© Dave Ling - March 2001
previously published in Classic Rock magazine
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hit paydirt when their self-titled debut album topped Americas
Billboard chart in May 1982. It astonished the
rock world by remaining there for nine weeks.
Asia have just released their seventh official studio album, Aura, yet Downes remains their sole survivor. Now, on the groups 20th anniversary, Classic Rock relates the full, previously untold story of their formation, demise and resurrection. Its a tale that has only been previously whispered, because as John Wetton points out, people have only ever skirted around the issues.
Wetton and I were driving somewhere in the States and 'Heat
Of The Moment' came on
Asia arrived in March 82, its concept can
be traced back to 1976. Wetton was playing with Roxy Music at
the time, but following a show at the Santa Monica Civic he
was collared by a diminutive stranger who invited him to lunch
the following day. I immediately called for security,
John now chuckles, yet the mystery figure turned out John Kalodner,
the head of AOR West Coast for Roxys label, Atlantic Records.
Typically brusquely, the former Family and King Crimson bassist
was told: "What the fuck are you doing? Get something together,
playing back-up to Brian Ferry is not your destiny."
liked Trevor Rabin immensely, but Steve couldnt live with
him, Wetton explains. Every time we tried somebody,
they clashed with either myself or Steve. When Roy Wood was brought
in, although he was a lovely guy and had great ideas, he clashed
with me. And it was my band.
Geffen had been angling for us to become a five-piece, grins Downes now. Carl went back to his Brummie roots and one day brought along Roy Wood. He turned up wearing different colour shoes, drank a bottle of vodka and ended up pointing at Steve and saying [adopts Midlands accent], Flippin eck, keep playing those posh licks, like, on the guitar. Without denigrating Roy, we all thought it would have been too comical.
Geoff and I hit it off immediately, Wetton states, when asked how quickly they gelled as a quartet. It was like a runaway train, if we didnt write three hits in a day we were disappointed. We also had an enormously enjoyable social life, and it all seemed very sudden when the band took off. With hindsight, it was absolutely the ideal time for Asia to hit. There was no Yes about the new Yes came a bit later ELP werent around and all you heard on the radio anywhere was A Flock Of Seagulls. It was waiting to be blasted.
Geffen Records had instigated Asia, Richard Branson and his
entourage visited them in rehearsals. Virgin offered a deal
for Europe, but the band and Lane felt that they should focus
their efforts on America. News that somebody else was interested
only increased Geffens haste to sign the band.
was the year of Thatcher and Reagan, all that epic stuff wouldnt
have worked then. It was a time of change, maintains Wetton.
Geoff and I decided not to extend any numbers beyond their
natural life. Most good progressive rock bands take a great
hook and then extend it to 15 or 20 minutes, we just decided
to just create great tunes. We found our formula somewhere between
King Crimson and the Buggles.
there young ladies throwing themselves at us? Yeah, there
always are. Unfortunately,
nobody was quite prepared for the success of Asia,
and the band were already booked to play a club and theatre tour
when the debut made its breakthrough. In fact, most of the dates
had been sold out before a note of music was available.
Suddenly we were leapfrogging people like Foreigner, recalls Wetton proudly. For about three weeks, we were selling 80,000 records a day. At one hotel in Chicago I went down to the pool, and there was this gorgeous young woman on a sun bed. I asked what she was listening to on her Walkman and she said, This great new record by this band Asia. When I told her it was me, she told me to piss off. I never did manage to convince her.
The album was absolutely everywhere, agrees Downes. John and I were driving somewhere in the States and Heat Of The Moment came on the radio, we hopped stations and it was there on another. It was crazy. They were great times, but they never come without problems.
up to the arenas, Asia set off on a world tour that included two
sold-out gigs at Wembley in London. Having avowed to ignore everybodys
previous bands, they debuted three new songs, two of which (The
Smile Has Left Your Eyes and Midnight Sun) would
appear on the next album, Alpha. Little did anybody
know that those Wembley shows would be Asias last in the
UK until a comeback in 1992.
For Wetton, who until that point had mainly been one of rocks sidemen, achieving fame in his own right was all the more pleasurable.
I hadnt been a sideman in King Crimson, points out John, but I like to keep working. With my gigs with Roxy Music, Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash, Id rather be playing than not. I wasnt a sideman by profession. But being top of the US charts for nine weeks, well, I got more pats on the back and Christmas cards than ever that year.
Suddenly money and women were being thrust at Asia, how did that affect them? Geoff: We all took it in our own ways. For John, whod been watching Bryan Ferrys bum going up and down every night, being acclaimed as a vocalist in his own right probably made him the most satisfied. He felt hed done it, and he probably had. Were there young ladies throwing themselves at us? Yeah, there always are. Unfortunately, now its the old dears the Saga holidays mob.
