John Wetton, An Extraordinary Life, is an 8 CD boxset and the first in a series commemorating the life and music of one of the UK’s most extraordinary and prolific musicians. The series will revisit his solo work, Asia material, and other works undertaken in conjunction with musicians such as Icon and Wetton, Nolan and Friends.
John Wetton – An Extraordinary Life (Cherry Red)
Release Date: 24 November 2023
Words: Adrian Stonley
This set contains six previously released albums and two discs of previously unreleased material containing rare, live, alternative versions and unreleased material from the vaults, compiled by John’s archivist, Rick Nelson. Probably it is the latter that makes this set principally interesting and predominantly the attraction for fans and completists of John Wetton’s work.
John had a varied and wide career and was always considered one of the mainstays of the progressive rock scene, having played with such luminaries as Family, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash, Roxy Music, UK, Asia and Icon.
He also appeared on a host of albums as a guest artist or session player, including for Bryan Ferry, Steve Hackett, Brian Eno, Renaissance and Galahad.
The previously released solo albums, released between 1980 and 2011, have been remastered with a number containing additional material, some being shared on this release for the first time and others having been additions on earlier reissues.
Firstly, we have six albums covering a wide period of John’s solo career, from the pre-Asia 1980 release Caught In The Crossfire through to 2011’s final solo studio outing, Raised In Captivity.
They certainly are critical pieces and provide a wide overview of where John was both personally and musically at the time of writing. They provide a musical landscape which, in hindsight, allows us to revisit these albums with a wider knowledge of both personal and musical change that John was undergoing. It’s worth listening to these solo albums again with this in mind.
There are a couple of clear questions to be asked about this release. Do the remastered albums stand up alongside the originals, and what is the unreleased material like?
This set clearly shows the ability and variety of John Wetton’s work. Not only was he a consummate professional musician, but he was also adaptable and thoughtful. He could write with feeling, compassion and complexity, yet was not scared to strip songs down to the bone and take a rock standard and make it his own.
Let’s not forget that Asia, fronted by John and consisting of three other well-known English Prog musicians, succeeded in blowing the US soft rock market apart in the early ’80s with albums such as the self-titled Asia and Alpha. It should, therefore, be no surprise that John was more than capable of blasting out a good rock tune on his own.
John Wetton – Disc 1 – Caught In The Crossfire
John’s first solo album, Caught In The Crossfire, was released back in 1980. We now have the opportunity to hear this remastered with two additional songs.
At the original time of release, it was received with mixed reviews. As a musical statement, it certainly is a long way from his previous more progressive leanings and brought a more commercial touch to his songwriting. Certainly, those aficionados of the likes of UK and King Crimson would have been disappointed by the route that this album took.
However, what we can now see, with that wonderful thing called hindsight, is actually the early formations of his musical direction that would flower into major success in Asia.
Certainly, songs such as Turn On The Radio definitely had a more commercial pop radio-friendly lean to them and showed that John was more than adept at writing less technical yet more accessible pieces and could switch from technical passages to radio-friendly soft rock with ease.
Baby Come Back is an interesting tune as the opening keyboard introduction is very consistent with what would come in the future in the shape of Asia.
It is debatable whether the two additional songs included in this release, Every Inch Of The Way and Out Of The Blue, are to be considered as additions. Though they did not feature on the original release back in 1997, they were featured on a reissue in 2003, and the sound and feel of these two pieces do differ from the original material.
Adding these pieces does make this release of interest as they are both indicative of the direction that the album was aiming in, and post-Asia shows how far the ideas and songwriting had developed.
John Wetton – Disc 2 – Battle Lines
John’s second solo album was originally released as Voice Mail in 1994 as a Japanese-only release. An international release followed, Battle Lines, the titling here, although it contained the same musical content as the original release.
This is a very different statement of intent. Whether it was due to the initial choice of a limited market, bearing in mind how popular the initial incarnation of Asia was in Japan, or as a means of trying out a differing songwriting route. This is closer to the Asia model and indicative of his directional change from the more complex material written in past band environments.
What is interesting here and in future releases is how the dexterity and ability to move words and craft his songwriting skills come to the fore. Listening to these solo outputs in the form laid down in this set, you can see how the songwriting matures yet still retains the quality of musicianship. In these cases, it is clear that quality did not necessarily mean complexity.
Also of interest is the additional track, which is a stripped-down guitar-based acoustic version of the title track. The original keys are removed, allowing the flowing gentility of the guitar work to shine through.
John Wetton – Disc 3 – Arkangel
1997’s Arkangel follows the approach noted on earlier releases, with this disc containing one additional piece. Take These Tears did not feature on the original release but was added to the 2008 reissue. This is an album, however, that contains some of John Wetton’s most sumptuous ballads.
