As I was putting this together, I looked in the attic for an old box of memorabilia, hoping to find some tickets for illustration. What I did find was a box of letters from John mainly from 1969-72. I guess we all had time on our hands, and Rick, John, Hutch and I used to exchange reviews of bands and films we’d seen. I used to send John packets of cartoons purloined from the newspapers in the university common room, and he’d send tales of his early days on the road. There is a stack of them. I’ve peppered in a couple of comments on work. There are many other hilarious and unprintable comments on bands he’d seen plus even funnier more personal stuff. For later …
Richard Palmer-James (henceforth “Rick”) has a detailed gig diary kept by his mother at the time, which is invaluable material to jog fading memories. I told several of these stories in Kim Dancha’s “My Own Time” biography of John twenty years ago.
Since this first went up, Richard has unearthed more early photos, and Bob Jenkins (drummer of Tetrad) has corrected some information. It’s Growing … every day it grows a little more, than it did the day before (A Temptations song the Palmer-James group used to do!)
John Wetton was going through my mind constantly from when I heard he went into palliative care on Friday, until he passed away on Tuesday 31st January 2017. Writing this all down is for me really, but it probably has biographical bits early on that are not well-known. John was a friend who I’d sometimes see several times in a year for lunch, then maybe once the next year when he was on constant tour or living in America, then several times the year afterwards. John had many much closer friends than me, but when you go back over fifty years, the connection always picks up easily. John had that rare quality, he was instantly likable . I recommended a trades guy to him once, and later that guy told me he couldn’t believe John was a rock star; ‘Just such an ordinary friendly down-to-Earth guy,’ he said.
John moved from Derby to Bournemouth before secondary school. He remained a Derby County supporter for life, even when they were playing AFC Bournemouth.
I first met John when he joined the secondary school’s best rock group. They were The Corvettes, but had a radical re-alignment, and recruited John from The Squires, where he had played guitar. John’s mum and dad ran a small hotel, The Alumhurst Hotel, in Westbourne. Now, whenever I drive into Marks & Spencer car park, I think of how I am driving through what used to be the front room, where John used to practise piano.
For the obsessives: John’s piano was about 3 metres behind the lady walking along the street. No wall upon which to place a blue plaque. The car park entrance used to be 2 Alumhurst Road.
Westbourne Arcade was also the home of Don Strike’s music shop, still there, looking just as it did in the 1960s. John took guitar lessons there, as did Greg Lake and Robert Fripp.
Don Strike for equipment rental. The small shop was/is piled to the ceiling with dusty instruments, amps, sheet music. Mr Strike was a banjo-player who had made a pre-war career in dance bands. As nobody wanted to learn banjo in the 60s, he huffily agreed
to provide guitar lessons in the shop’s grimy back room / office /workshop – most notably to R. Fripp. In the refelected light of Robert’s prodigious and idiosyncratic talents, Don has acquired a certain cult status – although he was probably quite unaware of it while alive. His son Bev, who runs the shop to this day, was a bassist in local bands and a lightning picker from whom John probably learned much. We patronised Strike’s because we could hire gear there and because the other music shops in town looked like furniture stores and regarded rock musicians as terrorists.
Don Strike Music … Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, John Wetton all had lessons here. Photo February 2017
John was two years younger than the rest of The Corvettes, and the deal was that he switched to bass guitar. That is how so many of the best bass players started … by switching from guitar so as to join a bigger and better group. The Corvettes name harked back to their earliest days doing Shadows covers (already abandoned by the time John joined). Their star turn was Can Can ’62 by Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers, which had to be banned in most youth clubs as it led to violent and destructive can-can dancing by the burlier lads. They introduced vocals with Twist & Shout, sung by drummer Alec James.
I must have first met John at school. I think his precocious musical talent immediately caused a buzz. But his class was two years below mine, and there wasn’t much inter- mingling. Outside of school was another matter, and he came along to a rehearsal in our living-room, probably invited by our drummer Alec James. We hit it off at once.
When we had one of our “unofficial school reunions” of the dozen guys of my acquaintance who wouldn’t ever be seen at an official one, John recalled meeting Alec James first, and going to his house regularly to watch TV. Bournemouth School For Boys was one of the most selective state grammar schools in the country, yet within that, the six classes of 30 were ranked academically. The X form took GCE O level in four years not five. The L form took Latin, so as to be able to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. John was in an L form. A big deal, then. They didn’t much care about the other four levels, regarding them as “bank / teacher training” fodder. Rick was in #3 out of the six, and I was in #4 out of the six, sometimes with Alec. Do not confuse Alec James with Alex James of Blur, another ex-Bournemouth School bass guitarist.
The Corvettes: L to R, Richard Palmer- guitar / Paul Mead – vocal / Alec James – drums, vocal / John Wetton – bass, vocal. Circa 1964
Ticket: from Richard Palmer. Most tickets said “Twist & Hully Gully to …”
Once John had joined, the line up was John Wetton, bass guitar, Rick Palmer on lead guitar, Alec James on drums and Paul Mead on vocals, with a set list of classic R&B. After he joined the band, John generally hung out with our year group, not his own. Everyone outside the school assumed he was in our year.
I particularly recall they played two Tommy Tucker B-sides, I Don’t Want Cha and Mo’ Shorty. The Corvettes played The Wheelhouse in Bournemouth, The Epiphany Church Hall in Castle Lane, Corpus Christi Church Hall in Boscombe and Winton Congregational Saturday Dances … where Lee Kerslake (later of Uriah Heep) was in the local Winton band. Even in 1964 they were playing at the Bure Club, in Milford and at Burley and Brockenhurst. By the spring of 1965 their weekend jaunts were taking them to Weymouth, Gillingham, and Torquay. These were long runs with the equipment travelling in Rick’s father’s ex-GPO Morris Minor van. The group bought a joint van in April 1965 … a major purchase for a band with two members still at school. They became the Palmer-James Group around April 1965, when the name was painted on the new van.
Bournemouth was a vibrant and competitive musical scene, being a coastal resort with many venues in summer, resulting in many bands. In that era, Manfred Mann regularly played Le Disques AGoGo at the Lansdowne, where I also saw The Who, The Action and The Soul Agents (vocals: Rod Stewart). Al Stewart was a regular at the folk club there on Mondays. Bournemouth Gaumont is the major venue The Beatles played “second most-often.”
Being a holiday resort, there was a great demand for live music. There were no discos and live DJs in the 60s, so if a pub /club /cafe /ballroom /church hall /hotel wanted music of any kind, a live band had to be hired. There were ample opportunities to play all sorts of music in front of all sorts of audience. Lots of rock and roll going on. Beat contests. Motorcycle gangs (including a Hell’s Angels chapter). Package shows featuring all the chart-toppers. There were venues in and around town where the blues titans, Muddy, Buddy, John Lee, all the Kings, came to play for a worshipping crowd. I’d say there was music in the air.
As for local bands, Zoot Money was easily the top guy, with Andy Somers in his band, playing the Pavilion Ballroom weekly with the Sands Combo, supported by future-DJ Tony Blackburn, who wore a gold lamé jacket in one set, and an electric blue lamé jacket in the other. Tony used to get on the bus afterwards with his guitar case, and his jackets slung over his arm. Tony sang with the resident Pavilion dance band, and three of them backed him, including Bob Jenkins’ dad on saxophone. Dave Anthony’s Moods was a Zoot spin off. Then there were Tony Howard & The Dictators, Trendsetters Ltd, The League of Gentlemen (with Robert Fripp), The G-Men (Al Stewart on rhythm guitar, Bev Strike of Don Strike’s music shop on bass), The Trackmarks (Lee Kerslake on drums), The Tallmen, The Interns (with John Rostill), The Freewheelers (Tim Mycroft on organ), The Surfin’ Gremlins, another Bournemouth School band. Al Stewart recalls having coffee at a table for four with Greg Lake, Andy Somers and Lee Kerslake. They all did well.
