Perfect Sound Forever

Greg Lake and John Wetton

By Gary Gomes
(April 2017)

The deaths of Greg Lake and John Wetton so close to each other has a certain sad symmetry to it.

Both were tremendously talented musicians who first achieved notoriety as bass players for King Crimson, Lake in the original incarnation of the group and Wetton towards the end of Crimson's first run. Both were great bass players with extraordinary technique—Lake's was not as noticeable as Wetton's, but his work on the original "21st Century Schizoid Man" and "Tank" on the first ELP recording are exceptional pieces of work, and they are not solitary. Wetton's great bass playing could be heard as far back as Mogul Thrash's debut album, his two records with Family, and throughout his career. They were also exceptional lead singers and multi-instrumentalists, Lake on guitar and Wetton on guitar, viola, and violin. Lastly, and probably most remembered by their fans, they were front men and lead singers for major progressive rock groups, Lake in King Crimson, ELP, for a very short while, Asia, and Emerson, Lake and Powell. Wetton seemed to play with more people, including, among others, the aforementioned bands Mogul Thrash, King Crimson, Family, Uriah Heap, UK, Asia, and made appearances with Eno, Phil Manzanera, Steve Hackett, Roxy Music, and others. Both had extraordinary voices, and were great interpreters of songs.

Lest we forget, Greg Lake was a fine singer, bassist, and guitarist. His lead playing on Brain Salad Surgery is actually quite astonishing, and there were discussions in early King Crimson about whether Fripp or Lake would take the lead guitar chair. Both Fripp and Lake had the same guitar teacher, and both learned the same from him, although Fripp, through hours of daily practice, developed a more eccentric and surprising style. When I saw Lake a couple of times a few years ago, he struck me as a very solid, no-nonsense kind of person. He left Crimson, not only because of the lucrative offer of ELP, but also because Fripp told him that, if he stayed, Fripp would be determining the musical direction. The success of the first King Crimson album was not only because of Fripp's eccentric vision or MacDonald's compositional and orchestration skills—it was also because of Lake's stunningly beautiful and majestic voice, but also because of his production skills, which are sometimes ignored. Like them or not—and sometimes I must admit, I didn't—Lake produced layers of sound that were both economical and majestic. No one should doubt that Criimson would have been much more popular if Lake had remained in the band.

Lake often said his favorite ELP album was Trilogy; this was the band's most studio intensive effort. He also, at least early in his career, seemed averse to more experimental work. He was nowhere to be found on the long free flowing improvisation of "Moonchild"; he disliked Tarkus when Emerson first premiered it for him, was on record as disliking more free form Miles Davis work, and was according to Martyn Hansom, reluctant to jam. He liked things that were well-planned. That produced majestic works, and he also acted as an anchor to two eccentric musicians—Fripp and Emerson. He brought uniformity and control to very different, but both experimental, players. Any album Lake was involved with sounded like no note was out of place-he possessed incredible attention to detail. Lake even produced at least one additional group, the little known guitar, bass and drums trio, Spontaneous Combustion, and the album that I heard had an unmistakable Lake "sound" to it. There is little doubt he could have had a career as a record producer if he wished.

Lake was also, in a polite way, unapologetic in his preferences. I read recently of his honest dislike of punk—on musical, not competitive grounds-and we do need to put a nail in the coffin of the myth that punk killed prog, when it was actually greedy record companies. I can also recall a Melody Maker interview with King Crimson when he reacted to the idea that the group was pretentious. That means, he said, you're trying to be who you're not and he insisted King Crimson was who they were. In fact, they were arguably one of the first groups to play what they liked.

Finally, Lake possessed a great melodic ear, and his songwriting, especially on acoustic guitar, was graceful and beautiful, as "Lucky Man," "Still…You Turn Me On," "Near the Beginning," and "I Believe in Father Christmas" illustrated. Yet his voice—and his bass playing—was strong enough to handle all out performances like "Knife Edge," "Bitches Crystal," "A Time and a Place" and "Karn Evil" demonstrate. He also had credible rock roots—when I saw him live on one of his last tours, he played a great version of "Shakin' All Over," played with Ringo Starr's All Star Band, and subbed for Pino Palladino in the Who.

Wetton, in his early years, and especially with Crimson, sounded like he was going to tear the bass apart, or at least blow the speakers. Wetton did not have as rapid a rise to super stardom as Lake. Although Mogul Thrash was a fine group, produced by Brian Auger and featuring James Litherland from Colosseum, commercially it did not do too well. Prior to this, Wetton had spent some time in local groups, as Lake had, and was a friend of Fripp's as Lake was. However, in Mogul Thrash, especially on "Elegy," a song brought over from Colosseum, one could hear John Wetton's style already. Whereas Lake always seemed to prefer a smoother bass sound, Wetton went for grit. The bass playing on this song, is gritty, somewhat Jack Bruce-inspired, but the sound and phrasing was definitely all-Wetton. If you listen to this piece and his bass playing on Eno's "Baby's on Fire," you can tell they are the same bass player. Wetton also seemed to have an unusual approach, as like Fripp, Dave Mustaine, Mickey Waller and even Ringo Starr did as left handed people who learned to play their instruments right handed.

Wetton spent some touring time with Renaissance after Mogul Thrash, and spent six weeks in the United States playing as part of a soul band. After this, Fripp invited him into Island-era King Crimson, but he declined, opting to join Family, a highly regarded English group that went through four bass players in its seven year history (Roxy Music had a similar problem), and he was feature on two of their strongest albums-Fearless and Bandstand. Wetton was a featured player in the band and his bass playing is showcased in the songs and he even shares co-lead singer duties with the redoubtable Roger Chapman on the song "Spanish Tide," in which the line "The brightest ring around the moon, will darken as you cry" later appeared on an Asia song.

After Fripp disbanded the Islands King Crimson, Wetton agreed to play with Crimson, and was the strongest front man the band had since Lake. Crimson, with the new line up of Bruford, Cross, Wetton, and initially Jamie Muir, was a juggernaut of a group, less polished but more daring than the first few incarnations. The improvisation that Lake didn't enjoy was embraced by Wetton, and there were times when his earlier work showed through. Also, this was a distinctive bass player with a unique touch, probably the most radical popular bass player since Jack Bruce in Cream. There are sections of the four albums (including USA) that Crimson in this incarnation made that sound like Wetton is almost bursting through the speaker. He would break strings. And his volume was hand manipulated, using a Fender Precision bass. The only comparable player at that time in a somewhat popular group was Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant.

In that group, I personally think he was the only one who was Fripp's musical equal. When Fripp broke up King Crimson at that time, in part because of what appeared to be some kind of overload, Wetton kept working, going into sessions with Eno and Manzanera working as a touring bassist with Roxy Music, and joining Uriah Heep for one album. He brought his unique sound to every band, and even sang for Uriah Heep.

He later went on to form a super group UK with Alan Holdsworth, Eddie Jobson and Bill Bruford, then with Jobson and Terry Bozzio. He planned to form another group with Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford, which never came to be, and finally in the late early 1980's, hit his commercial peak and greatest fame as a member of the super group Asia. He went onto several Asia reunions, worked with King Crimson Alumni, and also collaborated with Steve Hackett. Even if you didn't like their MOR commercial music, he was also widely regarded as a singer/songwriter, especially with Asia. Although Wetton's career faltered a bit because of bouts with alcoholism, he remained active up until the end.

Bless Lake and Wetton, these two talented men, and bless the land upon which Tony Levin walks.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER