By Martin Popoff
John Wetton’s history as a bassist and vocalist is immense. Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, King Crimson, UK, Asia ... he’s been a member of all of those legendary groups, and yet the solo records have been few and far between.
“Raised In Captivity” is Wetton’s latest solo effort, and, by many accounts, the definitive work, underscored and emphasized perhaps by the presence of so many guest stars from Wetton’s illustrious past.
“Well, it’s been a while since the last one,” begins Wetton. “And it’s something I had planned to do, but Asia’s touring schedule didn’t really allow it until now. And even then, it was very, very tight, because I had taken on a commitment to do some shows with UK, as well, and so that expanded my road work for this year. But the month of January (2011) was completely open, and my manager said, ‘Come on, it’s now or never.’ Now, I had been working with Billy Sherwood on and off over the last five years, and he sent me over some tribute tracks, and I’d send him back, and they’re good fun. They’re really good fun to do. Billy makes lots of records for Cleopatra, so the main client is Cleopatra Records, who actually have William Shatner’s new album, which I’m on ... which I think is great. I got an e-mail from William Shatner, Captain Kirk, saying, ‘Thank you for your contribution. Absolutely wonderful.’ And that for me is marvelous. Even better for my son, because he’s 13 and thinks it’s so cool (laughs).”
Billy Sherwood is in fact a big part of “Raised In Captivity,” and it’s no surprise, given the great things he did for Yes’ “Open Your Eyes,” not to mention holding together The Tubes on that band’s last tour, given the serious illness of that band’s regular keyboardist.
“Yes, working with Billy, I got to know roughly what he does, which is that he’s an extremely good engineer, he’s a nice guy, and I kind of knew that we could get the project done,” he said.
But the impassioned metaphysics of the album, that’s all Wetton.
“‘What was I trying to do?’” queries Wetton, asked after the mission of the album. “Actually getting all the stuff out that I can’t get out with Asia. The whole ethos of the album is in the title, “Raised In Captivity.” It’s the product of me being born in the English Midlands, just after the second World War, when rationing was in place. It was fairly austere, growing up; we still had a huge Victorian value hangover in the home and in the school, and suddenly, after all this kind of Draconian thing, my schooling… Draconian the only way to describe it, really. You could be physically beaten for having your hair one millimeter over your collar and things like that. Suddenly, I’m thrown out into the ’60s (laughs) and anything goes. And it’s swinging London — free love, you know, it’s the whole nine yards. And it’s kind of a confusing way to grow up. So I was suddenly catapulted into London, age 19, very confused, really.
“I knew what I wanted to do, which was to play music. My brother was a church organist, so I’d grown up with music in the house. It was a different kind of music. So my groundings were very much in English church music, but there were certain things that I took from that, which I still use today, which is parallel harmonies, and choruses like that. If you take the chorus of, say ‘Heat Of The Moment’, it’s kind of like a country chorus, but the three-part harmony – it’s the direct result of being schooled in church music.”
“But anyway, back to the story, I was presented with the opportunity to get this stuff out, and I had originally titled ‘Battle Lines,’ which is from 20 years ago. That was originally called ‘Raised In Captivity,’ and it got changed, because somebody blew the whistle on it. They found out what the title was going to be, and they used it for a magazine article and kind of took the wind out of my sails. Actually, in hindsight, I probably should’ve just gone ahead with it, but I didn’t. So I kept the title, and I had the material there for the songs, and now it’s 20 years later until I recorded it. And a lot of music on the album, this album, the lyrics are about freedom, they are about grasping what do I have now? Not what did I have yesterday, and what am I going to have tomorrow, but what I’ve got this very moment. There are titles like ‘The Last Night Of My Life’, while ‘Steffi’s Ring’ specifically contains references to, live every day like it’s the last one of your life. For me, the whole album is about making the most of what I’ve got now, not really wallowing in the past, but living for now, today.”
So is “Raised In Captivity” the definitive John Wetton album, the summary, the life’s work?