(If you come from Bournemouth, Andy Somers is spelled like this, as it is on Zoot Money and Dantalion’s Chariot albums. He changed it to Summers before he even joined Police because everybody kept spelling it that way anyway.)
In November 2002, John met Al Stewart and everyone assumed they were old mates from Bournemouth. In fact, as chance would have it, they had never met, but knew so many of the same people. It ended with John joining Al Stewart on stage in High Wycombe the same day. John’s manager and close friend, Martin Darvill, tells me they played The Year of The Cat with King Crimson bass runs, and that it was magnificent. One I really wish I’d seen.
At that time, you had to keep it quiet that you were in a group at Bournemouth School for Boys. I got a detention for selling tickets to a youth club dance where my own inept group were playing. The PJG (Palmer-James Group)’s cover was totally blown soon after that when they got booked in for the school dance (26 March 1965). Our headmaster, the terrifying E.G. Bennett later had John into his office to explain that he “would never make a living by playing guitar.”
“Teenage ambition you remember well”
Mind you, he also told us that none of us would ever earn £2000 a year, and that we would all end up as “lounge lizards in Italian suits with luminous socks driving second-hand Jaguars.” After that, we all wanted luminous socks and Jaguars.
26th November 1965
The Palmer James Group expanded when they added John “Hutch” Hutcheson on organ in late May 1965. The move prompted him to get a Vox Continental organ. They were getting into Georgie Fame and Spencer Davis … Pink Champagne and Jump Back both stand strongly in my memory. Jump Back was by Rufus Thomas, but every British band did it because of Stevie Winwood’s vocal with the Spencer Davis Group, whose name the Palmer James Group was emulating.
Scanned from “In My Own Time”. Unfortunately Rick’s original was never returned.
Rick Palmer left for university in Aberystwyth on 1st October 1965. The PJG replaced him with a horn section (Derek Power and Dave Till) and kept his guitar place open for holidays, with a shift to soul. I was astonished to get good A-level results, as I had not applied to university. Bournemouth Education Department generously said I could attend the first year London external degree course at Bournemouth while I was applying, and leave once I had a place. No fee (and no grant). John soon joined me at Bournemouth College in the Prince’s Hotel in Knyveton Road. He was doing A levels. He had left Bournemouth School prematurely after an unfortunate incident when he ended up in court for exceeding 90 mph on a motor bike in a 30 mph limit. His explanation that he had diarrhoea and was trying to get to the school toilets was regarded as deliberately facetious. We bonded by becoming lounge lizards and parading our luminous socks at the Hayloft coffee bar (Keith Moon was a visitor, but everyone was scared of him). In those days the narrow winding Old Christchurch Road was a one way street (now pedestrianized). I was on the back of John’s Triumph Bonneville motor-bike when he decided to go between a car and a bus. We survived but he had yellow paint on one crash bar and black on the other. It was about then that, fortunately for the future of rock music, he bought an old Mini and abandoned his biker days.
The Palmer James Group 1966 / 67:
Back: John Wetton – bass, vocals / Jim Bold – manager with daughter / Ian Prentice who made Axis amplifiers
Seated: W. John Hutcheson – Hammond organ, vocal / Alec James – drums, vocal / Paul Mead – vocal / Bruce, Hutch’s dog
Lying: Dave Till – saxophones
Hutch may be holding a bit of motor bike, or a washing machine engine to power a Leslie speaker
The PJG were a semi-pro soul band, but most of them were making more than in their day jobs in their soul band guise. Weekends were Friday night at Dorchester Steering Wheel Club, and Sundays at Weymouth Steering Wheel, with Saturday always booked too. They were playing to audience sizes that would thrill many modern name bands … several hundred packed in to see them at each venue. You couldn’t move. They added an ex-army trumpet player to boost the horn section. Many of us would go out from Bournemouth to see them … I started getting a lift with Hutch. There was a convoy both ways.
21st January 1967 … this rugby club had been booking them for two years and it must be rugby humour!
One summer, John was away, and Rick Palmer played bass guitar for the summer. Things were stirring. Paul Mead, the lead vocalist had a light soul voice, good for the Marvin Gaye and Impressions songs they covered, but John, on backing vocals was obviously the vastly better and more powerful singer. This is why the PJG’s best material was Sam & Dave covers with both singing … Hold On I’m Coming and You Don’t Know Like I Know. In both, John eclipsed the supposedly lead singer.
Other venues at this time included The Royal Ballrooms in Boscombe (now the O2) and Bournemouth Pavilion Ballroom as third on the bill. They recalled that Davey Jones and The Lower Third were often second on the bill. Top would have been The Alan Bown Set, Geno Washington & the Ram Jam Band or Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, just about the biggest draws at the time. Rick told me that once Hutch was reading a magazine, and Mr Davey Jones (later known as David Bowie) came over, flicked through to the corsets adverts, and said “Look … I drew that one. Sexy, innit?’
Hutch and John were a separate section in the PJG, already planning their exit once Rick had finished university. I saw them rehearsing together a couple of times at Hutch’s house with a drummer named Steve. My diary records that John and Hutch were practising The Thoughts of Emelist Davjack and Rondo, so two by The Nice.
John and Hutch were both heavily into Revolver and managed to slide Got to Get You Into My Life into the set, then Yellow Submarine and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band … though that one never really worked. John’s favourite bass player was always Paul McCartney. As he explained to me, there are technically impressive virtuoso bass players (he should know … he was one, the best I ever saw). Many bass players can imitate Paul McCartney bass lines, but tellingly, none would ever have thought of choosing those notes in the first place. That’s what impressed John.
I’d been playing bass, but when you saw John play, he was in a league above any other soul band. He could do all the James Jamerson Motown bass lines, but then he’d play chords, or something totally unexpected. I’d given up, and when John’s bass finally died, he borrowed my Hofner President semi-acoustic bass guitar indefinitely. He eventually bought his sanded down Fender Precision Bass for £30, and kept it for ever after.
The planned exit was Summer 1968, when Rick, John and Hutch formed Tetrad, their first fully professional band, and spent ages lovingly painting their ancient J4 van. They added Bob Jenkins on drums, and it was a four piece. Bob was two or three years younger, and a second generation professional musician. His dad played sax in the Pavilion dance band.
Tetrad : L to R: Bob Jenkins – drums / John Wetton – bass, lead vocal / W.J. Hutcheson – Hammond organ, vocals / Richard Palmer- guitar, vocals
Before they got started, John had a side trip. Soul Foundation, a local band led by Paul Spencer MacCullum had been booked to back Helen Shapiro on the first ever rock tour of Rumania. The keyboard player was apparently refused a visa being a “government employee” (I think he worked for the Post Office) so at the last minute they got John in to play piano and bass, switching with Paul who also played both. This is where John met Bob Jenkins, playing drums on the tour (aged seventeen) and recruited him for Tetrad.
Paul got John in to Soul Foundation, fortunately for me as that was the start of our association. The audience in Rumania were seriously short of decent rock and pop music, being an Iron Curtain country then, but they had heard ‘Lady Madonna’ on illegal / pirate radio that the government used to jam most of the time. The first few days of the tour was filled with the sound of chanting from the auditorium, ‘LADY MADONNA!’ Our sax player, Kevin Drake, was always a controversial, confrontational activist as regards agents, tour managers and authority in general. He said ‘Let’s learn it,’ When asked if that was wise politically, he said ‘Fuck them, it’ll be great for us,’ and it was. The chanting continued when Helen Shapiro came on and we we were told in no uncertain terms to desist.