Downes maintains that Asias early success was crucial to that of Geffen, and Wetton concurs that the band may well have dug the label out of a hole. But as John also remarks, In later years, Geffen was also responsible for killing Asia.
rot began to set in with a severe bout of cabin fever during the
recording of Alpha. Although Howe had co-written almost
half of Asia, Geffen had made it clear that they saw
Wetton and Downes, who were responsible for the hits, as the groups
leading writers. Personalities began to fray as Asia locked themselves
away from the taxman at the remote Morin Heights Studios, 60 miles
outside Quebec in Canada.
Ignoring my songs seemed to be a glaring omission, says Howe of his growing frustration. I didnt like being the other writer. It can be very easy to get to get a songwriting relationship going, but there has to be room. My material kept getting pushed out, and Carl even had a couple of tunes, but they werent interested. It was destructive because the music wasnt bubbling in the way that everybody wanted. Im sure they heard it, too.
changes were afoot for Asia, the most crucial of which involved
Wetton being sacked upon the albums completion. Friction
had developed between the bassist and Howe, and when it was
suggested Greg Lake replace Wetton for an important Japanese
show in 1983, Downes and Palmer backed the label. Although he
would return to the band, Wetton cites this as the point that
his Asia dream died.
the ousted Wetton, the blow was partially softened by Atlantics
offer to cut a solo album, yet Asia blocked his path.
don't have to like John Payne and I've never met him. He's
nothing to me. And he's a crap singer, too"
Howe recalls working well with Wetton for a two-week spell after
the bassists return (If those rehearsals had been
taped it would have made a great album), but he was fired
by John at a band meeting.
And here we enter the murky world of subterfuge. Downes claims to have received Wettons faxed resignation, and duly recruited John Payne as Asias new bassist/vocalist. Payne had played with Roger Daltrey (he performed backing vocals on The Who frontmans 1985 Under A Raging Moon album) and Mike Oldfield and had been the lead singer with ELO 2. Together, he and Downes have released Aqua (1992), Aria (94) and Arena (96), each to an audience of around 300,000 fans.
Although its has its ups and downs, Ive thoroughly enjoyed my time in Asia, offers Payne. Until now [the group recently signed to Recognition, an offshoot of the Universal conglomerate], our biggest frustration has been not touring for years, especially in the UK, and finding a record company that would believe in us. Even getting to make videos has been like banging our heads against walls.
just don't understand John Wetton's bitterness.
tried hard not to copy John Wetton, and musically Geoff and
I have both matured, he continues. What were
doing now is something like Steely Dan; good rock songs but
without being too muso.
To Paynes enormous credit, he refuses to be drawn, stating: I just dont understand Johns bitterness. Hes entitled to his opinion, but his childish remarks demean him more than me.
still get a kick out of Asia and I don't work for arseholes"
ironically, its Payne who now owns the rights to the Asia
name, his company having bought Palmers share and Downes
having relinquished his own. Howe sold his after the Alpha
album. This situation was central to a farcical attempt at reuniting
three-quarters of the original line-up (Wettons guitarist
David Kilminster was to replace Howe) for a US tour during the
summer of 1999. It finally ran aground in embarrassing fashion
after Downes insisted that Payne participate. With Wetton objecting,
Payne was offered a sum of money to stand aside. He
I had every right he parries. Asias been my life for ten years, why would I throw it all away for one tour? There was no talk of a record deal afterwards.
tell that particular story in three words, Geoff flaked out,
insists Wetton. John Payne would never be a part of Asia
for as long as I was. I dont see how he has any right
to be. He wasnt there in the beginning, he didnt
write any of the hits or discuss any of the album sleeves with
[artist] Roger Dean. He doesnt even understand the spirit
it doesnt end there. Wetton continues by stating that he
was disappointed but maybe not that surprised to learn
that Palmer considered playing on Aura. Among his
chief bones of contention with the current Asia is his belief
that Downes and Payne use Steve and Carl when its
convenient its not that they admire them as musicians,
they just know that they will put bums on seats. Its fucking
obvious, and it really makes me shudder. Its just rude,
and ultimately the public know that.
Howe and Palmer both guested on Aqua, the guitarist also touring with them, coming on stage each night to play the hits from Asia. Howe, who is on two Aura tracks and may appear with them at selected upcoming concerts, has his reasons.
still get a kick out of Asia, he clarifies. Theyre
in my blood, even if Yes are there more. It still makes me feel
great that I can stand on my own two feet, even without the great
Jon Anderson and Chris Squire. Im behind Asia and their
history, and if they need a bit of a shove then great. I understand
whats behind Johns innuendo, but I dont work
For Asia and Wetton it seems that neer the twain shall meet again. The former is about to release his new solo album, Sinister, while Downes continues to pursue his Asia holy grail with the deliciously mellow Aura which also features contributions from Thrall, former Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers guitarist Elliott Randall, Saga guitarist Ian Crichton, ex-King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, drum legend Simon Phillips and former AC/DC and The Firm sticksman Chris Slade among others and a string of dates with Paul Rodgers and Kansas.
Will Asia recapture shades of their former glories? As the old song goes, only time will tell
© Dave Ling