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Bill's JOHN WETTON Interview -- Part One

This is where writer Bill Murphy posts his interviews with the Crims, and other prog luminaries. It's a book in serial form -- that you become part of!

Moderator: LTinAspic

Bill's JOHN WETTON Interview -- Part One

Postby LTinAspic on Sat Dec 26, 2009 8:23 pm

Merry Christmas!

John Wetton is one of the most ubiquitous and accomplished musicians in prog rock. He’s been in so many of the great bands that it’s hard to count them. But his entry on Wikipedia makes a good attempt at it: King Crimson, Roxy Music, Uriah Heep, UK, Wishbone Ash, and Asia. Plus, his many sessions with other bands, as well as his solo work.

John appears in three of my all-time favorite King Crimson albums: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red. I’d be hard pressed to pick my favorite of those three. But I think Red is the most powerful and Larks’ Tongues is the most captivating.

This interview [my first of two with John] was conducted on May 28, 1993. In it, John discusses joining King Crimson, some of the band’s on-stage antics, the origin of the dread devil’s tritone, and what happened to music in the 1970s.

Because this interview, transcribed, is about 60 pages, I broke it into two parts. This is Part One of Two.


JW: Hello?

BM: Hi, is this John Wetton?

JW: Yes.

BM: Hi, this is Bill Murphy calling.

JW: Hi, Bill.

BM: How you doin’ today?

JW: Fine, how are you?

BM: Excellent.

JW: Good.

BM: How’s the weather out there?

JW: Oh, beautiful.

BM: Is it really?

JW: It is, yeah. First day off for about a month, and it’s wonderful. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Well, what are you working on these days?

JW: I’m doing solo records for Virgin over here.

BM: Oh really?

JW: Yeah.

BM: Ah.

JW: And I’m in about the last month of it now, after two years. So yeah, you know, it’s getting near the end. It’ll be out in September.

BM: Really?

JW: Yeah, September 21st is the release date.

BM: Well, that’s good to hear. I mean I’d like to get another album from you.

JW: Well, it’ll be in the shops in three months, I guess.

BM: Good. Well, Ian McDonald wanted me to say hi for him.

JW: Oh good.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I haven’t talked to him in years.

BM: I know. I just came back from a weekend chatting with him, and he’s showing me New York and all that. And he wanted me to make sure I said hi for him.

JW: I like New York. Is he all right?

BM: Yep, he’s doing pretty well. He was playing an album for me that he’s kind of been working on for the last, I don’t know, eight years or so. It’s kind of still in the rough stages. He needs some vocals and lyrics and things. But it’s sounding, it sounds good to me, I mean, it’s got some big potential there, so I hope he gets it together. [NOTE: Ian later released this album as Drivers Eyes.]

JW: I thought he was gonna work with Pete Sinfield.

BM: Uh, I don’t think Pete didn’t want to do the project until [Ian] had an album deal, actually.

JW: [laughs] Oh, I see.

BM: With a label. And he doesn’t have one yet. So he’s kind of in a Catch-22 with that.

JW: Good ol’ Pete. Mercenary to the end.

BM: [laughs] That’s kind of what Ian was saying about him. Yeah.

JW: Cautious, that’s what I’d say.

BM: Yeah. [laughs]

JW: Don’t commit yourself, Pete.

BM: Yep. [laughs]

JW: Be careful. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Well, I began researching a book on progressive rock, art rock, sometime last year, actually. And as I began talking to a lot of people, I noticed that the Crimson people were some of the best to talk to. I’m getting access to a lot of them. And pretty soon Fripp started getting kind of interested in the project, and so now I’m kind of thinking about turning it into a book on King Crimson and its players, you know, past and present.

JW: I’m going to see Robert tonight.

BM: Oh really!

JW: Yes.

BM: Really, is he doing a [String] Quintet concert?

JW: Yeah, at The Strand, tonight.

BM: Good.

JW: So I’m going to pop along there.

BM: Yeah, I told him, I sent a fax to him in May, I guess this month, mid May, and I said I’d like to catch up with him sometime, and see the Quintet, and see the new sessions for Crimson and whatnot. I think it’d be interesting. Have you seen his Bob Fripp string quintet yet?

JW: That pleasure is about to bestow itself upon me tonight.

BM: Really? Ok.

JW: Yeah. I haven’t seen it yet. He said to me, “The show is very high on art.” He said, “So I’ll leave it up to you whether you come or not.” [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: So, you know.

BM: I actually heard a bootleg CD of that from, recorded from last year, and I thought it sounded pretty good. But he said it, the music wasn’t good enough for him to release it commercially.

JW: Yeah.

BM: But I think you’re in for a treat.

JW: Good, I’m looking forward to it. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, whatever it is.

BM: [laughs] Well, tell me about your work with Crimson. Start when you were still in Family. Had you known about Crimson? Had you heard their albums? Were you aware of them?

