On the 30th anniversary of Asia’s groundbreaking debut album, late frontman John Wetton and keyboardist Geoff Downes told Prog about the struggle to maintain their vision and the pressure that came with the LP’s unexpected success in 1982.
“Asia? You framed an Asia poster? How hard did the people at the frame store laugh when you brought this in?” It’s one of the most memorable lines in the 2005 comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin. Steve Carell, playing sexually inexperienced Andy Stitzer, is about to let a prospective girlfriend into his apartment. Seth Rogen, as his buddy Cal, is taking Andy to task over his “un-sexy” collection of video games and action figurines, topped off by the poster that came with Asia’s self- titled debut album.
The image of the mythical sea dragon was instantly recognisable to a generation who’d been teenagers in 1982 and who remembered hearing Asia’s US Top 5 hit Heat Of The Moment on constant rotation that summer. The song also featured in the movie’s soundtrack.
“It was very amusing,” laughs Asia’s keyboard player Geoff Downes 30 years later. “And it helped re-kindle interest. People remembered Heat Of The Moment and that poster. Teenagers, kids, students – they all had it on their bedroom walls. I almost find it scary that something we did back then could end up having such an impact so many years later.”
Asia’s debut represents that fleeting moment when prog rock hijacked the US pop charts. Asia comprised two escapees from Yes, Geoff Downes and guitarist Steve Howe; ex-ELP drummer Carl Palmer and bassist/ vocalist John Wetton, who’d served time in King Crimson, Family, UK and numerous others.
Released in March 1982, Asia’s first was a runaway success, spending nine weeks at Number One in the US. But it happened while the record industry was looking the other way. 1982 was the year Human League’s Don’t You Want Me and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love crossed over to the US charts. Nobody expected refugees from Yes and ELP to make hit records; least of all hit records whose imagery would seep into popular culture and become Hollywood shorthand for a never- ending adolescence.
The roots of Asia could be traced back to the mid-70s. After leaving King Crimson in 74, Wetton put together a new progressive outfit called UK. Their second album, 1979’s Danger Money, tempered its virtuosity with more commercial touches. Wetton’s songwriting was slowly evolving into the streamlined sound of Asia.
“I was even heading in that direction in Crimson with songs like Easy Money and Starless,” said Wetton says now. But the process took time. “I had a Svengali, John Kalodner,” he explains. Kalodner was an A&R executive for the newly formed Geffen Records. “When I presented UK to him he said, ‘You’re close but no cigar’.” When UK split up in 1980, Wetton spent three months in Miami with Wishbone Ash, working on their album Number The Brave “soaking up American radio and writing songs after everyone else went home.”
Back in England, Wetton recorded a low-key solo album Caught In The Crossfire, made up of pop-rock songs in a similar vein to Foreigner and Toto. Kalodner was impressed, but thought Wetton needed a band. For a time, Palmer, keyboard player Rick Wakeman and guitarist Trevor Rabin were mooted. Then, Wetton was introduced to Howe.
“Yes had just imploded at the end of the Drama tour,” explains Downes. “But Steve and I had worked up a good relationship. So I then got a call asking if I wanted to play keyboards on Steve and John’s new songs.”
Downes joined Wetton, Howe and Palmer at London’s Nomis Studios. But Kalodner’s idea for Asia included a lead vocalist. American singer Robert Fleischmann, who’d briefly fronted Journey, joined them in the studio. “But in rehearsals John [Wetton] was leading the field vocally,” says Downes. “So we said ‘No, this is good with the four of us’.” Fleischmann was sent home.
In Downes, Wetton had found the ideal songwriting partner. In 1976, while Yes were crafting the 15-minute epic Awaken on their Going For The One album, Downes had been scraping a living writing advertising jingles. Three years later he was behind The Buggles’ massive hit Video Killed The Radio Star.
“I wasn’t much younger than the rest of them,” he says. “But I was the new kid on the block, and had been involved in a different side of the music business. The others had had their fill of epic pieces. They wanted something more direct.”
What Wetton and Downes also shared was a mutual interest in English church music. “My brother is a choirmaster and church organist,” says Wetton. “That’s the music I grew up on.” “English church music was fundamental to the Asia sound,” adds Downes. “That’s where we got those anthemic chords.”
Asia signed to Geffen, and the album’s recording took place through summer and autumn 1981 at Richard Branson’s Townhouse Studios and Marcus Studios in West London. Geffen had brought in former Queen engineer Mike Stone to produce. Stone had just finished work on Journey’s Escape. “We weren’t exactly the Son Of Journey but in some ways Asia did become a British equivalent,” says Downes.
Crucially, Asia weren’t an obvious musical amalgam of Yes, Crimson and ELP. “If we’d made the album people expected us to make we’d have sold 150,000 records,” says Wetton. “That’s fine, but we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. It was always going to be a more commercial sound. ”
Asked if Howe and Palmer were as committed to Wetton and Downes’ musical vision, Geoff offers a diplomatic: “We had a united front.” “I can only speak for myself, but I was committed,” laughs Wetton. “But... okay, yes, I got shot down many times on that album: ‘Oh, it’s pop. Oh, it’s bubblegum...’”
