Category Archives: John Wetton

Rare Bird: Somebody’s Watching (1973)

Kronomyth 4.0: BUT NOBODY’S LISTENING. Somebody’s Watching asks the musical question: If Rare Bird dropped another album in the same vein as Epic Forest, would anyone hear it? By this stage, Rare Bird had completely morphed into a kind of cross between Steely Dan (the title track is a near ringer for “Do It Again”), Barclay James Harvest and whatever is funkier than those two bands and features a lot of clavinet playing (I have a limited lexicon of funk references, in case you hadn’t noticed). Now, if the idea of a Steely Harvest didn’t send you screaming in the other direction, good for you. As much as I enjoyed their second album, I didn’t plan to carry a torch for it through eternity. The band shifted in a more mainstream direction under the leadership of Gould and Kaffinetti, but they didn’t stop making good music. Songs like “More And More” and “Turn Your Head,” for example, are well worth hearing. Now, the addition of VDGG’s Nic Potter on bass doesn’t alter what has always been a bit of a boring bottom end on Rare Bird recordings. And the band’s tepid version of “Hard Time” is a missed opportunity. But I honestly enjoy this album more than their last, even if neither are likely to become staples in my musical diet. For the obstinate proggers who refused to let go of the past, the band includes an epic version of Ennio Morricone’s “A Few Dollars More” at the end. (Signs that you’re probably not a progressive rock band: John Wetton guests on your album and you misspell his name.) The later CD release adds the nonalbum single “Virginia” b/w “Lonely Street” as a bonus.

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Peter Banks: Two Sides of Peter Banks (1973)

The opening moments always remind me of Tales From Topographic Oceans, which may sound like high praise to some, but I felt that work didn’t walk in beauty so much as meander in it. Two Sides of Peter Banks meanders something awful, as if the guitarist never got around to finishing it. In its defense, there are some brilliant prog passages on the first side that anticipate the work of Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett. Other bands that come to mind are Camel, ELP and, of course, Flash. All of which should be enough to pique the curiosity of most classic prog fans, and with good reason. Solo albums are a surprisingly good source of music sometimes: Olias of Sunhillow, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Voyage of the Acolyte, The Geese and The Ghost, etc. Classic works in their own right, and Two Sides holds their company about half of the time. The other half of the time, Banks is busy unraveling the tapestry he’s created. The nadir to Knights’ zenith is the aptly titled “Stop That!,” thirteen-plus minutes of aimless playing that makes the jam side of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass seem inspired. However, Yes fans in particular are likely to pay close attention to Banks’ every move because his sound is so similar to Steve Howe. That’s where the Topographic comparison holds the most: Two Sides sounds like classic Yes a lot of the time. It wilts under closer inspection as weakly strung together, but there’s no denying it’s inspired in spots. If you believe the magic of Yes is undermined (and I do, in spite of Starcastle), then Two Sides of Peter Banks is a diamond in the rough. Unfortunately, One Way didn’t bother to polish it for the CD reissue, resulting in still-audible tape hiss and uninspired repackaging.

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Bryan Ferry: Let’s Stick Together (1976)

Bryan Ferry stuck some of his earlier, alternate takes of Roxy’s classics (which had previously appeared as B sides) alongside terrific new covers and packaged the whole thing as Let’s Stick Together. Not only does this blend together seamlessly (even though “2 HB” was recorded three years earlier), but it represents the single finest argument for Ferry’s fascination with cover material. Tracks by the Everly Brothers, The Beatles and Wilbert Harrison are never far from a sweet saxophone or guitar solo, the icing on these cool confections. But the album would have been little more than a box of creme-filled candies without the chewy interpretations of Roxy nuggets like “Casanova” (delivered here with devilish detachment), “Re-make/Re-model” and a corporeal “2 HB.” By reconciling Ferry’s work with Roxy Music alongside his solo persona as the re-visionary romantic, Let’s Stick Together offers that rare two-dimensional picture of the enigmatic artist. For my money, hearing Bryan bulldoze through “Shame, Shame, Shame” (and whip out a harmonica solo!) and melt over “Heart On My Sleeve” are indelible moments in music. Past interpretations of Bob Dylan have been challenging, the leisure suit donned for “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” et cetera impeccably tailored, but rarely has the end result been enjoyable in its own right. Let’s Stick Together is different; here, the listener can enjoy Ferry’s voice for what it is rather than what it’s not. For Roxy Music fans crossing over, this is Ferry’s smoothest ride.