JW: Yes.

BM: Really.

JW: I’ve known Robert since I was about 16, 15 or 16.

BM: Yeah.

JW: And our paths had crossed a lot, in our hometown. It wasn’t my hometown, but the town I grew up in, Bournemouth. We used to see each other at the guitar shop down the strike. And he went to college at the same place I did, Bournemouth College of Technology and Art and Languages. And we met there, and the next thing I knew, I think he moved up to London about a year before I did. I moved up in the beginning of ’69, and we used to just bump into each other, either in Bournemouth or in London, about every six months or so. And we kept in touch, you know. And it was one of those kind of things, inevitably, we knew we were going to do something together, but we just didn’t know what it would be. I did a lot of sessions when I first went to London. All the time, I wanted to form a band, you know. I was did form a band with James Lou, a band called Coliseum. Didn’t do very well at the time, but I now get inundated with gatefold copies of it.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I mean, someone’s getting the royalties for it. I’m not. But I made one record. And I made enough out of sessions to come and have a look at the West Coast, and at the time, a lot of good stuff was coming out of the West Coast. And I get here, and I kind of fell in love with the place immediately. But for me, it wasn’t happening musically. Everything was happening in London at that time, or as far as I was concerned.

BM: Yeah.

JW: I found I didn’t fit in over here on the West Coast at all. It was a very much kind of James Taylor, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt.

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: And I was into something a little bit more ferocious. I went back, sort of slightly disappointed, or disillusioned about not being able to fit in on the West Coast, but with a mettle and resolve that I before that, I didn’t know I had. The day I got back, I was offered the gig with Family. In fact, I was offered to go down and audition for it. And I just went along, and they wanted someone who could play bass and sing, and just generally sort of make it a bit more interesting vocally. Roger Chapman, he wanted to make the group more vocal, and harmony-oriented. So I got the gig, and made two records with them. About halfway through my stint with Family, I got a phone call from Robert Fripp, who was, I think he was in Exodus at that time. They were just on a British tour with the, Ian was, and Mel, the Islands tour.

BM: Yeah.

JW: And he asked me if I was interested in joining them. And really, I think he was calling for help. That he wanted someone like-minded to come in and just move the balance slightly toward his side.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Which I felt that then I was being asked for the wrong reasons, and that I didn’t particularly, I wouldn’t fit in with that lot anyway. It wasn’t really my cup of tea. If I’d wanted to be in Crimson, it would have to be a clean start, you know. And something that I could be in from the beginning. So I declined. And I didn’t know whether I said the right thing or not, but you know, you get an intuition about these things. I declined and carried on, made another record with Family. About, the second record was called Bandstand. Family was doing really ok at that time. Very, very popular in Britain. You know, hit singles, and doing quite well in Europe, but they’d never really done anything in America. I realized the limitations, that as long as Richard Chapman was the vocalist with Family, that there was never going to be a place there for me as the lead vocalist. As far as the writing was concerned, Richard Chapman and Charley Whitney pretty much had it sewn up. Although I got a couple of tunes in here and there. But it was a closed shop, virtually, and I kind of thought, “Well, this is ok for a couple of records, but there is gonna be a time in the future when I want to start something which has more of a contribution from me.” And just, at that time, as fate would have it, I drove down to Bournemouth for the weekend to see my parents, and I was driving up toward Windborne, and I don’t know why, it was a nice, sunny day, and I drove out toward Windborne. I drove down the lane where Robert lives, and as fate would have it, he was in. He’d just got back that morning from the last Ian, Mel tour. And he had a lady with him who was some kind of white witch.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Who thought this was terribly portentous that we should meet under these circumstances, and said that, you know, she lit a candle and said, “Great things are going to come from this.” And you know, it was quite awe-inspiring. The whole thing. [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: But we didn’t actually talk very much about what we were going to do, but we said we’d see each other later on in the month back up in London. I got back into finishing the Family album, Bandstand, and I think it was about a week later Robert Fripp arrived on my doorstep in Earl’s Court, and said, “Are you aware that Bill Bruford lives like two streets down from you?” And I said, “No, I wasn’t really.” Lots of musicians live in Earl’s Court. It’s one of those places where every musician has lived at one point in his life. And he said, “Well, I’ve just come from his house.” This is Robert speaking. And he said, “I’ve just come from his house, and I’m very excited, and I think we could have a quorum of a band here. Would you like to come around and meet Bill?” We sat and talked for about an hour, and I said to Bill, I mean, this Yes album that he was finishing at the time was destined to be enormous, because Fragile had just been a huge album you know.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: They were riding the crest of a wave. And he said, “Yes, but Bill’s looking for something else to do.” So I went round with Robert and Bill, we met, we played, we shook hands, and it was settled that night. I had to go back, we waited until we could tell our respective bands simultaneously that we would not be continuing with them. It was a matter of like two phone calls, you know.