John volunteered to be the one to sing Lady Madonna, so his first lead vocal experience was in huge auditoriums and football stadiums to massive crowds. The continued chanting for Lady Madonna ran during the main set so they had to reprise it at the end, much to Ms Shapiro’s chagrin. The triumph was cooled when they discovered they could not export their wages from the country. John bought a carpet at the airport with his hard earned wages.
To my amazement, after the first version of this went up, a fan sent Lisa Wetton this video link “British Pop Stars in Rumania” (LINKED) which clearly shows John on bass behind Helen Shapiro for What’d I Say. They were backing Tony Bolton too. If you go to 1m 04s on the clip, you can see and hear that John is singing backing vocals on Delilah behind Tony Bolton.
John’s parents had moved to the Boscombe area of Bournemouth, opening a small hotel in Crabton Close Road. So it was back to the clubs with Tetrad, driving Bournemouth to Wigan for £30 between them, barely covering expenses. A favourite jaunt was to Bristol Old Granary, a classic rock club. John complained that their agent hadn’t got that gig … his then girlfriend’s dad had got it for them while in Bristol on business. I’d travel up with them, getting in free in exchange for helping carry the Hammond. A trip back from Bristol meant stopping on the A4 through Bath next to an all-night cold milk vending machine (plain, strawberry or chocolate) with a Cadburys Dairy Milk chocolate bar vending machine next to it. The next one was at Southampton, 60 miles away. These “milk machines” were known to all rock bands in the days before all-night fast food outlets. At 1 a.m. you might see three or four group vans next to one, and bands would detour ten miles or more to get to one.
Tetrad 1968: Rick Palmer, Bob Jenkins, John Hutcheson, John Wetton.© Rick Palmer
Tetrad survived because Hutch’s mum fed them royally when they were practising. The set list was Cream, Traffic and Spooky Tooth, with Morning Dew, Season of The Witch, and their best number You Keep Me Hangin’ On in the Vanilla Fudge version. Somewhere … we have never turned it up … is the audition / demo tape they recorded at the time with local musician Pete Ballam doing the recording. White Room was on there. In general, Vanilla Fudge was the biggest influence in their arrangements.
Axis logo – designed by Richard Palmer
All their amps were Axis, locally custom made and designed by Ian Prentice. They sounded amazing, but Ian had to start travelling with them because they tended to blow valves and speaker cones. In the end, a spare amp and 4 x 12 speaker cabinet was needed … you try changing a hot valve. It’s easier to switch the amp, and do it later. John was particularly problematic, and I remember him blowing an amp in the Pavilion Ballroom during You Keep Me Hanging On. I recall poor Ian saying, “But if you will play chords that loud on a bass guitar …” Hutch had a Hammond L100 and home made “Leslie” speakers propelled by washing machine motors. Tetrad were LOUD. John was now the lead singer, but with Rick taking some lead vocals and Hutch and Rick singing backing vocals.
They headed the 1968 New Year’s Eve rock show at Bournemouth Pavilion. It was in the huge downstairs restaurant as the ballroom upstairs was hosting a black tie dinner and dance. Rick signed off with a “Happy (mutter Nineteen) Soixante-Neuf to you all,” and it’s a tribute to the erudition of Bournemouth Corporation Entertainments staff that the manager, quivering with rage, informed them that as a group and individually they were “banned from Bournemouth entertainment venues for life. For life!” John was back a couple of years later with Family.
Ginger Man poster blank: drawn by my friend, Chris Price, now a renowned artist. Chris did all the posters for Hull University gigs, and drew this from memory after one gig. ‘We don’t dress like this at all …’ they said. ‘You should,’ he replied. Judging from hair, I guess bottom left was John, centre Rick, top Bob and bottom right Hutch.
Someone must have said “Tetrad” sounded like a modern jazz band (was it me?), and they changed their name to Ginger Man in March 1969, after the J.P. Donleavy novel. It would have been Rick Palmer’s choice. He also named Supertramp after the W.H. Davies book.
Ginger Man 1969: Rick, John, Bob, Hutch © Richard Palmer
They were still playing Dorchester and Weymouth, but venturing further with regular trips to Bristol and London. For years we all laughed about the club owner in Dorchester. The Palmer-James Group had played there for years, and when he booked Tetrad he’d been hoping for more soul band stuff. He found Tetrad too loud, but decided to give John some friendly professional advice (as an ex-jazzer). He led John to the back of the stage, ‘See, this is where the bass player stands. Here. Not at the front. Now you bend your head down next to the hi-hat … then you’ll be able to keep time.’ John pointed out that the last place he wanted to put his ear was next to Bob’s crash cymbal.
Oddly, given two major writers in their ranks, they continued as interpreters of material, rather than originators. I suspect just a couple of original songs would have launched their careers earlier. I know the problem from my own prose writing. People you’ve known for years are the critics you’re REALLY terrified of when you’re starting out. Both blossomed as writers once they joined new bands.
Ginger Man: L to R: Bob Jenkins – drums / John Wetton / W. John Hutcheson. Rick took the photo. Spurn Head, near Hull, just before the van started shedding tyres
What John said about the group van (3 March 1969):
Last week we bought a new van (214 EPB, 35 cwt 2.2 litre diesel BMC LD van). Fantastic, absolutely massive, go anywhere, plough through anything, bright blue pleasure machine. We got it for £45 (sold 609 CLW for £20) and did it up, blue exterior, matt black interior and the engine is new, 35-40 mpg. So we are on the road again … room for 3 x 35 piece soul bands to travel in loads of luxury, and built like a tank.
The van: I think it’s outside John’s parents’ hotel
So important. Why? You see, in those days, musicians drove themselves. The van and the PA were the joint purchases. In Ginger Man, Hutch and John shared the driving. John being car-less at the time, kept the van at home. In those days the motorway network was small, and in Britain it’s easy to drive north-south, but slow to drive east-west, yet all band trips end up doing long east-west hauls. This is still true today. Hutch recalls keeping a brick in the van. It could be placed on the accelerator, enabling Hutch and John to switch drivers at 70 mph on the motorway. Service areas are 25 miles apart, stopping is illegal and when the eyelids started drooping at 2 a.m. on a rainy night, it was deemed safer to switch drivers than not. This is another reason why bandmates get to know each other so well. Someone was assigned to talk to the driver at night to keep them awake, so you ended up sharing every intimate detail of your life story.
John was still doing a lot of the driving later with Family. In the same letter, John said their new agent John Sherry, felt that Ginger Man were ideal for “freaky colleges and universities.”
Ginger Man were employed for a prestige gig backing Clyde McPhatter, founder of The Drifters. They went up to rehearse with him in London the week before, and assiduously learned his Greatest Hits, though Lover, Please! was the only one which didn’t pre-date their own careers. Clyde had left The Drifters in 1954 long before the 60s hits which they did know.
Clyde McPhatter was friendly, but rather absent at the rehearsal; on the night however in the packed ballroom of the American Forces’ club, The Douglas House in Lancaster Gate, he bounced on stage with his eyes gleaming. It started well enough and we managed through the first few numbers. But then he spotted Dakota Staton in the audience, called her on stage and started to call a completely different set of songs, some of which we’d never heard of. When he insisted on My Funny Valentine. the pianist from the house band had to take over, though John and Bob managed to keep going behind him. The nightmare situation was worsened by Clyde’s prompt disappearance at the end of the show. Nobody believed our claims of betrayal, and we were lucky to get paid. I remember wilting in the rays of contempt emanating from the orderly sergeant backstage who was stage-managing the show. It was one of my most mortifying musical experiences, and there have been a few.
They recorded a demo tape in Poole with local musician Pete Ballam of Bram Stoker. Impressively, he had written a B-side for Little Peggy March. Neither Rick nor John had tape recorders at the time. Both Hutch and Bob think they had a copy, but if so, it is long gone. In October 1968 they did a Decca audition, which included Time of The Season and White Room, but had no joy.
