35 Years Ago: Asia Mixes Prog and Pop on Self-Titled Debut
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Seen as a symbol of rock’s artistic maturation in the early ’70s, prog fell into a commercial slump toward the end of the decade — a reversal of fortune marked plainly by the collapse of the once-mighty Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But former members of both bands would soon rebound with a new group, Asia, that enjoyed one of the biggest debut records of the ’80s.
The pieces of the project started sliding together in the mid-’70s, after bassist/vocalist John Wetton set about looking for a new band following his exit from King Crimson. United with Yes vet Bill Bruford in the short-lived U.K., Wetton found himself among a handful of rotating parts — including ex-ELP drummer Carl Palmer, ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and future Yes guitarist/singer Trevor Rabin — who were considered at different points for various groups.
Into this mix entered A&R guru John Kalodner, who’d landed with the emerging Geffen label and set about playing matchmaker. Wetton was already on Geffen’s radar after the aborted recordings with Palmer, Rabin, and Wakeman; undaunted, Kalodner hooked him up with ex-Yes guitarist Steve Howe for some songwriting sessions that threw enough of a spark to continue the label’s interest. Palmer joined at Wetton’s behest, followed by ex-Yes/Buggles keyboardist Geoff Downes, who auditioned at Howe’s request.
The new quartet set up shop in London’s Townhouse Studios in the summer of 1981, tracking a set of songs that started with the earliest Howe/Wetton collaborations (“Here Comes the Feeling,” “Without You,” “One Step Closer”) and was ultimately rounded out by a series of songs penned by Wetton and Downes, who quickly discovered a deep songwriting chemistry.
Those Wetton/Downes numbers included the two tracks that would open the band’s self-titled debut — “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell” — and would go on to become the group’s signature hits, as well as two of the more cleanly distilled examples of what made Asia’s original lineup so uniquely successful. Willing to indulge in pure rock bombast and not shy about writing tricky chord changes, but at the same time tightly focused on the type of pop songcraft that would prove irresistible to Top 40 radio and MTV, the group’s creative nucleus built an unlikely bridge between pop, rock and prog.
“People said, “No, that’s not going to work. It’s all keyboards now. It’s all synthesizers.’ I think A Flock of Seagulls was No. 1,” Wetton laughed years later. “Actually, what we did was make a sound that blew synthesizers out of the water. Everyone said, “Oh, no, no, no. A prog-guitar band ain’t gonna work.’ But it did.”
Wetton wasn’t overselling it. Asia, released March 18, 1982, topped the Billboard chart, selling more than four million copies in the U.S. alone and sending its first two tracks into the Top 20 (“Heat of the Moment” peaked at No. 4; “Only Time Will Tell” topped out at No. 17). Shortly after their respective former bands had been left for dead, Asia proved there was still a pop market for rock music with prog overtones.
Unfortunately, Asia wasn’t immune to the sort of band squabbles that turned Yes into a revolving door and imploded ELP. Rushed back into the studio to capitalize on their debut’s massive momentum, the group returned a little over a year later with Alpha, a sophomore release whose platinum sales were seen as a disappointment. Toiling under Asia‘s shadow highlighted the creative and personal tensions between bandmates, prompting a lengthy period of exits, returns, and breakups that would conspire to keep all four members of the original lineup from recording together for a quarter of a century.
Downes, Howe, Palmer and Wetton finally reunited in early 2006, coming together for a tour that opened the second act longtime fans had hoped for. Lamenting lost time and bad behavior, Wetton shared how, in hindsight, that first album’s explosive success sent Asia spiraling off its axis before they’d really even had a chance to get started.
“The trajection of the first band was so phenomenal that it caught everyone off guard, including managers and the record company, and nobody was prepared for quite that level of success,” he admitted. “And yes, I am one of the first to stick my hand up and say, ‘Yeah, I spiraled out of control.'”
See Asia and Other Rockers in the Top 100 Albums of the ’80s