BM: Wow.

JW: One phone call to Phil to speak to me, and then we went into the studio and told our respective bands that, you know, we would not be continuing with them.

BM: Wow.

JW: And I think three or four days, or a week later, we were rehearsing. It was as quick as that, you know.

BM: Well, what is it?

JW: We didn’t know it was going to be called Crimson. We didn’t really think of it in those terms at that time. We just felt excited that this was going to be something, let’s see what happens, you know?

BM: That’s, that Lizard and Islands period, is I guess considered one of their least popular. I like them. But, generally, they’re just not highly regarded albums. You know, they give us good moments.

JW: Yeah.

BM: Was there a sense of desperation or panic or something in Robert, or did he?

JW: No, not really. I think he was pretty cheesed over the way things had gone.

BM: Really?

JW: I don’t think he was too enamored with that period. I don’t know. That’s something you’d have to ask him.

BM: Yeah.

JW: I try not to speak for other people. It’s very hard.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I have enough trouble dealing with my own feelings. Let alone other people’s, it’d doubly difficult. But I just saw it as quite a difficult time for him, and that he was very, very pleased to get back to working with people who were of a similar disposition as far as creating music was concerned, who had similar goals.

BM: Is that, if there was any one thing that attracted you to Fripp, then, what would that be? The fact that he had similar, a like mind about music, or what did you see in him that you wanted to leave Family to go with some unknown entity at the time?

JW: Oh, it really wasn’t unknown. It was far from unknown. I knew Robert very well. I mean, unknown as far as we didn’t know what we were going to call it at that time.

BM: Yeah.

JW: An unknown inasmuch as it was uncharted territory as far as music was concerned.

BM: Yeah.

JW: I was quite adventurous in those days.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I had, I might have thought twice about it today, but in those days, it seemed like such an exciting thing to do. And we just did it, you know.

BM: Wow.

JW: For the reasons I outlined, it would have been inevitable that I would have left Family.

BM: Yeah.

JW: Quite soon after that record, I would have thought. And it seemed like an ideal opportunity. I met with the management, and they seemed really, really good, and the record company was the best one you could be with at that time, Island, and Atlantic in the United States. It was, our musical scene revolving around, between ’68 and ’72, ’73, was very exciting in London. It was a time of enormous productivity and creativity. I mean, you could, for 50 cents, you could go and see three bands at the marquee like The Nice, Jethro Tull, and all in the same night.

BM: Wow.

JW: It was quite exciting, the amount of new talent that was coming out. And it’s amazing how well that talent’s lasted as well. It wasn’t just a flash in the pan, there was a genuine feeling that there was something creative coming out of London at that time. And having been to all the other places, I, you know, there was just something electric about London at that time. And it was very exciting. You could go to these clubs and see music that would knock your socks off, every night of the week. There was something good going on, you know, there was a very healthy club circuit in London at that time. And it was a great place to be. There was this feeling of optimism, which I’ve never seen since, probably will never see again.

BM: [laughs] Yeah. That, the type of music I guess, that you’re generally known for is often called progressive rock or art rock or something like that.

JW: Whatever it is.

BM: Yeah, whatever label, in fact, Bruford didn’t even like any labels put on it when I asked him about it.

JW: I don’t particularly. It’s, it seems to me that labels are invented in order to put you in a pigeonhole.

BM: Yep.

JW: Because it’s inconvenient if you don’t fit into a pigeonhole. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Yep.

JW: So, but it’s never the musicians that make up the label.

BM: Yep, yep, that’s what he said, basically. Yep. That type of, I guess if there had to be a label to put on it, that excitement or electricity, or that wildly creative kind of music, Mike Giles, when I was asking him about it, he said it only lasted until about ’74. It went from like ’69 to somewhere in the early ‘70s, ’74.

JW: Yeah, I’ll go with that. I said ’68 to ’72, ’73. ’74 would be stretching it a bit, but maybe, yeah. ’74 would be the outer limit.

BM: Yeah.

JW: So I thought ’68, but maybe ’69. Yeah, ’69 was incredibly great.

BM: Yeah.

JW: Being in London in ’69, it was just amazing. I mean, every new record that came out had something new on it. You know, some kind of sound that you never heard before. Or some great song.

BM: Well, what was it about that time, then, that was so novel, unique, exciting, creative? Was there anything going on? Why that time and no other?

JW: Damn good question. It was a time, I suppose you could look at in analytically and say that it was the first post-war generation that had grown up. You know, and come of age. So people that were born between 1945 and 1950 had suddenly reached their early 20s. So this was the first time you were seeing that generation in any kind of maturity. I guess that’s a possibility.

BM: Yeah.

JW: A post-war, baby boomer, you know, a generation growing up. We’d just been through the ‘60s, you know, and moving into the ‘70s when things were starting to get a little bit less outrageous. We’d had The Beatles and we’d had the bare bosoms, you know. It was a time of growing up, and reaching maturity, I guess.

