“The priorities of the first Asia were to make it a success. Yet when we had it, we were so stupid it was unbelievable:” How the supergroup admitted mistakes and worked them out via their patchy Phoenix album

The reunited original Asia
(Image credit: Getty Images)

One of prog’s less likely reunions entered its fifth year as Asia returned with a new album, Omega, in 2010. Prog met all four original members to discuss the release, and how its patchy predecessor Phoenix helped ensure the band had a future.

Wind the clock back a decade and the name Asia was still in circulation, but the band’s efforts were paying decreasing dividends. Bassist/vocalist John Wetton and keyboardist Geoff Downes had parted company in the early 90s. Downes had gone on to preside over another version of Asia with John Payne, but without drummer Carl Palmer and guitarist Steve Howe – although both guested on the first non-Wetton Asia album, 1992’s Aqua, while Howe also cropped up on 2001’s Aura.

Wetton’s relationship with Downes was rekindled with the singer’s 2003 solo album Rock Of Faith. At the time the singer was not in rude health, fighting a battle with the bottle. “I surfaced briefly and started functioning as a human being again,” says Wetton. “But it wasn’t until a year after Rock Of Faith that I started to get properly interfaced with society. Geoff was a very important part of that and I thank him very much for it.”

Two years later – and with the Downes/Payne Asia soldiering on – Wetton and Downes released the first of their iCon albums. From that, given the disarray that has befallen Yes plus Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s lengthy hibernation, it was a few short steps to the full reunion of the original Asia (regardless of Payne’s incarnation continuing separately).

The return coincides with a downturn in fortunes for Yes, with vocalist Jon Anderson currently out of the band. “Nothing we said would get one of the members out of his hole,” explains Howe. “Now, part of it was based on health, but as soon as he went out on tour on his own that was a stab in the back. The sheer disappointment of what Yes was up to in the mid-2000s was giving me the strong feeling that, hey, if something comes along I’d do it. I want to show Yes that I’m not going to whittle away my career on some backburner.”

Equally, Palmer’s dalliance this coming July with ELP at the High Voltage Festival seems unlikely to derail Asia, not least because of the flexibility that binds the band together today. “Things like that in the past would have caused a problem. Because everyone’s so upfront we can be really well organised and Asia becomes more fun and acceptable,” Palmer says. “We manage to craft Asia around our individual projects. I play about 40 concerts a year with my own band, and I didn’t want to give that up. I couldn’t make Asia just the main thing; it had to fit with what I wanted to do.”

The return of the original quartet – initially designed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their classic eponymous debut album – soon proved to have considerably more pulling power as a live attraction than the Payne version. Following extensive touring in 2006 and 2007, the band released Phoenix in 2008. While it occasionally hinted at some of their former glories, it was an uneven album, attracting mixed reviews including a memorable barb (“the kind of sentimental slush-rock purveyed by beaming Eurovisioners”) from Prog’s sister magazine Classic Rock.

With a heart scare now also behind him, Wetton can be circumspect about the criticism. “The down side to being at home, completely introverted and depressed, is that it comes out in the music you write. The flipside is the songs on PhoenixAn Extraordinary Life and Never Again are very up. I can be criticised for saying it is great to be alive, but believe me, from where I came from, it is great to be alive.”

Phoenix was a really good first attempt … I appreciate people’s freedom – even if it limits mine sometimes

Steve Howe

Another two years on, Omega finds Asia reinvigorated. While it would be stretching credulity to suggest that the album soars to the dizzy heights of their debut, it largely matches 1983’s Alpha and 1985’s Astra qualitatively, as echoes of classic Asia combine with some less expected but equally satisfying material. “It sounds remarkably fresh for a bunch of 60-year-olds,” Wetton smiles.

With a couple of years’ hindsight Wetton describes Phoenix as “alright, not great. We don’t have the standout single. The first couple of albums had their standout single and as soon as that goes on the radio then it’s away. My yardstick these days is that if your current record sells enough to warrant making another one, that’s a success.”