We were making the same mistake as a lot of young bands, i.e. playing covers of our own favourites, and thus the recordings of Cream’s ‘White Room’ and The Zombies’ ‘Time Of The Season’ we made on an antiquated three-track in Decca’s Holland Park studio were quite superfluous, and came to naught. (I remember the scene was incredibly unhip: the producer wore a tweed jacket and smoked a (tobacco) pipe, and the engineer actually wore a white coat . . . this was 1968, for chrissakes. Anyway, our misgivings were confirmed that same afternoon when we visited JW’s friend, guitarist Jim Cregan, in his Fulham apartment where we heard work-in-progress tapes of Jim’s band, Blossom Toes, who had a stinging double lead guitar sound and sang anti-nukes songs in gravelly voices. It was pretty wild – and original. (Back then.)
Rick Palmer told Kim Dancha for My Own Time about an interview with Bee Gees early manager Ossie Burns. It was a bit much for four Dorset lads.
We all went to visit him in his plush Kensington apartment, and the gnarled and balding Ossie received us amicably, clad in a silk dressing gown. Softly-spoken youths, to whom he unblushingly referred to as “house-boys” plied us with exotic drinks (Fosters?) and measuring glances. After listening to 15 seconds of our demo tape, he understandably asked if we had any original material; so JW sat down at the piano and sang his setting of a John Donne poem “Song” (Go and catch a falling star … get with child a mandrake root …). He sang it beautifully but didn’t get much of a reaction. Still, Ossie invited any or all of us to come and stay at his place and “work a few things out.” We departed thoughtfully, but no one took up the offer.
I managed to get them booked into Hull University twice. Ed Bicknell was the Social Secretary, as well as a fine drummer. If you look at the bands he booked: Pink Floyd, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Kinks, The Moody Blues, Family, Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Colosseum, Blossom Toes, Joe Cocker, John Mayall, Geno Washington, The Alan Bown, Brian Auger with Julie Driscoll … plus Al Stewart, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell in the folk club … he was easily the best Social Secretary in the country. Ed was planning his own foray into the music business with a band, cannily watching every support band for potential recruits. See later …
Ginger Man: John, Hutch, Bob, Rick
I see from John’s letters, that after the first trip to Hull, he took some parcels round to my mum’s, and being John stopped for dinner and a chat. John really got on with everybody.
Ginger Man decided to call it a day in July. I cunningly arranged with Ed Bicknell for them to play at Hull, so that I could go back to Bournemouth with them in that LD van with my stuff. It turned into an epic journey which they blamed on the extra weight of my trunk full of books, I was an additional passenger too, and I’ve never been light. The ageing van blew its first tyre after ten miles, and blew the spare at twenty. It was a hot and sunny Sunday and we lay on the grass verge while one (Hutch, I’m sure) walked to find a puncture repair kit, then trekked back to Hull, stayed over and bought remoulds. Four of us slept in my old room, but John contacted one of the young ladies who had helped set up the gig and disappeared for twelve hours. That set of remoulds got us to Doncaster, where another tyre blew. It took us two days to get home, sleeping in the van on top of the gear after we ran out of petrol on Salisbury Plain. No one had warning triangles in those days, and we ran out of fuel just over the top of a hill on a winding road. Every few minutes we were woken by headlights, the screech of brakes and a car horn as cars came over the brow of the hill and saw a great big van with no lights right in front of them. We had travelled there very slowly to eke out the fuel. We had totally run out of money between the five of us, and all we had to eat or drink was two cases of almost hallucinogenic home made elderberry wine I’d brought with me. We passed the long journey by making up ever cruder topical calypso songs about people we knew, famous people and each other. John was particularly inventive.
There were two more gigs before the end. One was a vile country club in Surrey where the audience so pissed everyone off that John decided to switch to organ with Hutch picking up Rick’s spare guitar for a ten minute rendition of 96 Tears by ? & The Mysterians, a song they had never done before, nor would ever do after. The last gig was a Teacher training College in Salisbury.
That summer was fun. Hutch was teaching me to drive in a 1953 Vauxhall Wyvern I bought for £25, and the four of us (John, Rick, Hutch and me) spent many afternoons driving around Dorset to practise my driving and generally hang out. They were auditioning separately, so we had various trips to London in Hutch’s open top Sunbeam Rapier. It was great in the front seats, freezing in the back. Rick claimed he got car sick in the back so John and I got frozen. As they said kindly over the subsequent years, it was a shame I had such an appalling sense of rhythm, as it would have been ideal if I could have played drums to maintain the group of four of us. I protested that I had never tried and could more or less beat a tambourine in time.
Knowlton Church: Peter Viney & John Hutcheson on the ground, but John got to the top first!
We have photos, taken one languid afternoon at Knowlton Church in Dorset. It was the centre of a village where everyone died of plague and it is a ruin. It was set within a prehistoric religious circle, and it was always a favourite magical place, and many years later John wrote The Circle of St Giles inspired by it … it’s a short way from the village of Wimborne St Giles, and we always went there afterwards for tea.
One of the only times John and I exchanged cross words was on one of our excursions. We were sitting on the ground and a large beetle crawled across my foot and I brushed it off and stepped on it. John was incensed and upset, “Why did you do that?” Nowadays every unharmed wasp escorted through a window, un-swatted, reminds me of John.
Knowlton Church: August 1969. John + Richard Palmer with camera. Just after Ginger Man broke up … in “The Circle of St. Giles” Peter Viney photo
John Wetton: Knowlton Church. Richard Palmer photograph August 1969
John was recruited by Ed Bicknell, along with organist Michael “Gootch” Harris from Newcastle to form a trio, Splinter … John and Gootch were the two best Ed had seen. Gootch had been with Steam Coffin, supporting Family on one of their Hull gigs.
Rick followed an audition call in Melody Maker and joined a new band formed around Rick Davies. Roger Hodgson was the other recruit. They were first called Daddy, then became Supertramp. Bob Jenkins had joined NME Beat contest winners, Room, whose album Pre-Flyte is one of the most collectible British albums of the era. Hutch joined him in Room a little later, just after the album. Pre-Flyte had strings and horns, and they needed Hutch on organ to do the songs live. Hutch had surprised everyone by announcing he had taken correspondence course GCE “O” levels while in Tetrad, and was going back to college to do A levels … then Sussex for a B.Sc and Imperial College for a Ph.d. He supported himself after Room by playing in a bar duo, then trio called Tapestry. Bob went on to become a leading session drummer, nowadays playing with Be Sharp. To bring things to a full circle, Bob recently played with Paul Spencer Macullum and Zoot Money.
Splinter were launched at Hull’s coming up week, first with a sit down concert, then the union Freshers Dance. Over to Ed Bicknell for the story:
I took the train down to London from York on July 4 with one phone number ( a mate’s flat in Kilburn), and £100 my (terrified) parents gave me! I met with John who brought some stunning lady with him , at a pub on South Molton Street, within a week. Although I had just one London contact, no plan, no objective, no musical ideas AT ALL , we formed a band. That one contact, an agent called John Sherry (RIP), who had unsuccessfully lobbied me to put on bands at Hull, operated out of an old school in Kennington. John moved into the Exeter Rd flat in Kilburn and a cellar in the school became our ( free) rehearsal room. We decided we would be like the Nice because that was the only organist Gooch had ever heard. We played the “Karelia Suite” at breakneck speed and the “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”….why I’ve no idea.
John Sherry set about getting us gigs. Any gigs. We called the band Splinter. On August 9 John and I set off at dawn from Bournemouth in a second hand van full of new Axis 4×12″ cabinets and tops, the Hammond, the Leslie, and my Premier red glitter drum kit. Grossly overloaded. I had used the £100 to pay for the gear! We drove to Folkestone where I bought a paper and learned of the Manson murders, then on to Dover for the ferry. Then to the dodgiest of dodgy clubs on KaiserWilhemstrasse in Cologne.