BM: Yeah. Well, what were those rehearsals like, then? You had you and Fripp and Bruford and—

JW: Jaime Muir, and David Cross.

BM: What was that like, then? You guys were all getting together for the first time. What was the atmosphere like during those times?

JW: Oh, wonderful. Wonderful. I knew that I was in the right place. I was doing exactly what I should have been doing, where I was stretching my capabilities. And I was feeling genuinely fulfilled and excited about what was happening. You know, there’s a great sense of moving forward for me.

BM: Yeah.

JW: You know, this was like, yeah, ok, I’ve paid my dues. Now I get to do what I want, you know. [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: Now we’re going to have some fun. And it certainly was. There’s always one period in your life when everything falls into place. Everyone gets their 15 minutes. That’s what it was with me.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Then it was back to hard work again.

BM: Yep.

JW: I’m not saying that Crimson wasn’t hard work, it was. But it was very enjoyable and very exciting.

BM: Well, what was it about that first album you did with them, Larks’ Tongues, the Rolling Stone encyclopedia says that’s the best Crimson album ever. What was it about that album that set it apart completely from everything proceeding it?

JW: I don’t know, I think we created a concept album without setting out to do so. That’s what it seems like to me. Out of these rehearsals, it’s the thing with every band. You know, you go into the rehearsal room, or you sit down with a tape recorder, and basically, a couple of guys got some ideas, and a couple of guys sat around. And in this case, four or five guys got ideas. And there was, like Fripp and I had the more formal rock training, if you like, backed up with a bit of classical stuff. Bill, you know, was leaning more toward, listening to a lot of jazz at that time. And David came from a completely classical background. So he, I think, by his own admission, he felt a little at sea, he was just suddenly faced with guys who were quite seasoned, amplified players. [laughs]

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: He wasn’t quite ready for that. But he coped admirably well.

BM: Yeah.

JW: And I guess just the blend of those personalities came up with that album. I think after that, we became streamlined, out of necessity.

BM: Yeah.

JW: Jaime would never have lasted on one of our arduous tours, you know, Europe or America. He just wouldn’t have lasted. He quite sensibly threw in the towel.

BM: [laughs]

JW: At the end of the game. I was [laughs] quite jealous of those guys that play on the album but never go on tour, because they get all the royalties and don’t have to do any work.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I mean, I’m not saying that was Jaime’s case, but I don’t think that he would have been able to cope with the grueling road situation. And then, it was after about a year’s touring, we pared down to three again, which was wonderful. I mean, I love David dearly, but the sheer power of the three piece is wonderful.

BM: Oh, yeah.

JW: Wonderful.

BM: For the Red album, right?

JW: Yeah.

BM: On Larks’ Tongues, for instance, there’s a lot of sound effects or odd instruments used and things of that sort. Was there a sense of just, wanting to push some boundaries or experiment with things?

JW: Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely.

BM: And how did you decide what instruments or what sounds you used, and which ones you didn’t? What fit to you?

JW: Jaime had a whole battery of strange sounds. [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: You know. As I’m sure other people have told you, he had his whirly pipe, and his sheets of aluminum and his baking trays and stuff.

BM: [laughs]

JW: And those all came in very useful. At one point, we had a bucket full of mud clay, that was used to make the slurping sounds at the beginning of “Easy Money.” And it was a lot of fun, that’s all I can tell you. We tried to illustrate stuff as we went along, using sound. And as a lot of people had done before that, you know.

BM: Yeah.

JW: But when it came to recording, in those days, it was a rather simple affair, eight-track or maybe 16-track later on. But I think Larks’ Tongues was eight-track. And it’s, I always went in for, I preferred The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, because they had a lot more, a lot more going for them. They played, in other words, it’s wasn’t one guy and the group, it wasn’t Mick Jagger and the band, it was The Beatles.

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: They all played instruments, they all sang, and they looked like they were good at their craft, you know. I always thought bands just fell into that mold of the singer, and the group, you know. As it had been for generations before that. And I liked the way that they illustrated their albums. The Stones’ music was always too kind of linear for me, you know, they never held my interest for very long. Although they’ve recorded a few wonderful songs. A few wonderful songs. But The Beatles made it every time. I liked The Beach Boys for the same reason, that they would illustrate stuff as they went along.

BM: More experimental, kind of pushing the boundaries.

JW: More experimental, but at the same time, they could play a 12-bar.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: You know, like “Barbara Ann.” But because of the way it was done, it held your interest. It wasn’t just kind of, oh, there’s another 12-bar.

BM: [laughs]

JW: And that’s the kind of shit we tried to get into with Crimson.

BM: That’s probably why I can still listen to Crimson now and hear it just sounds fresh every time. I can still hear all the albums and find something new in them each time.

