© Dave Ling - March 2001
previously published in CLASSIC ROCK magazine
Asia hit paydirt when their self-titled debut album topped America’s Billboard chart in May 1982. It astonished the rock world by remaining there for nine weeks. Three short months later, John Wetton (bass/vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Geoff Downes (keyboards) and Carl Palmer (drums) had been awarded platinum discs to mark a million sales, and at the last official count, ‘Asia’ has racked up around nine times that amount. For a fleeting moment, Asia were the biggest rock band on the planet, but success beyond their wildest dreams was eventually to be followed by sackings, reinstatements and bitter power struggles.
Asia have just released their seventh official studio album, ‘Aura’, yet Downes remains their sole survivor. Now, on the group’s 20th anniversary, Classic Rock relates the full, previously untold story of their formation, demise and resurrection.
It’s a tale that has only been previously whispered, because as John Wetton points out, “people have only ever skirted around the issues”.
"John Wetton 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"
Although ‘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 Roxy’s 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."
“John gave me the biggest pep talk of all time,” recalls Wetton now. “He said I could be mega, I came out of that lunch feeling absolutely brilliant. So we kept in contact, and every week he sent me things that could be useful; some classical, some rock.”
The first fruits of Wetton’s grooming were to be UK, his 1978 project with guitarist Allan Holdsworth, violin/keyboard player Eddie Jobson and former Crimson colleague Bill Bruford on drums, but Kalodner remained unimpressed. D-day finally arrived in 1981 when, after joining Geffen Records, Wetton’s mentor summoned him to a meeting in Los Angeles. Money was no object, and Geffen were signing stellar names like Lennon and Elton John. When asked who should manage the band that was about to be formed, Wetton favoured Yes’ Brian Lane or Tony Smith of Genesis fame. The ultimate choice of Lane was to prove doubly fortuitous for not only had he recently parted company with Yes, but he also put forward the name of Steve Howe for the group. With Emerson Lake & Palmer taking a hiatus, drummer Carl Palmer was appointed. Howe then suggested giving Geoff Downes, the former Buggles keyboardist who had played on Yes’ ‘Drama’ album, a try. Before settling upon a four-piece line-up, several others were also considered. Besides original Journey frontman Robert Fleischmann, South African guitarist Trevor Rabin (who eventually became Howe’s replacement in Yes) and, even more bizarrely, Roy Wood of The Move/Wizzard fame, both tried out.
“I liked Trevor Rabin immensely, but Steve couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 weren’t around and all you heard on the radio anywhere was A Flock Of Seagulls. It was waiting to be blasted.”
Although 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 Geffen’s haste to sign the band.
“Kalodner was a bit of an oddball to say the least, but I always got on with him pretty well,” relates Downes. “I think he saw me as a stabilising influence.”
All save the keyboard player had come from backgrounds in lengthy, pure-prog behemoths like ‘Tarkus’, ‘Close To The Edge’ and ‘Starless’, so it was slightly shocking to learn that Asia specialised in compact, highly commercial numbers like ‘Heat Of The Moment’, ‘Sole Survivor’ and ‘Only Time Will Tell’.
“For me, after being in Yes for ten years and having made solo albums, it was thrilling. I was picking up a repertoire,” grins Howe. “The first album wasn’t as mind-boggling progressive as people expected, and that was a really good thing. But I was hoping the second one would go more in that direction.”
“1982 was the year of Thatcher and Reagan, all that epic stuff wouldn’t 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.”
Despite the commerciality of the tunes the critics were appalled – one US writer slammed Asia as “Mickey Mouse squeaking at the Gates of Dawn” – yet as Wetton rightly observes, “the charts proved them wrong. People bought it in shitloads. We’d been prepared for the bad reviews; we knew we’d either be very successful or just get shot down completely. In the end, it was both.”
"Were there young ladies throwing themselves at us? Yeah, there always are. Unfortunately,
now it's the old dears - the Saga holidays mob"
Nevertheless, 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.”
Stepping 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 everybody’s 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 Asia’s last in the UK until a comeback in 1992.
For Wetton, who until that point had mainly been one of rock’s sidemen, achieving fame in his own right was all the more pleasurable.
“I hadn’t 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, I’d rather be playing than not. I wasn’t 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, who’d been watching Bryan Ferry’s bum going up and down every night, being acclaimed as a vocalist in his own right probably made him the most satisfied. He felt he’d done it, and he probably had. Were there young ladies throwing themselves at us? Yeah, there always are. Unfortunately, now it’s the old dears – the Saga holidays mob.”