Gooch and our single roadie Nigel who lived in his coat, joined us. How I have no idea. We played a week…3 hours a night… , slept in the van first 2/3 nights , had virtually nothing to eat, were looked after by the hookers who populated the club (I mean as in floor to sleep on, showers, thank you ladies), and ended up not getting paid and being threatened by the club owner with a gun when we protested. He fired it to show us it was loaded.
We were back in the UK for more rehearsals when John Sherry asked if we’d back Jess Conrad for £125 a week. I was the only one who knew who he was. We met Jess and laboriously worked up a ” cabaret set” of his dreadful singles and other tunes of the day…I Got A Woman, King of the Road, Aquarius/ Let the Sunshine in, Homeward Bound.
In early September as Splinter we played a week in Lords Discotheque in St Helier, where an enraged club owner insisted we drop all of our prog Rock after the first night and learned two hours of danceable material the next day. Which we did. We had ALL played it for years before. We then ferried and drove overnight after the last show the next Saturday to Batley Variety Club to start a one week run with Jess starting Sunday. We shared showbiz digs with Freddie Starr and Long John Baldry. Thus began a run of cabaret weeks with him under our new name Stud. Jess had just seen the Joan Collins film. Imaginative!
I recall Il Ronde in Billingham. The Showboat in Middlesborogh, the Ace of Spades in Whalley, some place in Keighly, numerous others, often ” doubling” … we would alternate as Stud with Jess and as Splinter doing Keith Emerson. The thing just ran out of gas and after that Bradford University gig it folded. Living on rice sandwiches has its limits.
John and I went on to weave different paths but he was a huge part of my life. Huge. And I had the biggest of laughs with him. The BIGGEST.
For non-UK readers and younger British ones, Jess Conrad had hits in 1960-61 (Cherry Pie, Mystery Girl, Pretty Jenny). His recording of This Pullover featured on Kenny Everett’s 1978 compilation The Worst Record Show after being voted sixth worst song ever by radio listeners.
John described meeting King Crimson (letter of 11th October 1969).
John on King Crimson in 1969:
Saw Fripp the other day, had a chat, watched them rehearse. Quite fucking incredible! I’m going to see them at London College of Printing tonight. They’re off to the States at end off month. They’ve just bought 2 Mellotrons, new Transit and … wait for it … Yes, 12 new HiWatt stacks to take to the States with them.
Ed Bicknell adds:
Coincidentally King Crimson were in the next (rehearsal) room. They’d just done Hyde Park (July 5) and I recall music stands, music WRITTEN OUT , and everyone sitting down. We would go and watch them and wonder why we were bothering. Well I did. Mike Giles ….great and underrated player.
Splinter’s last gig was Bradford University, supporting The Move. Gootch Harris went on to join Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.
Then John and Ed joined Jim Litherland’s Brotherhood together. In November 1969, John described in a letter the dilemma he had. John was being offered a princely £30 a week to join Pete Brown’s Piblotko, or to join Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, or stick with Brotherhood at £15 a week “rehearsal money.” His reputation was already growing. He stayed with Jim Litherland. They had just recorded two tracks at IBC with Gerry Bron and Pete Brown. I wonder what happened to those tracks? John expressed dismay that they’d cost £75 an hour to record.
They were living in Bassett Road, off Ladbroke Grove. Michael Rosen from Eclection played trumpet and rhythm guitar, and the sax players were Roger Ball and Molly Duncan, later of the Average White Band. Molly and Roger knew the lads in Forever More from their days together in Scotland. I well remember hearing Yours Forever More (with the Canadian sleeve) in that flat. Alan Gorrie and Onnie McIntyre later formed the AWB with Roger and Molly.
Letter 14 January, 1970 on Mike Rosen’s first rehearsal. Just see John’s enthusiasm:
Mike Rosen was fucking stupendous – according to Molly “he makes the guy in CTA sound like Larry Adler”. His trumpet playing is clear, penetrating, cutting, subtle, emotional with an impeccable tecnique and a great ear for picking up riffs, harmonies, swells etc from Molly, and putting ideas of his own as well. He plays intelligent second guitar, but lacks confidence to do incredible solos, but we have Jim for that. Pete if you’d been at that rehearsal you would have absolutely SHIT YOURSELF in ectasy – the band wasn’t just getting by like before – the sound was huge, elated. Everybody ran home from rehearsal and laughed for 3 hours … yesterday my playing became twice as inventive and powerful and (soon) we’ll have Roger in as well.
Mogul Thrash, 1970 L to R: Bill Harrison, Molly Duncan, Mike Rosen, Jim Litherland, Roger Ball, John Wetton
First, Brotherhood mutated into Mogul Thrash. Ed started working for a booking agency and Bill Harrison joined on drums. On the album and B-side of their single, we get John’s first writing credit, for St. Peter, co-written with Alan Gorrie. Everyone reckoned that John and Alan should have formed a band, but what could you do with two bass players? Actually, as both could also play piano and guitar, they’d have been fine. The Mogul Thrash album, produced by Brian Auger, was John’s first album. He shared lead vocals with Jim Litherland.
John Wetton’s first writing credit and single: St Peter by Mogul Thrash
5 May 1970 (I suspect this was Brotherhood, because he says “We’ve got to change our name”)
Let the name-dropping begin. Speakeasy – just about to go on when I looked around me. Not only Jimi Hendrix but Love, Jethro Tull, The Nice, Yes, Deep Purple, Fat Mattress, Pete Brown + Piblotko, Forever More, Brian Auger were there. Wow. Anyway, we went on expecting the normal Speak reception, finished the first number and the fucking place just erupted into cheers.
Letter 14 May 1970
We’ve done all the demos for the LP. half completed the John Mayall tour (2 remaining gigs – Albert Hall on Friday. Bournemouth Winter Gardens on Saturday) and are furiously working 14 hours a day on the LP. Mayall tour has gone superbly for us, playing to 2000 people every time – packed houses and going down a storm.
Those Sunday Roundhouse gigs used multiple stages (in the round) and the audience moved around the building (an engine shed) to the next band. Most of the bands spent part of the day across the road in the Italian restaurant, Marine Ices (still there today) with their legendary spaghetti carbonara, and the (then) still-exotic pizzas.
I can testify to their stage power. Having seen them in London, I got them a gig at UEA in Norwich, where I had moved to do an MA. UEA (University of East Anglia) was very strong on jazz, but mostly the rock choices showed how much better Ed Bicknell had been at Hull. Screaming Lord Sutch was not an evening’s entertainment, nor (for me) were The Edgar Broughton Band, which is why Mogul Thrash sounded so far above the normal and went down superbly with an audience used to Roland Kirk, John Surman and Nucleus. John, Molly and Roger slept in the living room of the bungalow I was living in. As a good host, I warned them not to leave the gas fire on. Of course they did, and my co-renter, ten years older than me, went to fry his sausages in the morning and found no gas. He put a shilling in the meter and started frying away to Radio Four, which fortunately woke me. I emerged to an overpowering smell of gas, and fortunately switched off the fire and opened the windows before anyone woke up and lit a match. As they did in those days, though they probably wouldn’t have woken up. Anyway, I got a lift to London with them in Roger’s tiny DAF.
In the autumn of 1970, I was working for Supertramp and John was in Mogul Thrash. They shared the bill at the London School of Economics on a November Saturday, with a long argument over who was top of the bill. Supertramp played in the sit-down theatre, and Mogul Thrash was later for dancing upstairs. Rick thought Mogul Thrash was better … they were certainly more dynamic. I remember John saying quietly that Supertramp had the better songs, which I loyally agreed with. Anyway, Rick and I went out to dinner with Mogul Thrash afterwards and were accused of “treachery” the next day.