JW: Yeah.

BM: That’s a wonderful aspect for music to have.

JW: Yes, it is.

BM: What’s going on in “Larks’ Tongues: Part 1” that woman talking, or the guys, the man or men mumbling or something?

JW: That’s from a, from something called the “Weir of Hermiston” and it’s a guy being sentenced to death.

BM: Oh, geeze.

JW: By a Scottish judge. And it’s, it’s just something that, I’m not sure, Bill may have come in with it. He’s just, it was either Bill or Jaime. Someone from the drum department.

BM: [laughs]

JW: He came in with this. And tried to read it, like it was music. It had to be climactic, you know.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: At that point, it was the sort of orgasm of the song.

BM: Yep, it was a big build-up, and all of a sudden, boom, there’s muttering or speaking of some kind.

JW: Yeah, it’s a guy being sentenced to death. It just tickled our fancy at the time.

BM: [laughs] Well, what was the most difficult part of being in Crimson, would you say? Was it the touring, or trying to compose all these very intricate songs? Or what would you say was the most difficult?

JW: Good question. [pause] It’s certainly not composing the songs, that seemed to come quite naturally. I mean, Robert came in with set pieces like “Fracture” or “Red” from time to time, maybe one or two per album. Usually one completely set piece per album. And the rest of it was down to, oh, hang on, I’ve got another call.

BM: Ok. [pause] [hums]

JW: Hello?

BM: Howdy.

JW: My wife on the phone. She’s just telling me she’s coming home.

BM: Good.

JW: Where were we?

BM: The most difficult part of being—

JW: Yes, the most difficult. Yeah, it certainly wasn’t the writing. The road got tough sometimes, but then it always has been. I mean, I think one is a lot more capable of being on the road when he’s in his early 20s rather than late 30s or early 40s.

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: You know, I did some touring up until two years ago when I started this album, and it was really, really tough. And I was leading a Spartan existence, you know, no smoking and no drinking, and early to bed, you know.

BM: [laughs]

JW: And it was difficult enough under those circumstances. [laughs] With Crimson, we were going to bed at 5:00 in the morning.

BM: Wow.

JW: And then getting up at 8. But you can do that when you’re 21, 22. It’s ok. But touring did get tough, yeah. But I personally thought we were due for another big one before we called it a day in ’74. I thought that after Red, we should have gone out and toured then. If Robert did want to knock it on the head and go and do his sabbatical, I think we should have just done one more tour.

BM: Yeah.

JW: That would have made me a happy camper.

BM: [laughs]

JW: But, ‘twas not to be.

BM: Of those three albums, these three studio albums, which one do you, not only like the best or maybe have the fondest memories of?

JW: I could still listen to all of them today. In fact, I haven’t for a while, but that’s a very good reason that I’m not listening to anything at the moment, because you know, in the last month of this record, all of my concentration has to be on this one project. But I would certainly listen to them all again nowadays. I wouldn’t find them dated.

BM: Yeah.

JW: But my own favorite would have to be Red.

BM: Really.

JW: I find it more satisfying than the other two, yeah. It kind of has a vibe to it that it starts out like it means business, and it goes all the way through to the end without any kind of farting about at all.

BM: [laughs] Yeah, but let me ask you something about this. One of the things, I guess one of the critics’, one of the things people say against Crimson is it seems so heavy and ominous and dark and moody. But I found that there’s a lot of humor in there too.

JW: Absolutely. “Easy Money” is a very funny song.

BM: Yeah. [laughs]

JW: There’s a particularly funny moment on live recordings. There’s one that I would love to have had, on “The Great Deceiver” but it was never recorded on 16-track. It was from the warehouse in New Levines. And we used to do this song on stage which was called “Dr. Diamond” or “Dr. D” for short. And it was all about the driver of an underground train, and it had this great, long sort of buildup, intro thing, instrumental, frantic buildup. It stopped dead on a dime, and then I have to sing about 12 bars a cappella, and then the band come in on a vocal cue.

BM: [laughs]

JW: This worked great, you know.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Absolutely brilliant. Except one night, New Orleans, the band, we do all this frantic intro, I step up to the microphone and my mind goes blank, I can’t remember a fucking word.

BM: [laughs]

JW: So the band has no cue to come back in.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Everyone just fell about laughing. The one instrument came in, another one came in, all out of time, it was terrible. And you hear this muffled laughter on the microphone. Personally, I’ve only ever heard it on cassette, not on 16-track.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Moments like that were priceless, you know. This was our big intro, as well.

BM: Oh wow.

JW: [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: We sounded like four completely inept amateurs, it was terrible. But it was very funny. And you have to see the humorous side of those things.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: There were other, I mean, every night had a humorous moment there somewhere. When you’re playing tritones all night. You’re going to have a little bit of rest from that. That’s sort of the other side of the coin.