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U.K. (1978)

Kronomyth 1.0: AURORA. There were a lot of people who lamented the loss of King Crimson, and it’s tempting to see the first U.K. album as a kind of Crimson Mark II. Bill Bruford and John Wetton had been half of that band, Eddie Jobson had replaced David Cross for some studio overdubs on the live U.S.A. and while Robert Fripp was irreplaceable, Allan Holdsworth was hardly a case of settling for less. The record does invite comparison to King Crimson, but Frank Zappa, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jean-Luc Ponty also serve as reference points. In fact, there are several moments on here where the words “Ponty on steroids” come to mind. (Holdsworth, you may recall, had just come from playing on Ponty’s Enigmatic Ocean.) What’s unique about U.K. is that they’re not jazz-rock fusion in any sense that I understand the label. It’s almost as though the band took the musicianship and unpredictable twists and turns of Zappa (e.g., “Presto Vivace And Reprise”) and Ponty (“Time To Kill”) and drained all of the jazz out of it, leaving pure prog chops in its place. And it’s in that sense where the first U.K. album is groundbreaking, because it allowed future proggers to make highly complex, dynamic and mathematical music without leaning on jazz idioms to do it. There are a lot of prog bands in the 21st century that are making music that sounds like U.K. did thirty years ago. As much of a powerhouse album as this is, I do feel like it falls apart in spots as the band tries to mesh melodies, vocals and high-octane musicianship together. The closing “Nevermore” and “Mental Medication,” for example, probably would have worked better as instrumentals than extended songs. That said, the opening suite, “In The Dead of Night,” is classic prog—something I didn’t expect to encounter anymore in 1978—and “Thirty Years” is pretty amazing too. Until now, Eddie Jobson had been a peripheral (if popular) player in prog circles, but this album established him as a major creative force in the field. Unfortunately, the band began to fall apart soon after, with Bruford and Holdsworth leaving the fold (they would reappear later that year on Bruford’s Feels Good To Me). What remains on this first record is a sweet, wonderful alignment of stars that one can happily exonerate for the future crimes of Asia.

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Phil Manzanera: K-Scope (1978)

Kronomyth 4.0: PRISMISM. The second “solo” album (i.e., not credited to 801) from Phil Manzanera enlists the help of familiar faces including half of Split Enz (Tim, Eddie and some guy named Neal), both Godley AND Creme (who were surgically joined at the hip at this point), 801ers Bill MacCormick and Simon Phillips, and former Roxy musicians John Wetton and Paul Thompson. Of course, the question on most people’s minds is “How much does this sound like Roxy Music?” and the answer is “Not nearly as much as it sounds like pre-Frenzy Enz and G&C with better manners.” K-Scope mixes in a few instrumentals with mostly songs featuring slightly prickly and sometimes silly subject matter, rarely trying the same thing twice but not as eclectic as Robert Fripp’s Exposure, for example. Eno’s early albums were more extreme, the Enz more openly tuneful; a cross between G&C’s L and Wetton’s Caught In The Crossfire seems like a reasonable place to plot this. The Roxy references are felt mostly in the guitar work (Ferry’s old license plate, “CPL 5938,” is even namechecked in “Numbers”) and the presence of saxophones in the mix (courtesy of Mel Collins). Tim Finn takes lead vocals on four tracks, though I’ve never found him to be a suitable mouthpiece for other people’s ideas. Bill MacCormick and brother Ian (a music journalist) provide songwriting support, and Bill’s two turns at the microphone (“Gone Flying,” “Walking Through Heaven’s Door”) might be the two best tracks on here. John Wetton’s vocal cameo on “Numbers” is a low-key performance that neither excites nor disappoints. K-Scope was apparently mixed quickly to make way for Roxy’s triumph my fanny return, and marks the end to Manzanera’s mid-Siren/Manifesto dream. The 801-era albums are all probably worth owning at some point, assuming you’ve already acquired all of the proper Roxy releases and Ferry/Eno albums aforehand. The closing “You Are Here” is especially interesting, and points the way toward the instrumental solo album, Primitive Guitars.