Carl Palmer remembered John auditioning for Atomic Rooster around then.
John got the offer to join Family. He told us on a Saturday morning in Bournemouth, and he told us the problem: he would have to play violin in The Weaver’s Answer, and he hadn’t played violin before, though he was cheerful enough: it’s got four strings. No frets, different playing style with a bow, but hey, it’s a musical instrument.
Let’s have another picture of Don Strike’s shop. It is a place of legend and pilgrimage for musicians. “Musician wanted” ads on the door, of course.
He went over to Don Strike’s Music and bought a violin. That was mid-morning. We arranged to meet for the evening, as John intended to spend the day learning violin. When we got to John’s parents place, John said, ‘Is this OK?’ And proceeded to play The Weaver’s Answer on violin. Fast forward to Bryan Ferry’s solo album Another Time, Another Place, where John plays violin as well as bass. John first appeared with Family on 20th August 1971 at the Bilzen Festival in Belgium.
This was the era when John was doing sessions for George Martin, for Gordon Haskell and Edwards Hand. He was also doing advertising sessions, and bigger sessions for George Martin, and mentioned one day doing a Cilla Black session … apparently that was a big deal, because George Martin always only put the very best session players on Cilla Black recordings. Once John explained the session player requirements to me. You name a song that everyone knows, but no one has actually ever tried to play. Say “Tie A Yellow Ribbon.” John said that most professional musicians would have to sit and work it out, even if it didn’t take them long to do it. John said the session guys (like him then) could just sit down and play it. Yes, and in John’s case, on bass, piano or guitar.
Death of A Man: Edwards Hand. John Wetton’s session work. Klaus Voorman sleeve illustration
It’s funny how eras select your favourite albums. Hot Rats had been on replay at Ladbroke Grove, but over lunch many years later, we were idly doing our eight Desert Island discs albums, and both chose two of the same ones, which come from that year … What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, and Surf’s Up by The Beach Boys.
We (my wife Karen and I) used to drive up to London some Saturdays and sleep on John’s living room floor in his basement flat in Earls Court. This was enlivened by its proximity to a popular gay pub, and new friendships were sometimes consummated in the basement door wells, which tended to wake us up.
I guess his first TV appearance was with Family. There’s a classic Old Grey Whistle Test of Spanish Tide (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnwVbQPJcck)
John had the double neck bass and guitar, and having John as a second vocalist was a major shift in Family’s sound, and he takes a lead verse in Spanish Tide. Burlesque was outstanding. A friend took bass advice from Nick Lowe and was told the ultimate test for bass players was attempting Burlesque. When John was doing his solo shows and taking something from every era, I asked him why he didn’t play Burlesque, as his bass part was the thing so many remember about it. ‘That’s Roger’s song. I wouldn’t do it. It’s his.” He had a very strong sense of lead vocalist etiquette, though he was one of the very few who could have sung Roger’s part.
In February 1972 he sent me a note that Family had climbed from 212 to 106 in the US chart:
Although No 106 may not sound too good it represents probably as many sales as to get an album into the Top Ten over here … so we may well be going over pretty soon.
Family’s failure to make it in the USA has perplexed rock critics for years. They should have been huge … both on material and Roger Chapman’s incredible stage presence … Iggy Pop, forget it. Reprise also backed them enthusiastically … they were probably the first UK band to get a custom 45 record sleeve, and got picture sleeves on other singles when picture sleeves were really rare. Then they got their own WEA label, Raft.
Family: probably the first British band to get its own company sleeve. It’s on their Reprise 45s and Raft 45s.
John said the issue was that Bill Graham was terrified of the legal and financial consequences of Roger braining an audience member with the swinging microphone. I’d seen Family half a dozen times before John joined them, and being tall, I experienced moments of terror as that mic flew over the front rows, BUT I never saw him hit anyone with it. I do know that when Family’s car broke down and they borrowed the support band’s gear for a gig at Hull (1968, long before John) the support band, House of Lords, were near to tears at the sight of their precious Shure Unidyne flying through the air.
John on Family (from http://www.familybandstand.com)
I had been to LA to search my ‘thrill’ and when I arrived back in Britain six weeks later I knew the Americans weren’t waiting for my kind of music. What I wanted to do at the time was much more aggressive than what was happening in America. Even if my favourite songs were romantic and came from people like CSNY, Joni Mitchell and the Beach Boys, I found that my songs needed to be much harder. Strangely enough the day I got back from America I got a call from a friend of mine (Jim Cregan) who asked if I wanted to join Family. That time they were number three in the charts and they were one of my favourite semi-progressive outfits so of course I said yes. After two albums with them I quit because I didn’t feel fulfilled. They already had some composers in the band and the vacancy for a singer was also taken so I had to be happy just playing the bass. I also have to tell you that, before I went to play with Family, I already received a phone call from Robert Fripp asking me if I wanted to join King Crimson. Crimson then consisted of Fripp, Mel Collins, Ian Wallace and Boz Burrell
John with the “Family Bentley”, the first vehicle I’d seen with a cassette player. St Giles. They loved its HYP number plate.
Incidentally, John was horrified at a 2016 Record Collector article about him going out into Dorset to seek out Robert Fripp, which led to him joining King Crimson. It said he “drove out in the family Bentley” which shows what punctuation can do. John’s dad had an old Ford Consul. It was ‘The Family Bentley’ i.e. the 10 year old car belonging jointly to the band, which John told me they bought as it was cheaper than a one year old Ford Granada. Karen (my wife) and I loaded all our possessions into that car when we moved from one rough bedsit to a small rented flat. The neighbours were shocked to see our meagre possessions emerging from the boot of the Bentley.
Knowlton Church again: 23 April 1972
That car reminds me of a story. Karen, John and I went out to Knowlton Church (again) and on to tea in the village hall at St. Giles. The Women’s Institute used to do tea and wonderful home made cakes on Sundays to get funds for the 18th century church hall. You lined up and filled a tray so that it groaned with cake. There we were quaffing our tea and munching our Victoria sandwich cake, and the vicar asked if he could join us.
St Giles Church Hall: Karen, Peter. Photo credit: J.K. Wetton. This was being taken as the vicar arrived …
The vicar chatted merrily for ten minutes, fascinated to hear John was a rock musician. We were all thinking ‘What a nice vicar …’ until he started his pitch for money … a lot of money … for the church hall roof. We were perplexed, then realized he kept looking through the window at the Family Bentley parked directly outside.
John Wetton & Peter Viney, Wimborne St. Giles 23 April 1972. Streaks are due to Hutch’s home photo processing kit
We have a photo of John and me sitting on the bench there. We decided to sit and be the village idiots for the entertainment of the tourists. Very non-PC, but funny in 1972. As old friends would know, John could have been an actor. He’d cheerfully go into long role plays for everyone’s entertainment. I got banned from a very nice local restaurant with John one Christmas Eve after a discussion on stage moustaches and character, which led to burning some corks and trying out a few moustaches. John delighted in wordplay, and some of what appeared to be rhyming slang was his own invention. We’d sit and try and think of new ones for the other to guess. We’d read about the spread of “Baracks” (pyjamas … Barack Obamas) in London. We came up with Osamas for rubbish bins. They have to be put out once a week, when the bins are full, or laden … hence “Osamas” for a “bin laden.”
Recreating the scene on the same bench: 2001. Photo by Rick Palmer.