BM: Oh yeah, I would say. With the dissonance, the ominous lyrics, I guess that was more in the first couple albums, especially were kind of dark and broody. Yeah, is that where the reputation for serious and nose-to-the-grindstone music came from? You know, the lyrics, do you think, or the tritones? Why do you think people have the impression—

JW: Well, after many years of tritones, it just kind of [laughs] you know, [sings] wah waahh.

BM: [laughs]

JW: It’s the devil’s interval.

BM: Yep.

JW: The only reason it’s called the devil’s interval is because, when it was first played, it was played on a church organ. And when you hit a tritone on a church organ, if you hit it low enough, the place starts to shake.

BM: [laughs] Oh gee.

JW: And therefore, everyone thought, “oh my god, this is the devil.”

BM: [laughs]

JW: If it can make a church shake, it must be the devil’s work. So they banned anyone from playing a tritone in a church.

BM: [laughs]

JW: And it was known as the devil’s music. So it’s, unfortunately, been a much maligned note formation.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: But it’s jolly useful if every you want to get dark, just stick in a tritone.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Which we used to do with monotonous regularity.

BM: Really? [laughs] When I was talking to Ian and some of the other guys in the first Crimson line-up, they said when they played on stage, one of the things they loved to do was go to dead silence, and then see how long they could hold it, and then see who’d chicken out first and have to start playing.

JW: Yeah.

BM: There was a lot of improvising and goofing around like that. Did you guys do that?

JW: Yeah, we did that.

BM: Really?

JW: There were a couple of rules that we had, apart from the one rule, which was that there are no rules.

BM: [laughs]

JW: The main thing that, in order to survive, the rule was that anyone could start at any given time, they could play whatever they wanted. But if they did, everyone else had to follow.

BM: Really.

JW: So, if anyone were brave enough to start, the rest would follow him, which, you know, is a pretty sensible rule, when you think about it. So then you don’t get three guys starting at the same time. [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: The first guy would play a note, the other guys would follow. And that worked. You know, sometimes we had our off periods, but nine times out of ten, it was damn good.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: And that was a damn good rule to follow as well.

BM: I guess another thing—

JW: But it meant that the drums could start on their own, you know, and as long as the electric instruments were working, we would follow.

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: If they weren’t, then we couldn’t.

BM: And that reminds me of what I was gonna ask you about, did you actually like the sound of the Mellotron, or was that just like a necessary evil for you for this kind—

JW: No, I liked it.

BM: Really.

JW: I liked the Mellotron, really. Yeah. And I used the Mellotron on some of the demos for this record.

BM: Really?

JW: Because try as you may, you can’t get anything that sounds like it.

BM: Oh yeah, there’s nothing like it.

JW: Not even synthesizers. You know, and samplers, they sound to real. This thing just sounded like a Mellotron. It sounds terrible, but there it is, you know.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I was quite excited. We had been rehearsing for about three weeks when we eventually wheeled the Mellotron in. And suddenly, we sounded like a group, you know, when that thing came in. We could play what we wanted then. But we didn’t use it particularly like the first band had used it. We used it in a different way. I mean, I think the first band was a really good band, the first King Crimson. I saw them somewhere in London.

BM: What did you think of that album as a whole. Did it—

JW: Oh, it was wonderful.

BM: Yeah.

JW: I thought, you know, there were things I didn’t like about it, but all in all, the things I did like far outweighed the things I didn’t. I think there are some really good songs on it. Even “Moonchild” and “I Talk to the Wind” I liked, which, I say “even” because they’re the ones that are the most slandered by the critics.

BM: Yeah.

JW: It was just an album that really worked.

BM: Well, over the years, I guess, with the Crimson line-ups, Fripp has sort of gotten the reputation, deservedly or not, I guess, of being very difficult to work with. I mean, did you find him to be so, or was it just…?

JW: No, not at all.

BM: Really.

JW: No, not really. I think if you try and understand the man, then you understand the musician. And the biggest mistake some people make is trying to understand the musician first.

BM: Yeah.

JW: And having known him the other way round, as the guy first, then I didn’t have any problem at all with him as a musician. In fact, as you can see from the credits, a lot of our stuff dovetails together very well. Where he’s written a verse, I’ve written a chorus, you know, blah blah, vice versa. We work together quite well musically, so there was no problem there at all. I mean, difficult, I guess difficult would be saying something, if I suggested that we play bass and guitar in unison, and he would say, “Well, I don’t need to play in unison because you’re already playing it and it sounds great when you’re playing it.” Then there was a certain element of frustration there, and I would say, “But it would sound even better if you played it as well.”

BM: [laughs]

JW: He would say, “You sound good playing it on your own, and I’ll play something else.” I’d say, “No, guitar and bass is traditionally the same sound, that’s why everyone does it, that’s why a lot of people do.”

BM: [laughs]

JW: And he’d say, “That’s exactly why we shouldn’t do it.”

