John Wetton - An Extraordinary Life

John Wetton – An Extraordinary Life (8CD Boxset)

For me, having begun to explore progressive music from around 1975, John Wetton is one of a much-loved group of artists who I have listened to and followed for close to 50 years now. In my case, it started with King Crimson and hearing Starless, among others, for the first time on The Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson compilation album, and continued through an obsession with UK and the guilty pleasure that is Asia. I followed his live collaborations with Steve Hackett and parts of the Icon project with Geoff Downes, but I never got around to exploring his solo work.

Now, with the release of this boxset, An Extraordinary Life,I can fully engage with this important part of his legacy. All his solo albums, and a collection of rarities, in one place, the opportunity to hear how his solo career developed over time, and to supplement my listening experience with selections from his various band’s works from my own collection.

Since his untimely death in 2017, the many tributes to John from his friends and collaborators, collected together in the book of the same name, bear testament to his exceptional career and his longevity as a multi-talented performer and writer. This release, focussed as it is on John’s solo output and accompanied with a book containing photographs from the family’s personal collection, was put together with the blessing of his wife Lisa and son Dylan and is a fitting way to celebrate his musical development from a very personal perspective.

So, before I begin to cover the albums in turn, just a few thoughts. A major theme recurring as I listen to this boxset is that John’s solo work constantly raises questions about where his true musical passion lay. Firstly, it is overwhelmingly biased towards bombastic AOR, whereas he made his name and his artistic reputation in two of the most sophisticated and complex progressive bands of the ’70s, King Crimson and UK. Secondly, his voice is consistently superb, but there is no doubt in my mind that it shines particularly brightly on the slower melodic songs, nevertheless, he tends to favour singing in his more aggressive, shouty style. And thirdly, he was able to attract the very best musicians around him to collaborate with but his solo song-writing style was heavily dependent on simple hooks and big choruses. As a result, whilst there is no doubting the extent of his talent, I can’t help the feeling that I was expecting a little bit more from his solo work, certainly more consistency and imagination. Having said that, I would say that four of these six albums are excellent and well worth re-visiting. When he was on form he was pretty much as good as it gets, in my book.

I’d say that the key to these albums is to take each one on its merits. It’s too easy to try to measure up John’s solo work against his band work and to look for comparisons or contrasts, but as you work through the series you do realise that he mastered the art of creating solo albums that fully represented himself in those times.

In chronological order, CD1 is Caught in the Crossfire, which was made in the period between the end of UK and the start of Asia, and released in 1980. Trying my best to put my pre-conceptions to one side, there are one or two moments where there is a recognition of past or future influences, but the presence of Martin Barre, and Free and Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, signpost a much more rock/blues-based collection of songs. From the outset we get punchy, high energy, concise rock songs. The bass lines are reassuringly prominent and when combined with the dynamic drumming style set a relentless pace. It’s a refreshingly straight-forward album. After nearly a decade mixing it with the likes of Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, Bryan Ferry, Eddie Jobson and Allan Holdsworth, this is a fresh and lively representation of the John Wetton of the time, having a ball, doing his thing.

The instant commercial success of Asia, particularly in America, thrust John Wetton into the limelight and subsequent struggles with alcohol addiction from the early eighties contributed to the stop/start nature of the Asia project for the rest of the decade. Having left for the second or third time in 1991, a second solo album, Battle Lines was released in 1995, in effect this being a re-release of the album Voice Mail that appeared in Japan the year before. Looking back on this one, it does seem like John is trying a bit too hard to re-create his early glories with Asia, and in particular, with the US audience. He delivers on the bombastic AOR sound but, in the most part, fails to hit the target with the melodies, the riffs and the progressive highlights. His choice of Ron Nevison as producer probably sealed the fate of the overall tone of the album, which has all the hallmarks of the American rock scene of the time. However, John’s voice is in superb form and it does include the magnificent title track, arguably his finest solo work.

In 1997’s Arkangel, John reverts to his British roots, with a mix of old and new collaborators, to create a much more interesting and varied album that features a wider range of song-writing styles and arrangements than the previous albums. The lyrics hint at more obviously personal subject matters, no more so than on the title track, which opens with a crash of thunder, but subsides into a mellow and beautifully delivered elegy to a guardian angel. This is definitely the album to put on to hear the full range of John’s refined and distinctive voice. Steve Hackett makes a contribution on two of these tracks and after this enjoyable return to form John forged a productive partnership with Steve over the next few years, performing live around the world and helping to kick-start Steve’s Genesis Revisited series.