In the early 70s, John’s mum used to invite us all for Boxing Day lunch … the hotel was closed in the winter, but she always did a full turkey dinner for John and his friends. In the 2000s, John would sometimes pop in to see us on Boxing Day, always a welcome visitor for our kids. When my older son was about to leave for an American university, John said he’d better take him out for lunch. ‘I’ll come,’ I said. ‘No,’ said John, ‘My advice isn’t for your ears.’ ‘What are you going to tell him?’ I asked. ‘Oh, just the stuff I tell the young guys in my band,’ he paused thoughtfully, ‘It might make his hair stand on end.’
30 July 1972, somewhere in the New Forest
King Crimson was a quantum leap. John was their third Dorset bass player (following Greg Lake and Gordon Haskell) so I think a Dorset connection was obligatory. John had known Robert for years, and hugely admired the first King Crimson album. It was the move he’d been dreaming of since 1969. He was at last the sole lead vocalist in a band. Richard Palmer was writing the lyrics (now as Richard Palmer-James). I saw them early on at Bournemouth Winter Gardens, when Jamie Muir was still percussionist, beating gongs with lengths of chains and frothing at the mouth with blood capsules … if you’ve ever used them, they taste exactly like sherbet fountains. Not at all unpleasant. It remains one of the most astonishing shows I’ve seen in my life. Just a week ago, in a record store, a twenty-something was seeking “Red” and “USA” as prototype heavy metal leading into grunge albums. I was surprised he knew them, but apparently he and his friends have a Sophie’s Choice argument on whether Red or USA is the ultimate album. That’s “album” not “King Crimson album.”
The Night Watch: King Crimson, 1974. When looking through my 45 records, John said “I’d never seen a copy of the 45. I had the album. That was it.”
In the sleeve notes to The Great Deceiver: Live 1973 – 1974, Robert Fripp says:
Between 1973/4 KC had an increasingly loud bass player of staggering strength and imagination, arguably the finest young English player in his field at the time. Whenever he went to The Speakeasy he was offered yet another job with yet another famous English group.
If John had retired after King Crimson, he would still be a legend. Next up was Roxy Music, and then the Bryan Ferry Band. Roxy Music was supposed to be a filler until King Crimson got under way again, but turned into a lengthy tour. King Crimson and Roxy Music were both managed by EG. John had originally been recruited to audition bass guitarists for them, but couldn’t find one suitable, so was persuaded to take the job himself on a temporary basis. Karen and I went for dinner with him at the 5 star Royal Bath Hotel after the Bournemouth Winter Gardens show. It was a private dining room, and John had a separate table for three set up so we could chat. As waiters flitted about with fine wines to pour into glasses on crisp white tablecloths at the main table, I realised that this was a definite and major step up in touring in style and comfort.
I remember watching him on one of his many outings as a hired gun with Bryan Ferry . . . Bryan waxed Byronic as usual, the girls singing harmonies were gorgeous, and John almost stole the show in a close-fitting white outfit, but endangered several internal organs by performing a bass solo using a voice box: ingesting the signal from an electric guitar (remember Peter Frampton?) kinda tickles, but the column of air built up in the tube by a bass is inclined to rearrange one’s bowels. Stupendous effect, though.
I saw both line-ups live … I’d seen Roxy Music right at the start too. It’s a pity he only appears on the live album, though the seed was sown for future collaboration with Phil Manzanera, Eddie Jobson and with Eno.
I’ve been coughing as dust flies from my set of Rolling Stone magazines in the attic, trying to find the centrespread of John and Bryan Ferry in a limo in America. Google image search did turn up a different one labelled “Glam rock stars Bryan Ferry and John Wetton.”
“Glam rock stars” John Wetton & Bryan Ferry
That would have given John a laugh, though he was always proud of embracing different genres. I saw The Unthanks in Exeter in 2011 playing Starless in their version as a folk epic, phoned John and said ‘You have to hear this!’ I found they were due to play Eastleigh in a few days. It was sold out, but after a few phone calls John got us chairs at the mixing board at the back (always the best place to be for sound). He loved Becky Unthanks singing on Starless – and the entire concert which he declared one of the best he’d ever seen. He had a discussion on the lyrics with Becky and Rachel Unthanks afterwards. An aside … our favourite teacher at school was Tom Bircher. He was teaching my and Rick Palmer’s year A –level English set with Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, and also decided to teach it with John’s O-level group. Note how it opens:
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.
John’s son is named after Dylan Thomas, not Bob (who also named himself after Dylan Thomas). Like me, John had Welsh ancestors on the maternal side.
Coming back from The Unthanks concert (or another one we attended at Portsmouth a year later) I remarked at how some of his recent songs, like Steffi’s Ring from Raised in Captivity, given a different setting, would grace an Unthanks album. They sounded like “English folk” which surprised me. John replied, ‘I’ve always been into folk. I was in Renaissance.’ Think of those acoustic guitar versions of Heat of The Moment which transformed it.
John didn’t do enough duets with female singers. Listen to the first Icon album, Icon with Annie Haslam duetting with him on In The End. Listen to the Urban Hymn DVD by Icon (2009), where John and Geoff are joined by Hugh McDowell on cello and Anne-Marie Heider on vocals and flute (one of my favourite among his many recordings). Of the many versions of The Heat of The Moment, this one with John and David Kilminster on 12 string acoustic guitars, and Geoff Downes on keys may be my favourite. Then there’s John writing We Move As One for Agnetha Faltsgog (John liked ABBA long before it became fashionable to like ABBA), and he had the Cher Love Hurts gold disc on his wall too for I’ll Never Stop Loving You.
John with Uriah Heep
Back to the 1970s … Uriah Heep was a year long section of incredibly hard work. Years earlier, I’d been with John at Bournemouth Pavilion Ballrooms. I think we were just watching a band like John Mayall or Graham Bond. Lee Kerslake was also watching, and took John aside. John told us Lee was trying to recruit him for a band … whether it was The Gods era, or early Uriah Heep era, I don’t know. Anyway, it eventually happened after Gary Thain died. These Bournemouth connections as a young musician do recur … Greg Lake was in The Gods.
Jacknife was a venture in early 1978 with Richard Palmer-James and John Hutcheson, aiming to recreate the group feel of the Palmer James Group and Tetrad. They’d lost touch with Bob Jenkins, so Curt Cress joined them on drums, and it was recorded in Munich. Hutch was now a Ph.D in Control Engineering and flew in from the USA. Five of the tracks date back to the PJG just before they became a soul band: I Wish You Would, Too Much Monkey Business, You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover, Eyesight to The Blind and Dimples. Try Confessions, originally designed for an unreleased Richard Palmer-James solo album back in 1972 (on which John played piano on one song). Adoration is a John / Rick co-write that points forward to work to come. Great chorus.
Jacknife, Munich 1978, : John Wetton, Richard Palmer-James, John Hutcheson
I reckon You Can’t Judge A Book and Dimples are among the best of hundreds of covers of those songs. Dimples is especially interesting (superb and unusual drumming from Curt Cress with Brazilian style whistles) because John told me the worst gig he ever played was in a thrown together back up band for John Lee Hooker at the Bure Club in Hampshire in the PJG era. They realised to their horror that John Lee not only had his own tuning, but might play an eleven bar, or a thirteen bar, but rarely actually hit a twelve bar.
Too Much Monkey Business rounds up other collaborations with Richard Palmer-James, of especial interest to King Crimson fans for its early versions and unreleased material from an intended sequel to Red.
UK, Asia, John Wetton Band, Icon, Qango … plus so many side excursions … follow, but these are better known and written about, and others can tell those tales.
Because many will not have seen it, I’ll quote the new magazine, Long Live Vinyl (01, Winter 2016). The central article is on Roger Dean’s cover art, with Asia featuring heavily.
When the label first saw the Asia logo, they were very dismissive. They didn’t like the painting either. Much later John Wetton said to me that when they delivered the album, the CEO of Geffen put his arm around him and said, ‘John, you have a logo nobody can read, you have an album cover that’s too dark, and we just don’t hear a hit single,’ … As you know, it went and sold over 14 million.