BM: [laughs]

JW: And there’d be these arguments. These arguments would go on spasmodically for maybe a couple of days before we’d decide one way or another. If that’s being difficult, then I guess I am difficult as well.

BM: [laughs] Really.

JW: No, I didn’t find him difficult. I find it, he’s a lovely guy, if you get to know him. Take the time, the trouble to get to know anyone, you’ll find there are properties there that you never dreamed they could have. Robert is a very, very good friend. I’ve known him a long time now.

BM: Well, he seems like a nice guy from the contact I’ve had with him.

JW: Yeah.

BM: Very interesting, I don’t know if the word “quirky” is right, but interesting, intriguing in a lot of various ways.

JW: Yes, absolutely. From where we come from, quite a few people are quirky.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Quirky is, you do fit form stuff on quirky.

BM: [laughs]

JW: That’s kind of compulsory in British education.

BM: Really? [laughs]

JW: Yeah. Physics, PE, and Quirky.

BM: [laughs] Well, in the notes to The Great Deceiver box, Fripp characterizes that you’re, the Bruford-Wetton rhythm section is busy, exciting, mobile, agile, inventive, and terrible to play over. Would you agree with that assessment?

JW: Completely.

BM: Really?

JW: Yeah, I wouldn’t have liked that job.

BM: [laughs] Was that by choice, or did it just happen that way, you guys were like that?

JW: We were very, at that time, very capable players, and very cocky.

BM: Mm, yeah.

JW: And Bill and I used to go and check out everyone’s rhythm section. [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: We’d go and see Herbie Hancock on the way back from the sound check in Kansas City. We’d go to Ronnie Scott’s in London and we saw pretty much everyone that was good, you know, at that time. And we would appreciate them for what they did, and then we’d go and play with ten times the fervor that we’d previously played with. Because we were determined to be in our tree, in the first division, in the first league. And unfortunately, we’d get sometimes so into our part of the bargain, that we would sort of maybe not be listening to exactly, to what the others were doing.

BM: [laughs]

JW: [laughs] Is that a good way of putting it?

BM: Yeah. [laughs]

JW: That is, in our enthusiasm, we weren’t possibly paying all the attention we needed to have been doing to the other two. But then again, we thought, “Well, it’s every many for himself.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I used to play quite loud, and Bill was placed right at the front of the stage next to me, and it wasn’t the conventional, two guys standing at the back of the stage you normally have. We were in there with the lead instruments, you know. Which was possibly very frustrating at the time, for David and Robert. But I think it made them play remarkably well.

BM: Yeah.

JW: A lot of these games going on on stage, I’m sure the other two were thinking, “Those bastards. I’m gonna show them.” You know? [laughs]

BM: [laughs]

JW: I mean, it had fantastic results on occasion. Absolutely fantastic. The last show we played, which was in New York Central Park, was just staggering in its power. It was just unbelievable. And as I said in my little note in the greatest hits, I’ve just come across one person every six months, or one person every year that was there. You know, just out of the blue, they’ll say, “Shit, that was some night.” You know? That was it. That was it. And that was very difficult to top that, you know. Like, I could, after that with Roxy Music, that was from the sublime to the ridiculous.

BM: [laughs]

JW: I mean, Roxy Music was an interesting group and they’re lovely guys, but had nowhere near the power that Crimson had.

BM: No, well, yeah. That’s, I guess very few bands ever did, really.

JW: It’s very hard to compare anything to that. So I was sort of, constantly looking for my fix after that, you know. I kind of flitted from post to post, looking for the fix. And I didn’t get it, you know.

BM: You must have found, UK was a fairly powerful—

JW: Well I did with UK, you know. UK was a different kind of band. It was, in its time, quite powerful. But it, UK, unfortunately was a prog rock band that came about five years too late. It was too late for the early ‘70s and it was too early for the ‘80s. And I think a lot of musicians liked that band.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: Musicians I came across in the studio and stuff, it was, “Oh wow, what a great album.” That was the first UK album.

BM: Oh it was, yeah.

JW: It was a great album, yeah. But I don’t find too many members of the public that have the same opinion.

BM: [laughs]

JW: It missed the public. Whereas Larks’ Tongues and In the Court of the Crimson King did not miss the public. They got those, well and truly. And it’s, from my point of view, I think it’s equally satisfying when the public get it. You know, when you’re not just creating art for other musicians. When you’re actually getting things that people relate to. And that’s the cream on the cake, you know. It makes it all worth it when it actually sells records too, that’s great.

BM: Well, the public getting it certainly describes Asia. I mean, that band was lapped up by radio stations and public everywhere.

JW: Yeah.

BM: That was, what was it like, I guess one of the criticisms of Asia though, was that you guys were restrained musically somehow. You were less, you weren’t playing to your fullest potential, it was almost like you were trying to be more commercial-oriented, make the hit songs or something. But do you see it that way?

