Retro Rock Review: "Asia"
"Asia" (Geffen Records, 1982)
Asia was the first big rock "supergroup" of the MTV era, comprised of four veterans of the '70s British progressive-rock scene: bassist/lead vocalist John Wetton of King Crimson, guitarist Steve Howe of Yes, drummer Carl Palmer of ELP, and keyboardist Geoff Downes of Yes and The Buggles. Anticipation for this project ran high among rock critics and prog-rock fans at first, but that crowd eventually turned up their noses at the group's self-titled debut album, condemning it as too simplistic, slick and commercial. The average American record buyer obviously didn't care, because Asia became the best selling rock record in the U.S. in 1982, thanks to massive MTV and radio support for the singles "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell." The album spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard charts and sold close to four million copies.
I was twelve years old when Asia first blew up. At that time, I had no idea who any of the band members were, and I knew nothing about the groups they'd been part of prior to Asia's formation. All I knew was that Asia was the band to be into when I was in sixth grade, so I bought their debut on cassette and played it to death.
Asia's Short, but Sweet Ride at the Top
Asia's debut was a certified blockbuster, but their spin atop the hit parade was brief. The follow up album (1983's Alpha) became a textbook example of the "sophomore slump" when its first single "Don't Cry" failed to connect with listeners. Alpha went platinum, which is a respectable amount of units, but it didn't come close to matching the massive sales numbers of its predecessor. Asia's fickle MTV-fueled audience had already moved on to other things—this writer included. By 1983, hair-metal had begun to make its mainstream breakthrough and, like most kids of the era, I decided that radio friendly, keyboard-driven rock like Asia was for "wimps" and "posers." I taped over my cassette of Asia's debut with tunes by Quiet Riot and Motley Crue, and I never looked back... until about two weeks ago, when I stumbled across a CD copy of Asia at a local Goodwill store. I smiled when I saw that iconic cover art by Roger Dean, and remembered how much the twelve-year-old me had enjoyed this album. I immediately snatched up the CD and promptly threw it in my car stereo, ready to take a trip back in time.
I half expected to be washed away on a sea of badly-aged AOR cheese when I first pressed "play" on this CD, but most of the songs on Asia were still quite catchy and have held up better than I expected. I was also quite surprised that I could still remember many of the lyrics, even though I hadn't heard these songs in dog years!
After giving Asia a number of spins, I could understand why fans of Yes, King Crimson, etc. hated this album when it first came out. Instead of the technical, complex material that the band members were known for, Asia was highly polished, commercial pop/rock, aimed at American radio and MTV. Asia was clearly trying to compete with the corporate-rock likes of Journey, Toto, and Foreigner, but they still held onto traces of that classy, pompous British prog-rock feel, which set them apart from their American counterparts. In other words, I'll take Asia over Journey any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Asia wisely packs the bulk of its firepower up front, opening with a double shot of the hit singles "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell," both of which have choruses that will stick in your head like glue. I'm sure many of you remember the distinctive keyboard run from "Only Time Will Tell' playing alongside TV sports highlights throughout the '80s! "Sole Survivor" was also released as a single and it's another strong track with a huge hook. The epic "Time Again" is probably my favorite song on the disc, with Downes' sinister keyboard intro setting a doomy, cathedral-like tone before the galloping heart of the track begins.
I swear I can hear echoes of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" (yes, really!) in the lyrics to "Wildest Dreams," with its imagery of generals receiving medals for sending the poor off to die in wars that the masses watch on TV. "Without You" is a dramatic, cinematic ballad lamenting lost love. The lone clunker on the album is "Cutting it Fine," a middling AOR track that's "meh" at best. (If memory serves, I never liked "Cutting It Fine" much when I was a kid, either.) Fortunately, the album recovers quickly and ends on a high note with the soaring, heartfelt "Here Comes the Feeling."
Whatever Happened to Asia?
Asia's original lineup splintered after Alpha failed to set the charts ablaze. Steve Howe exited for a solo career and eventually rejoined Yes. Asia's third album, 1985's Astra, featured ex-Krokus (!) guitarist Mandy Meyer in Howe's place. It fared no better than its predecessor and the band was soon dropped from Geffen Records.
Wetton and Downes continued to tour the world on and off under the Asia name throughout the '80s, utilizing a rotating cast of replacement players. When Wetton left the band in 1991, Downes soldiered on with new bassist/singer John Payne. The Downes/Payne duo released nearly a dozen studio and live albums during the 1990s, which were barely noticed outside of the underground prog-rock community.
The original lineup of Wetton, Downes, Howe, and Palmer reunited to release 2008's Phoenix and XXX in 2012. Howe announced his retirement from music in 2013, but Asia carried on, releasing Gravitas in 2014 with new guitarist Sam Coulson.
Sadly, John Wetton passed away in 2017 at the age of 67 after a long battle with cancer. He had been working on a new Asia album with Palmer and Downes at the time of his death, but it is unclear if any of these recordings will surface in the future.
I am now officially on the hunt for more Asia CDs, because I've obviously been missing out on some cool stuff. Better late than never!
ASIA Studio Discography:
Asia - Geffen, 1982
Alpha - Geffen, 1983
Astra - Geffen, 1985
Aqua - InsideOut, 1992
Aria - InsideOut, 1994
Arena - InsideOut, 1996
Rare - Resurgence, 2000
Aura - Recognition, 2002
Silent Nation - InsideOut, 2004
Phoenix - Frontiers, 2008
Omega - Frontiers, 2010
XXX - Frontiers, 2012
Gravitas - Frontiers, 2014
© 2018 Keith Abt