Downes maintains that Asia’s 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.”
The 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 group’s 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 didn’t 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 weren’t interested. It was destructive because the music wasn’t bubbling in the way that everybody wanted. I’m sure they heard it, too.”
Big changes were afoot for Asia, the most crucial of which involved Wetton being sacked upon the album’s 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.
“I definitely lost my faith and trust in Carl and Geoff after that. Mike [Stone, producer] and I were perceived as being a bit hooliganistic in the studio,” he reflects. “We were stuck in a fucking freezing cold place for four months, just the two of us, with occasional visit from the others. We went stir crazy and would often get pissed together - even though we got the job done. The record company took a dim view of that and decided I was a bad risk for the Tokyo gig. Astonishing, and not very rock’n’roll.”
“Kalodner wanted John out, and I suppose we could have been more supportive, but I don’t know whether it would have made any difference,” admits Downes, validating a theory put forward by Howe that although the guitarist was seen as the anti-Wetton posse’s ringleader, he was not alone.
“I don’t often make my voice heard unless I feel that the band is heading into trouble,” maintains Steve. “When I asked the other guys how they felt we were doing, they were also a little bit concerned. It turned into a bit of an operation, and John and I ended up ignoring each other for a few days. But by the time that happened, the others agreed that there was a problem.
“In the studio the days always seemed to go quite well until the evening. I would be very focussed and overdubbing my guitar, and would gradually realise that there were a lot of very unfocussed people in there directing me. There was a sort of gripe factor going on.”
For the ousted Wetton, the blow was partially softened by Atlantic’s offer to cut a solo album, yet Asia blocked his path.
“Being courted by probably the best record label in the world was flattering, but they wouldn’t let me out of my contract,” he sighs. “I was too dangerous at the time, I was writing like a madman, the hits were coming out of my ears.”
Wetton denies trying to prevent Asia from playing his signature tune, ‘The Smile Has Left Your Eyes’, at their MTV gig in Tokyo – which drew over 20 million US viewers and was released as the Asia In Asia video – and chuckles at Downes’ suggestion that it is a tribute to himself that they have never played it live since his departure. “It’s probably because they don’t get any publishing on it,” he chuckles mischievously.
Regardless, John was invited to return after the Japan debacle. He accepted providing Howe was dismissed, but with hindsight made a huge error. “I should have told them to piss off,” says Wetton ruefully, “but I wanted my toy back.”
Internal problems aside, ‘Alpha’ still shifted a cool three million copies after being released in 1983. Kalodner had claimed there was no single on the album, so Wetton and Downes had penned ‘Don’t Cry’ the next day, then recorded it the day after that. Howe hadn’t wanted his guitar to duplicate the song’s bass lines, so Wetton played it himself, which “mightily pissed off” the former Yes man. The decision was vindicated when ‘Don’t Cry’ became the fastest selling single to top the US charts.
“Most people would have been happy with three million copies,” reflects Wetton now, “but the 80s was the age of greed and everybody expected more.”
"I 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"
Strangely, Howe recalls working well with Wetton for a two-week spell after the bassist’s return (“If those rehearsals had been taped it would have made a great album”), but he was fired by John at a band meeting.
“To me, it was right out of the blue, but I asked the others what they thought and they agreed,” shrugs Steve, who went on to form GTR with Steve Hackett (even more puzzlingly, their 1986 eponymous debut was produced by Downes!). “So it was strange to get a call from Kalodner asking if I would be prepared to play on the album. He offered me so much that I couldn’t afford to turn it down, but when I heard the songs I wouldn’t have done it for four times that amount. The dollar sign was ringing in my head, I knew not to go near it.”
At Kalodner’s suggestion, Howe was replaced by former Krokus guitarist Mandy Meyer for the third album, 1985’s ‘Astra’. Although it lacked a runaway hit single (the label chose ‘Go!’), Wetton cites it as the band’s most consistent offering.
“John really liked ‘Astra’, but not many other people did,” Downes chuckles. “The fact that ‘Go!’ didn’t do much at radio signalled what would happen next.”
“Music was changing, and Geffen told us they weren’t going to do rock anymore. I remember leaving the office and thinking, ‘It’s all over’. But it still sold around a million copies,” John observes. “Steve Howe might have referred to ‘Heat Of The Moment’ as “bubblegum”, but it and ‘Don’t Cry’ probably added two zeroes to the sales of both records.”