JW: Well you know what, the experience I’d had, was in the two bands that I’d been the co-writer and singer in before, which is King Crimson and UK, particularly with UK, because as I said, we came at the wrong time probably, probably came at the wrong time. If that, if UK had launched now, it might have been more successful than it was in ’78. Or if it had been four or five years earlier, it would have been more successful.

BM: Oh yeah.

JW: But at that time, things, I mean, the record industry was changing because new wave was happening in a big way. And it, UK was like a stand against new wave. It was, time wise it was like a fish out of water, and what had happened is I would take in—

End tape 1

BM: Ready, go ahead.

JW: Ok. With “Starless,” which appeared on Red, but which in fact was written for Starless.

BM: I always wondered about that, yeah.

JW: Yeah, I brought the song in at that time, and played it to blank faces.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Totally blank faces. I looked at Bill and I looked at Robert, and they were kind of silence, uneasy silence. And then, “Alright, well let’s go and have some tea.” You know.

BM: [laughs]

JW: So I put that one on the back burner.

BM: Yeah.

JW: And never mentioned it again, because I thought, “Alright, that obviously got the frosty reception, so let’s get on with something else,” which we did. When it came to Red, one of the first things that was brought up when we got into rehearsal for Red was, “That song that you played, ‘Starless,’ um, why don’t we have a go at that?”

BM: [laughs]

JW: I said, “Well, that was meant for that last album.” And went round the room, you know, Bill and Robert said, “Well, that sounded like a good song to me. Let’s do it.” That three-minute song ended up with whatever it is, I don’t know.

BM: 12:18. Yeah.

JW: Twelve minutes, 12:18. So all throughout my sort of prog-rock years, I’d taken a four-minute song, which would then be tripled in length by other guys in the band adding to it.

BM: [laughs]

JW: So when it came to doing Asia, I said, “Alright, let’s just leave the songs at four minutes, and see how it goes.” If you look at the way the sound is of Asia, it ain’t that different from Red, really. I mean, you could take the track, “The Great Deceiver” or “Easy Money,” the instrumentation, the vocal sound is pretty similar. Of course, they’re different players, I’m not talking about the quality of playing or the playing. I’m talking about what’s on there. The instrumentation is very, very similar. It’s bass, drums, guitar, and a bit of keyboard with multi-track vocal. And it ain’t that different. The difference is that Asia was condensed down to the original format, it was the four-minute song.

BM: Yeah.

JW: And that happened to be radio friendly. We knew that at the time, that at least four songs on the album would be radio friendly. That was the idea, that we could stretch out on some of the other tunes, but four songs would remain as was, and would not get extended over the magic, you know, period.

BM: [laughs] Yeah.

JW: And it worked, you know, it worked. At that time, 1982, I seem to remember that one of the biggest hits over here was A Flock of Seagulls. And when Asia came out, it sounded a lot more fucking serious than that.

BM: Oh yeah. [laughs] That’s for sure.

JW: Even though it was quite hooky and it was very radio oriented, it still sounded like it was serious.

BM: I thought it was incredible. That first Asia album especially, was tremendous. I mean, the instrumentation was brilliant, the songs were good, and I thought it was an excellent album. Could, let’s step back a second to Crimson, I guess. Could experimental music of a Crimson type or UK type, I guess, or somewhat of Asia, could that happen today? Could a band like Crimson get a record deal these days?

JW: I don’t think so.

BM: Yeah.

JW: I don’t think so. I think everything’s changed since that period. The industry has changed completely. In the ‘70s it was run by hippies.

BM: [laughs]

JW: And almost on the stroke of New Year’s Eve, 1979, the suits moved in.

BM: Yeah.

JW: They moved in for the decade, you know, and they’re still there. What happened was a business that had been run by hippies for hippies, with hippies in mind, suddenly a lot of people, I think mainly from the movie industry, realized that records could be a big seller. And a business. Where it was run like a chain of supermarkets.

BM: [laughs]

JW: Where people, I mean, I remember in the ‘70s we use to go to the record company, and they’d just give you hundreds of album. You’d walk away with armfuls of albums. And that never happens nowadays. If you go in and buy, sorry, if you go in and get a copy of your own record, you have to sign for it.

BM: Really?

JW: That’s the way it is. That’s the way it is nowadays. And yeah, almost on the stroke of New Year’s Eve ‘79.

BM: Wow.

JW: It changed. The ‘80s was to be a new decade, and it was then that it was run by accountants and lawyers and the hippies all got pushed out. As far as I know, there’s only one music guy still in business, music in the true sense of the word, a music man, you know, a guy that came in with music and is still there. The rest of them have been replaced by people who have had training courses from supermarket or restaurant chains, you know, who have come in to do marketing.


NOTE: This ends Part One of my two-part interview with John Wetton.
--
"You make my life and times
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