© Dave Ling - March 2001
previously published in Classic Rock magazine
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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
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."
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.
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.
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
“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
"Were there young ladies throwing themselves
at us? Yeah, there always are. Unfortunately,
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.
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.
Wetton, who until that point had mainly been one of rock’s sidemen,
achieving fame in his own right was all the more pleasurable.
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.
For the ousted Wetton, the blow was partially softened by Atlantic’s
offer to cut a solo album, yet Asia blocked his path.
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.
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.
"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.
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
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.
“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
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.
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"
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.
“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.”
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…
© Dave Ling