As far as Howe is concerned, “Phoenix was a really good first attempt to get a band that had been apart back together. We did it without an all-powerful producer, without arguments, without a load of crap. We did it in a sense of teamwork, where everybody had their space. I thought maybe there could have been a little more pooling of ideas on the running order, but I appreciate people’s freedom – even if it limits mine sometimes.”

While Howe appeared to take a back seat for much of Phoenix, the follow-up finds him in a more prominent role. “With Phoenix there weren’t places for me to do as much as I would have liked,” he explains. “My wings got out so far and they weren’t clipped, but there was a limit to how much I could do.”

From Downes’ perspective, Omega is about Asia rediscovering itself. “I think that it would be a mistake to try to copy what we did on the first few albums. Omega is a much more brave, varied album than Phoenix. The four of us make a certain noise and there is no escaping that. But we’re trying to keep Asia fresh and interesting to all of us, even though we are getting on a bit!” That involves not resting on the band’s considerable laurels. “I think people appreciate us trying to tread new ground and build the band and the roster of material.”

While Wetton and Downes continue to enjoy a particularly close relationship, Wetton states of all his Asia colleagues, “We have been through a lot together and there is a common understanding now, which wasn’t there in the early days.”

I’ve got no objections to Carl doing what he does with ELP or Steve with Yes. In many ways, that helps elevate the focus of Asia

Geoff Downes

With separate track records in Yes, ELP, Uriah Heep, The Buggles et al, all four members were no strangers to the limelight. “It wasn’t like we were teenagers,” Wetton adds. Referring to the band’s debut, he acknowledges that “something extraordinary happens when you get that amount of success that quickly. You would think that the amount of success that we individually had had would have put us in the right frame of mind, but I don’t think it did. I don’t think anyone could have prepared for how successful Asia was in a matter of months. So the shit hit the fan and by the end of a couple of American tours, we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. And there was none of the respect there is today.”

That was 28 years ago. “In the intervening time we have all learnt a lot,” says Wetton. “We didn’t have that cohesion that is brought by growing up together. Four blokes from Liverpool who grew up and kicked cans around in the street together probably would have had a bit more of a bond.”

But having reunited, Wetton continues, “we possess something now that we didn’t in the early band – we can deflect criticism as a unit. If one person is attacked, then we all get attacked; we have that kind of pack mentality. We can’t be picked off.

“The easiest way to disrupt this band in the first place was to pick one off; get him away from the pack, work on him for a bit and before you knew it, he would be against the other three. You can’t do that now – we have discovered we can be stronger as a unit. It comes with maturity. If we had been like this in the first instance, we would still be going today.”

You had four egos put into this bottle and it was just a matter of time before something was going to blow

John Wetton

Downes believes the members’ other musical interests diffuse the tension that might otherwise disrupt Asia again. “It is very positive because everyone’s cards are on the table. You know there is no skullduggery going on; it’s a very transparent situation, which is great. I’ve got no objections to Carl doing what he does with ELP or Steve with Yes. In many ways, that helps elevate the focus of Asia. When we do come together, we are very focused.”

In the early 80s, Asia was briefly the sole focus of all their collective energies. And the result was a debut album that sat atop the US charts for several weeks, albeit attracting its share of opprobrium. “What we had with Asia with the first album and the first couple of years was pretty special,” Wetton recalls. “You can knock it for its commerciality, but you can’t knock the fact that millions of people absolutely loved it.”

Howe concurs: “The sales statistics proved that an awful lot of people loved it and went to our shows. But one thing that was not Utopia was the personal dynamic within the band. We didn’t have problems with the first album and the first tour. But it was the perpetuation of that which became an issue.”

Adverse criticism was partly propelled by the perception that the band had been assembled in a record company boardroom. “That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Wetton counters. “We rehearsed for six months in a poky little hall in Shepherd’s Bush. We did it the way people should do it. We didn’t just breeze into a studio like four megastars and do our overdubs by telephone. It was hard work and graft that got us to the point of making a record. And then we spent another six months making the record.”

