John Wetton, a bass player, vocalist and songwriter who adapted the dense, progressive rock he performed with bands like King Crimson into mainstream hits with the supergroup Asia in the early 1980s, died on Tuesday near his home in Bournemouth. He was 67 and had colon cancer.
A technically adept bassist with a smooth tenor voice, Wetton came up musically in London in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He was part of a cohort of musicians, in groups like Pink Floyd and Yes, who were known for an ornate, maximalist brand of rock.
King Crimson, founded in 1968, was another such band, and Wetton joined an incarnation of it in 1972, playing alongside the group’s original guitarist, Robert Fripp.
He appeared on the group’s albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless and Bible Black (1974) and Red (1974). Fripp disbanded the group in the mid-1970s, when it appeared to be on the brink of reaching a wider audience. “I didn’t understand Robert’s reasons then,” Wetton said in 1999, “and I still don’t.”
Wetton went on to perform with groups like Roxy Music, Uriah Heep and UK before forming Asia in 1981 with drummer Carl Palmer, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoff Downes, both of Yes. Asia’s sound was more accessible than the bandmates’ earlier endeavors, and the group became an instant success after the release of its debut album, titled simply Asia, in 1982.
The group’s hits included Heat of the Moment, Don’t Stop Believing and Only Time Will Tell. Asia sold millions of copies, and the band was soon playing stadium shows. Audiences were thrilled; critics were often underwhelmed, with one decrying their “symphonic pomp”.
Asia released albums through the 1980s, but none had the success of the first. The band members’ outsize personalities clashed at times, and the lineup changed periodically. In 1991 Wetton left Asia to focus on other projects.
“We hit it at the top and went down,” he said of Asia’s trajectory in a 1998 interview. “We should have hit it somewhere in the middle and gone up.”
John Kenneth Wetton was born in Willington, Derbyshire, on 12 June 1949, and grew up in Bournemouth. He became interested in music after watching his brother play organ in church.
He played with local bands while in high school and, after graduating, moved to London, where he played in the groups Mogul Thrash and Family before joining King Crimson.
He wed Lisa Nojain in December. She survives him, as does a son, Dylan, from an earlier relationship.