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U.K.: Danger Money (1979)

Kronomyth 2.0: AMBROSIA. With Bruford and Holdsworth gone, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton raise the stakes to fill the spaces and come up with an even more cogent case for their existence on Danger Money. Ex-Zappa drummer Terry Bozzio doesn’t really show up until mid-album, but when he does, everything clicks, so much so that the absence of half the original band is almost a non-issue. The dynamics of a trio are different, and Jobson focuses on the keyboards over the violin, which gives this record a more pronounced ELP feel than their first. The Ponty references are understandably fewer as Jobson limits his violin to a few tracks; “Casear’s Palace Blues” is the only track where Ponty came to my mind. The songwriting is remarkably solid this time around: “Rendezvous 6:02,” “Carrying No Cross” and “Nothing To Lose” (which foreshadows the work of Asia) would handily make the cut for a Best of U.K. (were such an animal to exist). While the album’s most obvious reference is the first U.K. effort, much of Danger Money feels like an update of the ELP/KC approach to prog. In fact, when Crimson regrouped in 1980, they might as well have been called U.K.C., as they seemed to borrow from both. At six songs, the effort may seem slight, but U.K. packs a lot of music into them, particularly for a trio. “The Only Thing She Needs,” for example, holds your attention with shifting arrangements, while “Danger Money” does the same through Wetton’s lyrics (which are some of his best over his career). Danger Money, if not Jobson’s finest hour, is at least his finest forty minutes. No prog keyboardist to my mind was playing better music than him in 1979, but more importantly Jobson had found a way to update prog’s excessive scale without the excess baggage of complicated themes and classical posing. I hear elements of Sparks on “Danger Money” and Ultravox on “Carrying No Cross;” two bands that had successfully (at least in the musical sense) managed to bridge the past with the future. That U.K. didn’t have a future is one of prog’s great tragedies, since they might have continued to make great music for years (and staved off the formation of Asia). What they did leave behind, while slight in size, was monumental in effect.

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U.K.: Night After Night (1979)

Kronomyth 3.0: ADDENDA. As quickly as it started, it was over, and another supergroup was superseded by individual interests. Night After Night was mixed and released after the band’s final performances in Japan, during the summer of 1979. Included here are two new tracks performed live, “Night After Night” and “As Long As You Want Me Here,” which show a lack of creative chemistry was not UK’s undoing. Perhaps the wonder is that UK lasted at all after the loss of Bruford and Holdsworth, except that Jobson and Wetton always were the heart of the group. On this performance, Jobson’s keyboards (and occasional violin) are outstanding, filling in the space so well that he nearly does the work of two musicians (“Alaska” is particularly impressive). John Wetton’s voice is in fine form, delivering the new tracks and “old” favorites like “Rendezvous 6:02” with the right amounts of drama and nuance. Terry Bozzio does a good job on drums, with plenty of double-stroke rolls tripping smoothly over the tom-toms just as they did in Zappa’s employ. The new material, the clean recording, and the lack of anything else from the band conspire to make Night After Night that rare essential live recording. Some listeners have even anointed this their best effort; perhaps overenthusiastic praise, but cheeky product this is not. Given the often redundant nature of live recordings, this one is remarkably relevant.

