged stuff across the ether for the last 10 years. And the beauty of recording with someone who is naturally rocky such as Billy is that if I come up with a dreary folk ballad, they are not going to do it the way I would do it. My dreary folk tunes suddenly took on their balls.”

As such, Wetton sees the album as bookending with his first solo release, 1980’s Caught In The Crossfire. “Usually my solo albums are very keyboards based as 95 per cent of my writing is done on keyboards. This time it wasn’t, except for a couple of ballads. It’s very much a guitar driven album.”

In a band, I don’t like to take people too far into my personal experience. But I can do that with a solo record

Equally, he strongly distinguishes Raised In Captivity from his last two solo albums. “Rather than a series of cameos joined together, which is pretty much what Arkangel and Rock Of Faith are, this has a vibe to the whole thing. It’s the same people all the time, albeit there’s only two of us. And the last thing I want to do is come out with an album sounding like Asia or Icon, because then there would be no fun going back to those bands.”

Wetton was eager to have a counterpart in the studio and found his ideal foil in Sherwood. “I’ve been amazed by the speed of his work and polish. Plus he has incredible energy and is such a nice guy. I couldn’t work with an arsehole and spend a month incarcerated in a studio with a dickhead, however genius like the guy may be.”

While the pair handle the vast majority of instruments between them, Wetton secured some illustrious guests to perform assorted solos and cameo roles. “I do like to have a bit of history in there,” he laughs. That’s why the album features several other musicians with whom Wetton’s lengthy career has intersected: Uriah Heep’s Mick Box plays on New Star Rising while Goodbye Elsinore features some sublime Steve Hackett guitar; Wetton’s old UK sparring partner, Eddie Jobson, contributes electric violin to The Devil & The Opera House and King Crimson’s Robert Fripp supplies a signature soundscape for the title track.

According to Wetton, most of the songs are autobiographical. “The whole theme is freedom, but freedom on many levels. Take a song like The Last Night Of My Life – if there’s a message it’s live every day as if it’s your last. I went through a very sticky patch for a fair old time. None of Icon or Asia would have been possible if I hadn’t got well. The freedom of not being enslaved by addiction is fucking marvellous.”

The last fader had just come down on Battle Lines when Virgin got sold. Loads of artists were thrown out with the bathwater, including me

Wetton believes the material would fail to fit elsewhere. “There’s a lot of stuff on the album that I couldn’t do with Asia. With Icon we pride ourselves on saying we can do anything, but there are still certain places I wouldn’t go. I don’t need to drag everyone else into my corner. It’s not like being Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, where you can talk about anything. If you’re singing in a band you are representing other people in it. I don’t like to take people too far into my personal experience. But I can do that with a solo record.”

Raised In Captivity involved a return to Los Angeles, where Wetton recorded Battle Lines in the early 1990s. “The great thing about LA is that fantastic players are just around the corner. And you get a hell of an edge just driving from your apartment to the studio through Topanga Canyon and Woodland Hills. There are sirens, helicopters and policemen.”

Location aside, the creation of Battle Lines and Raised In Captivity followed very different paths. For the new record, Wetton arrived in LA with a number of ideas, and almost half the album was co-written with Sherwood in the studio. “Billy can take one note and create a whole song from it – like I do with Geoff Downes, building a song from one line of a verse or a chorus. By sundown it’s in pretty good shape; I prefer to nurture a song during the day. It’s very satisfying.”

By contrast, Battle Lines, produced by Ron Nevison, was assembled from 45 songs originally written and demoed for the album before the celebrated Who/Led Zeppelin engineer’s arrival. The theory, post-Asia, was that Virgin would launch Wetton as a solo star, with Battle Lines serving as the springboard – indeed the album featured a top 20 US single. But then Virgin was sold to EMI.

“The last fader had just come down on Battle Lines when Virgin got sold. Loads of artists were thrown out with the bathwater, including me.” But he bears no grudges. “I can’t afford to think like that or have sour grapes. I’m grateful because I’m still alive. I’d rather be making another record and getting on with my life than sitting in corner of a pub nursing my 18th pint.

“What I did get from Virgin, for which I will be forever grateful, was $500,000 to make the record, which kept me in LA for two years and introduced me to some great writers and engineers.”

Still, Wetton struggled to secure another major label deal. “When Virgin was sold to EMI, everything fell apart. The incoming company doesn’t necessarily get what the outgoing company had in mind. In a $1billion takeover, my $500,000 doesn’t sound like very much and they can write it off.”

Additionally, his problems with alcohol were becoming significant by that time. “Part of my downfall was of my own making,” Wetton volunteers. “When I was in LA recording Battle Lines I was sitting pretty. It wasn’t until I returned to the UK that I started going downhill fast. I was on a downward spiral from 1993/94 onwards. If Battle Lines had been treated properly and things had gone according to plan, then I probably would have fallen at the first hurdle.

“I was in a very fragile state at the time. I see my downward spiral as inevitable. I don’t think anything could have stopped it – and God knows people tried – before I said I had had enough. The decline was unstoppable until I recognised I needed help. I’m just grateful I got a reprieve.”

Unless the music business implodes on me or there’s any physical restraint, I don’t fancy retirement

That reprieve has seen Wetton cement his reputation as one of the prog scene’s most versatile and durable talents, who plans further work with Asia and has no plans for retirement, having fully recovered from a triple heart bypass in 2007.

“I don’t know how I could slow down or see any reason to do so. Unless the music business implodes on me or there’s any physical restraint, I don’t fancy retirement. I don’t fancy golf, or what I did before [drink] as an enforced pastime – that wouldn’t work for me now. When you’re enslaved by addiction you are incredibly malleable and controllable. Now I’m perfectly sane and reasonable.”

Nick Shilton

Nick Shilton has written extensively for Prog since its launch in 2009 and prior to that freelanced for various music magazines including Classic Rock. Since 2019 he has also run Kingmaker Publishing, which to date has published two acclaimed biographies of Genesis as well as Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly’s autobiography, and Kingmaker Management (looking after the careers of various bands including Big Big Train). Nick started his career as a finance lawyer in London and Paris before founding a leading international recruitment business and has previously also run a record label.