Being branded a supergroup didn’t help either. “We never coined the phrase ‘supergroup,’” Wetton adds. “It was a convenient epithet for the record company to sell it. And before we could even think about it, every DJ in America was using that term. For us, you had four egos put into this bottle and it was just a matter of time before something was going to blow.”

If there was a clear-cut, ‘We don’t want your songs,’ I’d probably have said, ‘You’re not going to get my guitar work’

Steve Howe

And blow indeed it did, songwriting being one of the rocks on which Asia originally foundered. While Howe had five co-writing credits on the debut, second album Alpha was penned exclusively by Wetton and Downes, the team behind the band’s big hit Heat Of The Moment. “Nobody had it in their book that John would write with Geoff; that happened because I insisted that Geoff was in Asia,” Howe recalls. “Nobody could have predicted that John and Geoff would become such a great team. Obviously Geoff was a great team with Trevor Horn, and I’d been a great team with Jon Anderson, so there were all sorts of possibilities, but they weren’t set in stone.”

Howe feels Alpha was rushed and suffered from too much mundane material, and still smarts today from ending up without a songwriting credit, with Lying To Yourself relegated to a B-side single. “Alpha had songs of mine; they just never got finished. I was fooled to think that there was going to be Lying To Yourself, or maybe another song, but near the end I started to realise there wasn’t.”

The seeds of destruction were duly sown, with the repetition of some of the mistakes Howe had seen in Yes being a further catalyst. “The priorities of the first Asia were to make it a success; it was so much what we wanted – and yet when we had it, we were so stupid. It was almost unbelievable. I’m not saying I was any less stupid either; I’m not excusing myself, but it obviously helped me that I’d seen the mistakes we made in Yes, and some of them were quite similar to what happened to Asia.” Not long afterwards, he bade Asia farewell.

In 2010 Wetton remains aware that songwriting remains a slightly sensitive issue. “It is a potential powder keg,” he agrees. “Geoff and I just write and it doesn’t have to be for a specific project. So that, to a certain extent, makes our relationship exclusive, because we just come in with pretty much everything mapped out.” But whereas Howe’s role appeared to be somewhat peripheral on Phoenix, he is more involved in Omega. “If Steve brings something in, it is normally a complete song. On this one we have integrated Steve’s material better. Steve is a lot more involved than he was in Phoenix and certainly a lot more involved than he was on Alpha. I think it is a bit more like it was on the first album.”

Howe readily admits: “If we’d started Phoenix and there was a clear-cut, ‘We don’t want your songs, Steve,’ I would probably have said, ‘You’re not going to get my guitar work. There has to be a good reason why I will spread my wings all over the whole album.’”

I never thought we’d be able to make a record. I thought that might be the stumbling block – that’s where the fuses went in the original band

John Wetton

Wetton reveals that Asia plans are already afoot for 2011. “I remember four years ago when we were embarking on our first US tour for 25 years, Carl and I hugged and he said, ‘If this is going to be our last one, let’s make it fucking good.’ And I found the attitude quite touching. If this is the last thing we do as this band, my thought was we should be the four blokes that put the lid on it. We opened the can up in the first place – we should be the ones that lay it to rest, if that is the way it is going to be.

“But it has gone on a lot longer than that. I never thought that we would be able to make a record. I thought that might be the stumbling block, because that is where the fuses went in the original band.”

Ultimately the success of the Asia reunion may be judged on the basis of Omega. As Howe concludes, “I think this album has the chance to be all the things it should be. Phoenix got close to that, but I think Omega will get much closer. This is a very career-oriented band. We’re quite sure there’s a good reason why we’ve re-formed and we have a job to do.”

Nick Shilton

Nick Shilton has written extensively for Prog since its launch in 2009 and prior to that freelanced for various music magazines including Classic Rock. Since 2019 he has also run Kingmaker Publishing, which to date has published two acclaimed biographies of Genesis as well as Marillion keyboardist Mark Kelly’s autobiography, and Kingmaker Management (looking after the careers of various bands including Big Big Train). Nick started his career as a finance lawyer in London and Paris before founding a leading international recruitment business and has previously also run a record label.