On which, John always got irritated with musicians who declined to play their greatest hits. He’s also been associated with some first-rate cover designs. Roger Dean is the most famous, but both Fearless and Bandstand by Family are albums rated for their sleeve designs among collectors.
Look at the songs John has covered live, and for various charity tribute records. I have a John covers playlist … God Only Knows (Beach Boys), All Along The Watchtower (Hendrix, Dylan), We Can Work It Out, All You Need Is Love, Lady Madonna, Penny Lane (Beatles), Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Happy Xmas (War Is Over), (John Lennon), Jet Airliner (Steve Miller), Nothing Is Easy (Jethro Tull), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye), Do It Again (Steely Dan), Breakfast in America (Supertramp), New York Minute (Eagles), Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith), Mother, Eclipse, Us and Them, Hey You (Pink Floyd), The Sheriff, Bitches Crystal (ELP), Dancing Days (Led Zeppelin). The point is with his voice, no song intimidated him.
John phoned me once when he was recording All Along The Watchtower. His version on the Qango album was his own, but he’d learned the words from the Hendrix version way back with Ginger Man. Someone in the studio had told him that the Dylan words differed slightly, and he wanted me to check them from the CD, then he phoned back to compare and correct.
John made it clear over the years that first hearing God Only Knows from The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was the moment that made him decide on a career as a musician. He covered it twice beautifully too. We went to see Brian Wilson on the Pet Sounds tour with him, at Bournemouth Pavilion as it happens. As God Only Knows ended John leapt to his feet applauding, tears streaming down his face with sheer joy. He was up so fast that he led the whole audience and there was a standing ovation. That song meant so much to him.
I once had a cover version to myself. John knew I’ve written extensively on The Band. I went to get him for lunch and I mentioned a furious debate on The Band Guestbook on the chords at the start of The Weight, which apparently every bar band gets slightly wrong. One erudite guitarist had written and explained that one chord was one note “out” or different to expectations. John said, ‘Hang on, let’s see …’ picked up his acoustic guitar, thought for a few seconds and played the intro perfectly. Then once he’d started he played and sang the first two verses, word perfect, then as he was sitting on the piano stool, turned and finished it on piano. ‘Have you ever played it before?’ I asked. ‘Nah, but I’ve always loved it.’ I know that to be true … in the days when John was with Family and could pick up Warner-Reprise freebie LPs, he saw that Karen and I both had copies of Music From Big Pink on our shelf. He swapped one for three of his free Grateful Dead albums. ‘Three?’ I said. ‘It’s me that’s got the bargain,’ John said.
One of John’s more unusual productions was William Shatner’s semi-spoken version of Bohemian Rhapsody, on which John played keyboards and guitars. John had his thank you note pinned up in the kitchen for ages. As he said, when your son is a teenager a thank you note from Captain Kirk (signed “Bill”) on the wall is major cred. John had done his own earlier version for a Queen tribute, and Asia producer, the late Mike Stone, a very great friend of John’s, had engineered the original. Mike was Dylan Wetton’s godfather. We shared a Boxing Day dinner with Mike, (Boxing Day comes up a lot) cooked by John, who inherited his mum’s culinary skill, and I wish I could recall their long and hilarious stories about the recording of Asia’s Alpha in the depths of Quebec. Mike waxed lyrical about John’s own abilities as a producer.
John talked a great deal about “signature voices.” It was his criterion for singers … instantly recognisable. For example, he often praised Don Henley as an example of a signature voice … and also often said Don Henley solo was one of his other all-time favourite concerts. Joni Mitchell was his other favourite singer. He either wanted to sing lead, or work with someone with a signature voice … Roger Chapman and Bryan Ferry being examples. Of course John had a signature voice. I heard Asia’s Al Gatto Nero on the radio before I had a copy of XXX, and had missed the opening announcement … it was instantly ‘Hey! That’s John!’ Sources of inspiration are legion … I was asking John about the lyric, and he said, ‘OK, as you drive out of the Tesco near your house, turn left, then look right.’ He wouldn’t say more. There’s a pizzeria of the name that he liked, and yes, the restaurant is called Al Gatto Nero, confounding those on YouTube who point out it should be Il Gatto Nero. John was always precise on language.
One treasured memory … when John had the trio … two acoustic guitars and keyboards … he played The Brook at Southampton in May 1999. I went along with Rick Palmer, and that was the last time they played on stage together when Rick went up for a couple of King Crimson numbers, playing John’s spare acoustic guitar.
From John Wetton’s online tour diary:
For me, a return to The Brook, where the JW band has played many times. For Martin Orford, this is HOME. My old school chums are turning up tonight-Peter Viney (Kim’s book, In My Own Time , is splattered with Peter’s historical memoirs of us, and our strange school), and Richard Palmer-James, alumnus and old friend of mine, co-writer of King Crimson tunes and more. Bryn, the promoter, fine fellow and chameleon character (before the show he is incredibly official and efficient, somehow, during the show he morphs into an accomplished hippy. No one knows why, or how … cue X-Files music. He plies RP-J with Guinness, and Rick agrees to come on to stage and play guitar with the band during “Easy Money” (a Fripp/Wetton/Palmer-James composition). He does, and the evening is another resounding success.
1 May 1999: “Easy Money” Richard Palmer-James, John Wetton, Martin Orford (keys), David Kilminster (guitar), The Brook, Southampton. Photos by Peter Viney
The Brook was the last stage show, but both Richard and John appeared on Alan Simon’s Excalibur II: The Celtic Ring in 2006, and recorded in Paris on the same day, John on lead vocal, Rick on mandolin. Lugh is another folky melody.
Richard Palmer-James, Alan Simon, John Wetton. Paris, August 2006.
I was in two minds about posting that earlier 2001 photo at St Giles in Dorset. It was far from the best of times. John had his demons, with alcohol at the forefront. It took him many years of struggling but he beat it, and he was justly proud of his victory. It’s part of him. He had a lot to say about owning up, admitting your faults.
During one of the bad times, Karen and I went to see James Taylor with John. John produced backstage passes, and we went back with him. I was excited to chat with Steve Gadd, who in turn was delighted to meet John. I felt deeply sorry for James, who was gracious and charming, but behind the eyes as he met Karen and me you could see “Who the fuck are these people?” But John held his hand, and said ‘I can’t tell you how much Fire and Rain has meant to me. Not just in 1971, but ever since. It’s been such an important song in my life.” Not many of John’s prog fans would ever have guessed that one.
Driving home with Karen after the news of John’s passing, I remembered that, and put Fire and Rain on. We both wept:
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend …
But I always thought I’d see you again
John truly saw fire, rain but also glorious sunny days in his life. I remember the thumb crushed in a sash window, the horribly broken ankle (playing football with his son, he stepped into a rabbit hole), the triple heart by-pass, the depths of what alcohol did to him and to his health and relationships, then the power and grace with which he left it behind. John summed it up after his by-pass with the song An Extraordinary Life on Phoenix by Asia. It was the phoenix rising from the ashes for Asia, but personally for John too. He really got a second chance at life, and took it with both arms.
John would sometimes phone or e-mail before a tour with an urgent request for a book recommendation from me or Karen. An absolute favourite was “Ferney” by James Long. We were both very taken by the theme (re-meeting your partners over the centuries) though disappointed with the sequel.
John, Peter, Richard May 2016, Wimborne Minster, Dorset
A selfie: Richard, Lisa, Peter, John, May 2016
Look on line for Eric Clapton’s beautiful “Tribute to JW”:
See SID SMITH’S TRIBUTE PODCAST: Postcards From The Yellow Room 64
It’s an exceptionally perceptive musical view and in depth selection from John’s career, and includes The Unthanks “Starless.”