Welcome to Heaven was the next solo collection, released in 2000. The 10 songs in the original album format came in at just around 39 minutes and the result can only really be described as patchy. There are highlights, but the only truly exceptional piece is the ambient E-scape, featuring Ian McDonald on flute and Robert Fripp on soundscape guitar. It acts as a break between the first and second half but it remains an outlier amongst this selection. Like on the other albums, there is no shortage of talented artists who are happy to collaborate with John, so, with the beauty of hindsight, it is a shame that there wasn’t more of this kind of experimentation and more progressive moments incorporated in the album.

Rock of Faith follows the three-year cycle, released in 2003, a year after getting back together with Geoff Downes. The Wetton/Downes album from 2002 was a re-working of older unused tracks, but signalled a renewal of this most productive partnership. Making use of a smaller group of key players, including Geoff, Rock of Faith is a much more fluent and consistent album. The slower tempo of the anthemic songs, such as Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way, puts the focus back on John’s voice (always a bonus) and creates the space for more interesting musical arrangements. The track list is intelligently put together, from the enticing overture Mondrago all the way to the a cappella of When We Were Young which closes the album. There are particular tones that recur to create a sense of flow and continuity, and this time round the instrumental track Altro Mondo in the mid-section of the album is integrated effectively and serves its purpose well. Whilst it may lack ‘killer’ tracks, this album was put together with skill and imagination and is a hugely enjoyable listen, from start to finish.

The re-formation of Asia and the continuation of Icon meant that what was to be John’s last solo release, Raised in Captivity, didn’t appear until 2011. There is another long list of collaborators on this album, with Billy Sherwood now the main partner in song-writing and production. First listen reveals an eclectic mix of tracks; there are AOR standards interspersed with good old British whimsy, some slower tempo rock songs, a bit of pop, some intriguing epic-style longer songs and, on the last track Mighty Rivers we have a first shared vocal track, featuring Anneke van Giersbergen. Whilst John has been criticised for releasing sub-par songs that follow a particular pattern and style in the past, Rock of Faith and now Raised in Captivity show how far his song-writing and musical direction progressed over the years. This album is definitely worth investing some time in, as the track list begins to make sense and the rhythm of the album takes shape. There are great performances to listen out for and some extra subtleties in the arrangements that reward the keener ear. The more obviously collaborative tracks are the standouts for me, in particular The Devil and the Opera House with Eddie Jobson and Mighty Rivers, of course. It is also worth stating that in The Human Condition it was John who first predicted that in just a few more years we would all be “living in a lockdown”.

Finally, the two bonus CDs are a mixed bag, but each of us will be able to pick out some highlights. For me, there is a great version of the melodic pop song Raven from the third Icon album, and in contrast, Tears of Rage is much darker but also covers new musical ground very successfully. In between these is a superb acoustic cover of one of John’s favourite songs, All Along the Watchtower. Healer of Shattered (as it is listed), From a Distant Heart and Greatest Show on Earth from the Wetton, Nolan & Friends album from 2004 are the pick of the AOR tracks, and Real World is a studio demo featuring banter and enthusiastic accompaniment from Ringo Starr. The Water is Wide is a lovely, gentle acoustic version of a Celtic folk song that was only featured once on stage, captured on the Live by Satellite album from 2015. I’m afraid, in all honesty, CD 8 doesn’t hold any surprises, and no particular highlights.

Without doubt, John’s was indeed an extraordinary life. As with many other greats, his artistic talents were influenced by angels and demons, but music was obviously such an important motivation for him, and no doubt a valuable way of dealing with external pressures. He was prolific and it is a slight disappointment that some examples from his other collaborations and session work aren’t included here, although this package will definitely set me off down that path of discovery – I’ll do what I want to anyway and I’ll do it in my own time.

Disc One – Caught in the Crossfire

01. Turn on the Radio (3:47)
02. Baby Come Back (3:24)
03. When Will You Realise (4:34)
04. Cold is the Night (5:22)
05. Paper Talk (4:00)
06. Get Away (4:30)
07. Caught in the Crossfire (5:03)
08. Get What You Want (3:18)
09. I’ll Be There (3:33)
10. Woman (4:33)
~ Bonus Tracks:
11. Every Inch of the Way (4:39)
12. Out of the Blue (4:32)

Time – 51:15

Disc 2 – Battle Lines
01. Right Where I Wanted to Be (4:54)
02. Battle Lines (5:24)
03. Jane (4:19)
04. Crime of Passion (4:42)
05. Sand in My Hand (3:48)
06. Sea of Mercy (4:40)
07. Hold Me Now (5:58)
08. Space and Time (4:06)
09. Walking on Air (3:09)
10. You’re Not the Only One (4:59)
~ Bonus Track:
11. Battle Lines (acoustic version) (5:31)

Time – 51:30

Disc 3 – Arkangel
01. The Circle of St. Giles (2:05)
02. The Last Thing on My Mind (3:51)
03. Desperate Times (5:02)
04. I Can’t Lie Anymore (4:14)
05. Arkangel (4:18)
06. You Against the World (3:58)
07. Be Careful What You Wish For (5:29)
08. Emma (3:02)
09. Nothing Happens for Nothing (4:06)
10. All Grown Up (5:08)
11. After All (4:16)
12. The Celtic Cross (3:53)
13. Take These Tears (5:45)
~ Bonus Tracks:
14. Magazines (3:50)
15. Woman (Live 1997) (4:16)

Time – 63:13

Disc 4 – Welcome to Heaven
01. Heart of Darkness (4:51)
02. Say it Ain’t So (3:57)
03. No Ordinary Miracle (4:52)
04. Where Do We Go From Here? (3:21)
05. E-scape (4:08)
06. Another Twist of the Knife (4:30)
07. Silently (3:54)
08. Before Your Eyes (2:56)
09. Second Best (4:00)
10. Real World (2:41)
~ Bonus Tracks:
11. Love Is (4:28)
12. Space and Time (4:20)

Time – 47:58

Disc 5 – Rock of Faith
01. Mondrago (2:12)
02. Rock of Faith (3:57)
03. A New Day (5:16)
04. I’ve Come to Take You Home (4:19)
05. Who Will Light A Candle? (3:39)
06. Nothing’s Gonna Stand in Our Way (5:36)
07. Altro Mondo (3:42)
08. I Believe in You (5:22)
09. Take Me to the Waterline (6:08)
10. I Lay Down (4:04)
11. When You Were Young (1:34)
~ Bonus Tracks:
12. Cold Comfort (4:11)
13. God Only Knows (3:40)
14. Rock of Faith (demo) (5:13)

Time – 58:53

Disc 6 – Raised in Captivity
01. Lost for Words (4:59)
02. Raised in Captivity (6:09)
03. Goodbye Elsinore (4:44)
04. The Last Night of My Life (5:54)
05. We Stay Together (4:26)
06. The Human Condition (5:22)
07. Steffi’s Ring (2:36)
08. The Devil and the Opera House (6:51)
09. New Star Rising (4:33)
10. Don’t Misunderstand Me (3:43)
11. Mighty Rivers (5:20)
~ Bonus Tracks:
12. Face to Face (4:20)
13. After All (4:15)

Time – 62:11

Disc 7 – Bonus Tracks 1
01. AD 2023
02. Raven
03. Walking on Air
04. Straight From the Heart
05. If I Was A Country
06. All Along the Watchtower
07. Deya 1986
08. Tears of Rage
09. Maryanne
10. Healer of Shattered
11. I’d Give it All For You
12. Ultimate Emotion (unfinished idea)
13. Wings of Angels (intro)
14. Wings of An Angel
15. All For One
16. From A Distant Heart
17. Real World (John & Ringo)
18. The Greater Show on Earth (single edit)
19. Adagietto
20. The Water is Wide

Disc 8 – Bonus Tracks 2
01. Raised in Captivity
02. The Other Guy Second Best
03. I Will
04. Bad Thing
05. Boys of the Diamond City
06. Flesh and Blood
07. Burn Your Name in My Heart
08. Sex Power Money
09. Back in Your Lovin’ Arms
10. Every Inch of the Way
11. I Can’t Tell You Why
12. Winner Takes it All
13. Mind Over Matter
14. Gypsy Soul
15. Wasted Time
16. You Still Got Me
17. Halfway to Heaven
18. I’ll Never Stop Loving You
19. Forever