Out of the creative tension came an album that, as Wetton puts it, “mixed prog stuff with a backbone of great pop-rock songs.” There was fiddly art-rock (Time Again), a tender ballad (Without You) and three hits- in-waiting (Heat Of The Moment, Only Time Will Tell, Sole Survivor). As a nod to the past, Asia commissioned Roger Dean to create the album artwork. “Asia wanted their cover to look as unlike Yes as possible,” Dean said in 2005.
Still, the picture that ended up hanging on the virginal Andy Stitzer’s wall wasn’t to everyone’s liking. “The president of the record company took me to one side and said, ‘Quite honestly, we find the cover a bit dark, the logo is ugly and, frankly, we don’t hear a single,’” laughs Wetton.
Incredibly, Heat Of The Moment – with its churchy keyboards and burnished chorus – was the last song recorded. And, as Wetton admits, “If you’d taken that off the album you could have taken two zeros off the record sales.”
Heat Of The Moment emerged as a single in April, climbing to Number Four on the Billboard pop charts, with the LP hitting Number One in the Billboard Top 100, and 11 in the UK. “In spring ’82, if you turned on the radio or MTV it was Heat Of The Moment,” says Wetton. “Everything else was Human League and A Flock Of Seagulls, and then we came in like a ton of bricks.”
Asia had been booked on a tour of college halls and modest-sized theatres. But as the album and single raced up the charts, they moved to bigger venues. By July, they were selling out the 18,000-seater Dallas Reunion Arena. “Suddenly we were this lauded supergroup – and everyone wanted a ticket,” says Downes. “We were the band of the summer.” Surveying the audience from behind his extensive bank of keyboards, he noticed a significant change since Yes days. “They were a lot younger and there were women,” he chuckles. “The bands we were in before attracted the beards-and-pullovers brigade.”
“Someone did a survey,” adds Wetton. “And it was exactly 50-50 men and women. We had that mass appeal – all ages. We were all in our early 30s, we still looked alright at that stage of the game. We could get away with it.”
The follow-up singles Only Time Will Tell and Sole Survivor achieved similar sales and airplay. “At one point we had six tracks in the Billboard Top 30,” marvels Wetton. “Six solid tracks for AOR radio – fucking amazing. I think only Foreigner came close to that.”
Asia ended 1982 with one of the year’s biggest selling albums. But under pressure from Geffen and their management, they went back to the studio to make the follow-up Alpha, released in August ‘83. It was too quick. Wetton: “The management wanted more of the same – like Die Hard 2.” The first single Don’t Cry was promoted by a video in which the band hammed it up in a pastiche of the recent hit movie Raiders Of The Lost Ark. At one point Howe falls down a cliff and catches fire. (Downes: “I look at it now, and think, ‘Did we really do that?’”)
Initially, the signs were good. Alpha went Top 10 in the UK and US, and Don’t Cry was another US Number One. “It was the fastest selling single to go to Number One in the fucking history of music,” says Wetton. “But two weeks later, when it dropped out, everyone goes, ‘What a shit single!’ And I get the blame.”
In a shock move, Wetton was fired two months later. The problem? “I was drinking a lot,” he sighs. “But ‘rock’n’roll star drinks’ is not headline news... Basically, I didn’t fit into their plans.” Greg Lake was brought in to play a handful of Asia shows including a televised gig at Tokyo’s Budokan in December. “Greg’s a mate. He did his job. But it would be like me joining ELP.”
Wetton returned for 1985’s Astra, but, by then, Howe had walked. The album sold poorly, and Wetton jumped ship. Downes, Wetton and Palmer reunited in 1990 (Wetton: “But without Steve it was not the same”). Downes toured and recorded under the Asia banner with various musicians.
Then, in 2006, the original four reconvened. “We booked a meeting at a hotel in Paddington,” recalls Wetton. “The protagonists – or antagonists – were me and Steve. That’s where the trouble was. Then, as fate would have it, we bumped into each other in the lobby having not seen each other for years. We had a hug and it was all over before we’d even got in the elevator.”
In 2012, XXX became the third Asia album since 2008 to feature the classic line-up. “We still make a good noise,” insists Wetton. “We’re better now than we were in 1982. Back then, a lot of people saw Asia as a Yes spin-off. But that couldn’t be further from it. Asia was a whole different direction – and one that Yes picked up on later. Their album 90125 [in 1983] was much closer to what we had done earlier.”
Nevertheless, that four-million- selling debut album still looms large, even more so since being revived in a Hollywood movie. “Thinking about it now, what we did was so leftfield,” says Geoff Downes. “Somehow, we nipped in and captured the hearts of the American public, and, crucially, a younger generation. Even now, we hear people say, ‘I can still remember what I was doing when I heard that first Asia album.’ It never goes away.”