Arkangel has less of the pop feel to it, and the lyrical and musical arrangements lean back towards some of his earlier work. This remains a more diverse work, and the collection of songs contains more thought-provoking lyrical content and interesting musical accompaniments, with less of the commercial overtones more noticeable on his previous two outings.
This is more of a songwriter’s album, particularly noticeable in the lyrical context of the title track and the diverse musical collaborations. None more noticeable than with Steve Hackett of Genesis fame, showing not only his dexterity on guitar, All Grown Up, but also on Harmonica on Nothing Happens For Nothing.
Interestingly, in view of the recent success of John Young with his own Lifesigns project, a number of tunes were co-written between the two, and certainly, the touch of Mr Young clearly shows in the keyboard structure of a number of the pieces on this disc. It would have been interesting to see more of this potential writing relationship, as the quality of the songs clearly shone through on this release.
The Last Thing On My Mind remains a beautiful soft rock ballad which slowly builds a bubbling energy throughout the course of the piece, which finally breaks out in the guitar solo, taking the song to a higher level.
Desperate Times remains noticeable with its haunting saxophone break that gives the piece a wider energy, in the same way in which the Sax on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street defined that song.
This album, more than any previously, shows John growing into the richness and strength of John Wetton, the songsmith. That said, this piece does contain the beautiful instrumental The Celtic Cross. On this track, the remastering particularly stands out with the echoing beauty of the Uillean pipes and gently plucked guitar strings, bringing the sensitivity and beauteous nature of this piece through.
John Wetton – Disc 4 – Welcome To Heaven
Welcome To Heaven, also released as Sinister, was an album that received some unfair criticism at the time. But now, listening back in hindsight, it contains some immensely strong and diverse material.
In some ways, it follows a similar approach to Arkangel. But where that earlier album contained a more gentle balladlike approach, John stretched his rock chops with a number of purposeful radio-friendly driving rock numbers, in particular, the opening two songs on this album, Heart Of Darkness and Say It Ain’t So.
No Ordinary Miracle and Silently are two exceptional ballads and clearly show his ability to bind emotional lyrics into beautifully structured musicality.
However, rolling the clock back twenty years was E-scape. The album’s one instrumental produced a very different musical flavour and saw Wetton working back alongside old Crimson alumni. With John swapping Bass for Keys, Robert Fripp on guitar and Ian McDonald on flute, they produced a soft, drifting, dreamily beautiful, balanced and restful piece that in itself could act as a soundtrack. This is welcoming, albeit out of keeping with the feel of the rest of the album. That said, this album is worth listening to for this one piece alone.
Real World was co-written with Ringo Starr and provides an interesting change in songwriting approach with a distinct Dylanesque feel, and this tune will be revisited later in the set on one of the bonus discs.
John Wetton – Disc 5 – Rock Of Faith
2003’s Rock Of Faith contains three additional songs. God Only Knows, a live cover of the Brian Wilson, Beach Boys classic, and Cold Comfort, were only previously available on the Japanese release. The other addition is a demo of the title track.
The title track has a different feel from much of John’s earlier work. The vocal sits over an African-style drum rhythm and backing vocals. There is more of a personal theme that runs throughout this album, with songs clearly reflecting John’s view of his life and the world at this point in time. The lyrics throughout this album are strong and thought-provoking, questioning yet restive.
This album did see Geoff Downes return to the writing fold with John. I’ve Come To Take You Home, with Geoff’s keyboards, is a stand-out tune and indicative of what was to come from the duo on the Icon albums.
John Wetton – Disc 6 – Raised In Captivity
Raised In Captivity, Wetton’s sixth and final solo album, was released in 2011. This is an album that more than showed John’s ability as a rock tunesmith. It is also an album that contained a considerable cast of extras contributing to the album, including Steve Hackett, Steve Morse, Robert Fripp, Tony Kaye, Eddie Jobson, Geoff Downes, Mick Box and Diane Van Giersbergen, amongst others.
This is an album that is certainly settled more in Asia territory as opposed to John’s earlier prog material, despite the extent of serious prog artists playing on this album.
This version also contains one extra song, Face To Face, from the Japanese release but, for some reason, does not include the second Japanese release, After All.
If one thing stands out on this album, it is the production, which has a very specific ’80s feel to it. Despite the remastering, this is still very much to the fore on the songs contained here.
Something that is additionally interesting and stands out on this album is that it provides a duet with a fledgling Diane Van Giersbergen early in her career. Listening to the track Mighty Rivers provides not only a different musical strand for John but also an indication of the symphonic direction in which Diane’s musical journey was to take.
However, for many, the two bonus discs are the treasure trove of this release and likely what many purchasers of this set will first turn to.
You can read about the two bonus discs here.
Presented in a 12×12” box, this collection also features an extensive 64-page book with notes written by Nick Shilton, author of John’s biography, An Extraordinary Life and artwork by Michael Inns, a long-time friend and collaborator of John’s.
Pre-orders are available from Cherry Red Records.