John Wetton – Lead, Backing & Harmony Vocals, Bass, Electric, Acoustic & Nylon 6- & 12-string Guitars, Keyboards
~ With:
Martin Barre – Lead Guitar (disc 1, tracks 2,3,5 & 10)
Phil Manzanera – Guitar (disc 1, track 7)
Malcolm Duncan – Saxophone (disc 1, tracks 7 & 9)
Simon Kirke – Drums, Percussion (disc 1)
Michael Landau – Guitar (disc 2)
Steve Lukather – Guitar (disc 2)
Robert Fripp – Guitar, Devices (disc 2), Guitar Solo (disc 3, track 5), Soundscape Guitar (disc 4, track 5)
Robbie Buchanan – Grand Piano (disc 2)
Bob Marlette – Keyboards, Grand Piano, Synthesiser, Programming (disc 2)
Claude Gaudette – Keyboards, Programming (disc 2)
Jed Leiber – Keyboards, Programming (disc 2)
Dave Boruff – Alto Saxophone (disc 2)
Michael Cartellone – Drums (disc 2)
Simon Phillips – Drums (disc 2)
Paul Buckmaster – Orchestral Arrangements (disc 2)
Billy Liesgang – Guitar Solo (disc 3, track 7)
Steve Hackett – guitar Solo (disc 3, track 10; disc 6, track 3), Harmonica (disc 3, track 9; disc 4, track 10)
Misha Calvin – Acoustic Guitar (disc 3)
Ramon Vega – Acoustic Guitar & Harmony Vocals (disc 3, track 14)
Richard Palmer-James – Guitar, Keyboards & Programming (disc 3, track 13)
Mike Stobbie – Keyboards (disc 3, tracks 1 & 12), Uillean Pipes (disc 3, track 12)
Thomas Radl – Bass & Harmony Vocals (disc 3, track 14)
Tom Lang – Drums (disc 3)
Jim Vallance – Keyboards, Guitars & Vocals (disc 4)
John Mitchell – Electric Guitar (disc 4, tracks 1-4; disc 5)
Jim Peterik – Guitar & Keyboards (disc 4, track 3)
Dick Wagner – Guitar (disc 4, track 6)
Ron Komie – Guitar (disc 4, track 9)
Gary Chandler – Guitar (disc 4, track 7)
Martin Orford – Keyboards (disc 4, tracks 3 & 7), Programming (disc 4, track 7), Flute (disc 4, track 8; disc 5)
John Young – Keyboards & Programming (disc 4, track 8)
Guy Roche – Keyboards (disc 4, track 9)
Ian McDonald – Alto Flute (disc 4, track 5)
Tod Sucherman – Drums (disc 4, track 3)
Greg Bisonette – Drums (disc 4, track 6)
Steve Christey – Drums (disc 4, track 7; disc 5)
Beate – Backing Vocals (disc 4, track 7)
Sue Shiffrin – Harmony Vocals (disc 4, track 9)
David Cassidy – Harmony Vocals (disc 4, track 9)
Clive Nolan – Keyboards & Arrangements (disc 5)
Geoffrey Downes – Virtual Grand Piano & Hammond B4 (disc 5), Keyboard Solos (disc 6, tracks 3 & 7)
Tim Garland – Alto Saxophone (disc 5, track 6)
Hugh McDowell – Cello (disc 5, track 4)
Peter Gee – Bass (disc 5, track 2)
Billy Sherwood – Guitar, Drums, Percussion (disc 6)
Steve Morse – Guitar Solo (disc 6, track 1)
Alex Machacek – Guitar Solo (disc 6, track 4)
Mick Box – Guitar Solo (disc 6, track 9)
Tony Kaye – Hammond Organ (disc 6, tracks 6 & 10)
Eddie Jobson – Violin (disc 6, track 8)
Anneke van Giersbergen – Vocal Duet (disc 6, track 11)

Record Label: Spirit of Unicorn Music | Cherry Red Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 24th Nov 2023

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