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ASBURY PARK, N.J. - "This tour we've been very humble, eaten humble pie. On most of the gigs we've been supporting, and that means no sound check, lousy monitors and all."
Sitting in his modest room in a Howard Johnson's motor lodge after opening for Tom Petty at a small hall in this decaying Jersey resort, a discouraged John Wetton pauses to flick off a soccer match on TV. He and the three other members of U.K. - drummer Bill Bruford; guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson - each have tasted headline status, complete with sound checks and good monitors , in stints with Yes, King Crimson, Roxy Music, Frank Zappa and several other well-known bands.
"Generally speaking, we're better in a big hall because we're used to playing big halls," says Jobson. "In places like Cleveland, I've done the 10,000-seater with Roxy and Zappa. Bill did it with Yes and Crimson. John's done it with Crimson. We've done the big places, yet we go there and they want us to support in a 500-seater or something, which is sort of underkill. Consequently, we sell the place out, they add two shows and they sell out, and they say, 'Oh we should have put you in a bigger place'."
It shouldn't take much longer, Wetton says, to get those larger bookings in America. The band is emerging as the darling of British progressive rock, because of its early concerts, well-recieved debut album (U.K.) and immediately likeable, FM-oriented music. "I think the first album was a good basis to work from - being a music band," Wetton says. "We could have gotten to a lot more people by having a hit-single on our first album. But it's a very fickle audience, the hit-single audience. It could be you today, someone else tomorrow. . . . In terms of record-company acceptance, the first album was a mistake because it had suites and things like that. But it's still getting a lot of airplay and we've sold reasonably well (200,000 copies) and we can build on that."
Jobson dominates the group, both on record and on stage, as he alternates between keyboards and plexiglass violin, pushing the band through long, intricate musical passages, Holdsworth, a veteran of Soft Machine and Tony Williams' New Lifetime, stays largely in the background, occasionally erupting with bursts of furious Mahavishnu-like guitar. Bruford's drumming is light and airy and combines well with Wetton's forceful bass playing. Wetton's vocals are kept to a minimum and seem almost like an afterthought.
The stage show is simply four musicians concentrating on their music, playing before audiences who frequently don't know what to expect, by the end of the evening, though, fans are usually chanting "U.K., U.K."
Jobson, also the band's major songwriter bristles at descriptions of U.K. as an extension of King Crimson. "We may sound like Crimson because Bill and John were two-thirds of Crimson," he says a bit defensively. "That was one of the first policy decisions we made - we weren't going to go out and play '21st Century Schizoid Man.' We just want to be U.K."
After Crimson broke up in 1975, Bruford (who helped form Yes after a two-day stint with Savoy Brown eleven years ago) and Wetton went their separate ways before joining Rick Wakeman in another supergroup last year. Wetton says the three wanted to create a formal band after jamming together and went through hundreds of names. But Wakeman's management didn't care for the idea, he says. "They just saw us as another backing group for Rick Wakeman. We really didn't want to be part of that."
Bruford and Wetton resolved to stay together, "stole" Jobson from Zappa and added Holdsworth, who had played on Bruford's solo album. Eight weeks later U.K. was complete, and they mapped out their tour plans. Because they had played in well-known British groups, U.K. received a better initial reception in its homeland, headlining in 3,000-seat halls. It became necessary to start writing again, because the band needed 90 minutes of material to headline. But in the U.S., the show is chopped back to 45 minutes, half music from the first album and the other half new material. The band swallowed its pride and played 28 dates "as a supporting act, and a few headline gigs - anything we can get - $400 here, a thousand there," as Bruford puts it.
At 29, Bruford is a 12-year rock veteran and becomes cynical when discussing the punk-rock upheaval in England and punk's disdain for the "old fart" bands he's played in. 'There seems to be a new group every 30 seconds: 'And now here's today's biggest punk band, X-Ray Specs'," he mocks. "Tomorrow it'll be someone else.
"The way rock is being defined in England right now, I'm certainly not a rock drummer and never have been. Rock there is about protest, unemployment, the welfare state. I'm a nice middle-class boy, and I'm not a rock drummer if you define it like that."
Transcribed by Per Stornes
Updated: February 1, 2001
Scheduled update: None
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