Dogged by line-up changes and label disinterest, Asia entered their fallow years. Things ground to a halt until 1987 when the band tried again with ex-Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham and then Toto’s Steve Lukather. Tracks featuring both appeared on 1990’s ‘Then And Now’ collection, but afterwards Geffen dropped them. Wetton finally reached the point of no return in March 1991 whilst Asia – then featuring former Automatic Man/MeatLoaf guitarist Pat Thrall – were playing in Rio de Janeiro. During his beloved ballad ‘The Smile Has Left Your Eyes’ a fan threw him the heavy metal devil salute.
“I thought, ‘Oh no. There has to be another way’,” he says, still sounding mentally crushed. “We had become a tribute band, I knew that I had to write new stuff, get a much more personal viewpoint on everything. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It was a shame, as the Thrall line-up were excellent – much better than today’s band.”
And here we enter the murky world of subterfuge. Downes claims to have received Wetton’s faxed resignation, and duly recruited John Payne as Asia’s new bassist/vocalist. Payne had played with Roger Daltrey (he performed backing vocals on The Who frontman’s 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 it’s has its ups and downs, I’ve 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.
“I’ve tried hard not to copy John Wetton, and musically Geoff and I have both matured,” he continues. “What we’re doing now is something like Steely Dan; good rock songs but without being too muso.”
"I just don't understand John Wetton's bitterness.
His childish remarks demean him more than me"
John Payne, Asia's Henry Kissinger figure
Naturally, Wetton’s version of the ‘original’ Asia’s demise is very different. He claims to have “put everything on hold” while he made a solo album and Palmer returned to ELP. The way he tells it, he only heard about Downes recruiting John Payne to replace him when Palmer told him over lunch.
“Carl said John was a really nice guy and that I’d really like him – but I don’t like him, I don’t have to like him and I’ve never met him. He’s nothing to me. And he’s a crap singer, too.”
When I put it to Wetton that Payne is not “crap”, but merely a different type of singer, he huffs: “That’s very diplomatic, but he’s not Asia, is he?”
To Payne’s enormous credit, he refuses to be drawn, stating: “I just don’t understand John’s bitterness. He’s entitled to his opinion, but his childish remarks demean him more than me.”
"I still get a kick out of Asia and I don't work for arseholes"
Steve Howe on his continuing - albeit sporadic - involvement
And ironically, it’s Payne who now owns the rights to the Asia name, his company having bought Palmer’s 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 (Wetton’s 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 refused.
“I had every right” he parries. “Asia’s 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.”
“To 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 don’t see how he has any right to be. He wasn’t there in the beginning, he didn’t write any of the hits or discuss any of the album sleeves with [artist] Roger Dean. He doesn’t even understand the spirit of Asia.”
When asked how negotiations proceeded so far without such a fundamental issue being addressed, Wetton wearily replies: “Geoff will say yes and yes and yes – until he gets rapped on the knuckles and has to say no.”For his part, Downes maintains he was taking the softly-softly approach, “trying to get into a strong enough position to make them accept John Payne, who has legitimately been this band’s singer for ten years. I just don’t understand Wetton’s animosity towards him. Maybe it’s his ego. Maybe he’ll never accept that the Asia of today is a very different beast to the one of old.”
But it doesn’t 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 it’s convenient – it’s not that they admire them as musicians, they just know that they will put bums on seats. It’s fucking obvious, and it really makes me shudder. It’s 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
“I still get a kick out of Asia,” he clarifies. “They’re 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. I’m behind Asia and their history, and if they need a bit of a shove then great. I understand what’s behind John’s innuendo, but I don’t work for arseholes.”
For Asia and Wetton it seems that ne’er 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…
The official Asia website
P.S. Dave says...
They’ve been called The Band That Wouldn’t Die – and a lot worse besides. But you have to acknowledge the sheer bouncebackability of Asia, a band who’ve experienced skyscraper highs and muddy puddle lows in the best part of their 25 years together. This fairly candid précis of the group’s turbulent history was put together for Classic Rock circa the ‘Aura’ album in 2001. Three years later, it’s highly pleasing to report they’ve retained the same line-up; mainstays Geoff Downes and John Payne still being augmented by guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Chris Slade. As well as picking up a supportive new record deal – something that has plagued them since the days of being with Geffen – Asia have just released an excellent new album called ‘Silent Nation’ and will be touring Europe in the early part of ’05. (31st October, 2004)
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