“Yes, quite probably. It’s the first one that I’ve made truly sober. And so I’m able to look at life with a little bit of reality, something that has evaded me for quite a long time. There is stiff competition there from Battle Lines, which was early ’90s, again recorded in California, same place, same venue, but a different time in my life. Not that I was drinking when I was doing Battle Lines – I wasn’t – but I wasn’t in that clear frame of mind that I am now. And yeah, yeah, I think I’m more able to assess my life now than I was 20 years ago, although I think ‘Battle Lines’ is a great album. It’s a really good album. It still sounds up to date; it’s very clean, kind of Hollywood production. Ron Nevison did a spectacular job on it. But this is a lot more rough and raw, and that’s pretty much what I’m like. It’s more descriptive of my personality, this new album, because I’ve noticed that if I try and be too clean and too sophisticated, it doesn’t suit me. I’m better when I’m a little bit rough around the edges, which is not difficult for me.”
Another reason “Raised In Captivity feels like a family reunion, even, God forbid, a send-off, is the presence of players that comprise… well, it’s like John’s life is flashing before his eyes.
“Tony Kaye came, and Steve Morse came, because of Billy Sherwood,” explains Wetton. “The other ones are very much of my past. I keep thinking that every record that I make is going to be the last one. You know, certainly in terms of it being a physical CD. When I stop making physical CDs, that will be the end of recording as I know it, if you know what I mean. So having that product in my hand, and the sleeve and the information, all that stuff, when I don’t make another album that has all that stuff with it, then I’ll consider I’ve moved into a different phase, maybe kind of retirement mode. But every record I make these days, certainly in the last five years, I keep thinking will be the last one, maybe. So this time I wanted to have a few people on it that were associated with my career, quite closely. Certainly people who have been landmarks. Robert Fripp being one, Mick Box, Steve Hackett, Eddie Jobson, Geoff Downes, these people have been fairly crucial in my career.”
Wetton is not averse to tour dates for the album, starting in his career stronghold in Japan. However, more talk of retirement, notably at length, the idea that Bill Bruford (not to mention Lee Kerslake, also a Wetton cohort) is one of the few guys to come forward and pronounce, “I’m done!” leads to revelations about Wetton’s own compromised physical abilities.
“I know that Phil Collins has had physical problems with his back,” sighs Wetton, “and the last I heard, he’s not going to play any more live shows, which I think is a tragedy, because personally, when people ask me who’s the best drummer you ever played with, I tell them Phil Collins. Because he’s an incredibly musical drummer. He’s got all the power of a rock drummer, but he thinks in musical terms. Bill Bruford is a lot like that, but Phil Collins, I think, has more rock to him.
“But anyway, so we’re all getting to that kind of stage of the game now, where physically it’s a lot more difficult to do what we’ve been taking for granted for the last 40 years. I have carpal tunnel in my right hand, which, I had an operation, and it made no difference at all. That was four years ago, and I can’t even do a button up with my right hand. So I have to have a plectum strapped to my thumb, when I play. You know … not supposed to do this for this long (laughs) — it’s as simple as that. I’m still able to figure out stuff on a guitar, and there’s never actually been a better time actually, with the decline in record sales, with the increase in the popularity of live shows, there’s never been a better time to go out and play.”
But don’t expect to see Wetton playing keyboards at any of those venues.
“I find it very difficult. Very difficult. And keyboards is my main writing instrument. In fact, I just had my piano restored to an absolutely wonderful, wonderful standard, and just starting to get back into it again. But problems are eventually overcome, aren’t they? But it doesn’t make my life any easier. The carpal tunnel thing is absolutely crippling. Shocking. Very, very painful, but I don’t want to go into that too much. No one is going to suffer that, unless they play an instrument like a bass or a cello, or guitar, I suppose. But it’s very painful, and I can’t even feel three of my fingers. I have no idea whether I’m touching anything solid or hot or cold or whatever. Thank God it’s not my left hand, because the left hand would be even worse.”
Thank the prog-rock wizards, however, that John’s voice is still strong, yet only weirdly strong in the manner it’s always been, like a Roger Daltrey or Graham Bonnet — the type of voice that always seems to be working too hard, beyond capacity, strained to get where it is, but loaded with dimension when it gets there.
“Yes, the voice, if that ever went, I would say, ‘Well, look, God is telling me to pack it all in,” laughs Wetton. “But up until now, my voice has got stronger, in a sense, mainly because I take care of myself these days, and partly because, you know, it gets better with practice. But vocally, I am, at the moment, OK. A lot of people don’t even notice that my bass playing is very, very workmanlike, functional. It’s nothing compared to what it was. If people come along and think they’re going to see Jaco Pastorius, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. It was better days for me when I was 23 and playing in King Crimson. But, yes, the voice is the main instrument now.”