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John Wetton: Caught In The Crossfire (1980)

John released his first solo album in between U.K. and Asia, and Caught In The Crossfire both looks back to the one and looks forward to the other. The leadoff track is actually something of a red herring, as John tries his hand at the music of The Police (and what singing bass player didn’t want to be Sting in 1980?). The rest of the album picks up where U.K. left off and prefigures the more commercial sound of Asia. “When Will You Realize?,” “Paper Talk,” “Get What You Want” and the haunting “Cold Is The Night” would all fit that description. “Baby Come Back” and “Woman” (one of two brilliant ballads on this album) could even be seen as Asia Beta. If you’re looking for traces of Roxy Music or Uriah Heep, you may find them on “Caught In The Crossfire” and “Get Away.” Mano a mano, Wetton clearly outmaneuvers Greg Lake in the solo debut department. After years of playing in other people’s bands and contributing lyrics to other people’s songs, Wetton emerges as a singular force capable of writing (and playing) everything. The support he receives here is minimal: drums (Simon Kirke), sax (Malcolm Duncan) and a rare bit of moonlighting from Tull guitarist Martin Barre, who catches fire on “Paper Talk.” Wetton’s long-awaited debut should have charted better, but it’s unclear how much EG Records promoted it. Also, U.K. didn’t leave particularly long coattails to ride on; subsequent copies of Caught In The Crossfire added a sticker that called attention to the Wetton-Asia connection, and likely caught more eyes as a result. If you’re a fan of U.K. or Asia or simply a Wetton watcher over years, this one is definitely worth a shot.

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Phil Manzanera: Southern Cross (1990)

This is the studio pop of WettonManzanera crossed with the guitarist’s Cuban past. Southern Cross is a rich-sounding record, elevated by the nearly full-time collaboration of Tim Finn as lyricist and vocalist. It’s also a serious record: “Dr. Fidel,” “A Million Reasons Why,” “Rich And Poor.” They sing of class distinctions, dictators, unscrupulous doctors. I have to imagine that the lyrics on songs like “Venceremos” better reflect the feelings of Messr. Manzanera. That or Tim Finn was reading The Motorcycle Diaries that week. Finn is actually only one of the featured vocalists, Gary Dyson being the other. Dyson has a voice suited to the adult pop market, more flexible than Finn’s sometimes high-pitched pipes. Personally, I think Finn could have done great things with “The Great Leveller,” and maybe he’ll resurrect it for his solo career some day. Southern Cross is a very smart and professional pop record, if more political than most. However, I don’t know where the market is for it. Roxy Music fans would need to exhaust all of their original works plus everything by Bryan Ferry, the first two proper Brian Eno albums and maybe Diamond Head before arriving at Southern Cross. Tim Finn fans don’t lack suitable side avenues either: Split Enz, Crowded House. As for Phil Manzanera fans, I have to wonder how many exist outside of the Roxy axis. I can imagine maybe Latin Roxy fans aligning with Manzanera, but the weirdos went with Eno while the pretty boys and girls belong to Bryan. I’ve picked up a few of his efforts out of curious habit and Southern Cross stands as tall as any of them. It’s south and to the left of my usual tastes, but we all have to leave our little island sometimes.

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John Wetton: Chasing The Dragon (1995)

“Calamitous,” the dragon croaked, “and cold. It doesn’t do a dragon well to stay in such an inhospitiable place. And so I left the west for east; tale told.” Except there’s more to it than that, and some. The battle lines had hardly just been drawn when Wetton-san, John asiatic flew. He took with him the tomes of two or three bands well revered among the rising sons: king crimson, asia, uk and the sum of scribblings that he’d jotted in between. Their rendezvous? Osaka, Tokyo, lands long synonymous with dragon’s lairs. The lure? Of lucre green, so too the crew; It Bites and thus the hook stays in secure. As for the bonnie bits, that’s splitting hares. Of course the tracks from Asia tend to shine since, after all, this is their native clime. You came to hear UK you say? Well done. (Grayed Briton is the operative pun.) If Crimson I might ‘ember diff’rently, the Battle wares are better tendered warm; a Crime of Passion or a Hold Me Now better befit, I think, the dragon’s form. I wouldn’t say Japan is Wetton wild and yet they love their old kings and their ghosts. The old kings slumbering, sleep centuries, and rise anew as dragons in the east. The old ghosts need to make a living too, in light of which John Wetton live will do.

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