Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Battle Of The Supergroups - Division Two - Away Leg

The British stadium-rock band Asia were counted among the first bona fide ‘supergroups’ to emerge in the 1980s. The combined pedigree of the individual band members virtually assured Asia of world dominance, or at least a few hit singles and albums. In 1981 guitarist Steve Howe, who had been a key member of progressive rock giants Yes for a decade before their 1980 break-up, was joined by keyboardist and fellow Yes alumnus Geoff Downes (also ex-Buggles - see future post), drummer Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer/Atomic Rooster/King Crimson), and vocalist/bassist journeyman John Wetton (King Crimson/Uriah Heep/Roxy Music), creating a recipe for potential commercial success.

Despite hailing from Britain, Asia would prove most popular in the U.S., and that popularity was kick started when the power-rock song ‘Heat Of The Moment’ debuted on the U.S. Hot 100 chart during April ‘82. The song scorched up the American charts and was played on relentless rotation by adult oriented rock radio networks and MTV. ‘Heat Of The Moment’ proved hot enough to hit #4 Stateside, but only managed a warm #26 in Australia and a tepid #46 on the U.K. charts. The song was lifted from Asia’s eponymous debut album (released on Geffen) which became one of the monster rock albums of the 1980s. ‘Asia’ reached the summit of the U.S. album charts and held off the competition for a staggering two months during 1982 (OZ#13/UK#11). It went on to rack up sales in excess of seven million, and also yielded the US#17 hit ‘Only Time Will Tell’ (UK#54) later in 1982. Before the release of Asia’s debut album, naysayer critics had doubted that a bunch of prog-rock dinosaurs would have any commercial appeal beyond being a curiosity to music palaeontologists, but the dedicated rock fan fraternity seemed anxious for something to wash away what they regarded as the bad taste of disco, punk and new wave, and it seemed Asia was their dish of choice. Following the runaway success of the album, many of those same critics accused Asia of selling out their collective rock heritage for mainstream commercial gain - there’s no pleasing some people.

Asia released their second album ‘Alpha’ (US#6/UK#5/OZ#46) in mid ‘83, which confirmed that their first album success was no fluke. Though it lacked a stadium rock anthem like ‘Heat Of The Moment’, the album did yield the U.S. #10 power ballad ‘Don’t Cry’ (UK#33) and the similarly styled ‘The Smile Has Left Your Eyes’ (US#34). During the recording sessions the first cracks began appearing in the Asia machine, and soon after the release of the album vocalist/bassist John Wetton departed, replaced by Greg Lake (also ex-Emerson, Lake & Palmer - he was obviously the Lake part) from October ‘83. Asia were at the peak of their commercial drawing power during this period, and regularly packed stadiums and arenas to the rafters. That immense commercial appeal was best defined by the band’s performance at the Budokan Theatre in Tokyo, Japan on 6th December 1983, which was broadcast live via satellite to an estimated television audience of over 20 million. But Asia’s dominance of the world arena rock markets would soon experience a steady decline, perhaps in part due to the emergence of a swag of new market players like Bon Jovi.

In early ‘84 Steve Howe decided to get out while the going was good (going on to form GTR - see future post - with ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett), and he was joined in an exodus from Asia by Greg Lake, who was really just passing through. Krokus axe-man Armand ‘Mandy’ Meyer joined the line-up, along with the returning John Wetton, for Asia’s next album ‘Astra’ (US#67/UK#68/OZ#99), released in late 1985. The lead out single ‘Go’ hinted that Asia’s golden age may be over when it only reached #46 in the U.S. in early ‘86. The relative disappointment of the album ‘Astra’ discouraged any plans to tour, and led to a collective decision to disband Asia for now. The members of the group all had other projects in the works to turn their attention to.

In late 1989 the decision was made to return to Asia by former members Carl Palmer, Geoff Downes, and John Wetton, with new guitarist Pat Thrall (ex-Automatic Man/Pat Travers Band) now on board, along with a bunch of guest players. They released the album ‘Then & Now’, a mix of reworked favourites and new material, but the new single ‘Days Like These’ could only manage #64 on the U.S. Hot 100. Asia did hit the road again, though the arena venues weren’t quite of the scale of the early 80s, and for the European Summer tour they were in support of the headline act The Beach Boys. The live album ‘Asia: Live In Moscow’, recorded during 1991, reflected Asia’s appeal all over the world. During that period a sensus of Asia revealed the line-up to be Geoff Downes, Carl Palmer, rejoined by Steve Howe with the support of bassist/vocalist John Payne and Al Pitrelli. Drummer Carl Palmer then left to resume duties with the reformed ELP (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), leaving Downes as really the only original member still committed fulltime to Asia. The album ‘Aqua’ was more or less a collaboration between Downes and Payne. One final album was released during the 90s under the Asia banner in 1994, but ‘Aria’ failed to raise even a mention, let alone making the charts, seemingly spelling the end once and for all of one of the most enduring supergroups in popular music history. But Asia rose from the ashes with a 25th anniversary tour in 2006/2007 (resulting in the album ‘Fantasia: Live In Tokyo’) and an album of new material in 2008 titled ‘Phoenix’, featuring all four original members of the band - Geoff Downes, John Wetton, Steve Howe and Carl Palmer.


John Sposato said...

I've seen Asia twice, and Steve Howe twice more with Yes.
I have a Buggles site. Just link from my blog.
I'm also a McCartney fan. Seen him twice as well.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Hi John,
thanks for your comment. I've got a link to your New Melody Maker site in my 'cool links' list. I've enjoyed reading it. I published a post on Jim Diamond/PhD some months ago, and am planning a Naked Eyes/Climie Fisher post soonish (and thinking about doing a Buggles post too). I share your interest in the Beatles, and was fortunate enough to see McCartney several times on his last tour here in Australia - which was sadly way back in '93 - it was his 'New World' tour following his 'Off The Ground' album - I'm guessing you've seen him more recently than that. I'm hoping he'll add Australia to his tour itinerary one final time before he hangs up the Hoffner. Nice to know other people out there with an appreciation of great music. Keep up the great work on your site.

A. FlockOfSeagulls