John Wetton, Geoff Downes say success nearly killed Asia: ‘The pressure got to some of us’

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Asia entered the pop-music world like a shooting star, filled with familiar names and surrounded by an aura of inevitability. Still, much had changed since its members rose to the fame with Yes, King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer — and a blockbuster hit album, dotted with blockbuster hit songs, only underscored that.

“In the 1980s, everything went global, and everything went mega,” Asia frontman John Wetton tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “They moved all of the hippies out of a record companies — and they replaced them with suits who had previously been managers of supermarkets. The guys who were in charge saw how much tying up an album with a film could increase record sales, to put a zero on the end. Where you once were talking about thousands, now you were talking about millions. The tying up of a song with a movie suddenly put record sales into the stratosphere. In the 1970s, everybody was happy to develop an artist and you were allowed to have a first album that did OK, and a second that did a little bit better and, by the fourth or fifth album, you were starting to make money. In the 1980s, you weren’t allowed to do that — and I don’t think anything has changed. In fact, it has gotten worse today. You’ve got one shot, one single, and that’s it.”

The problem for this new supergroup, which earned four-times platinum sales for Asia after it was released this week in 1982, wasn’t securing that initial hit record. It was extricating themselves from the music business’ soul-grinding machine once success so quickly surrounded them. Their debut single was a Top 5 hit. “Heat of the Moment” was followed by a Top 20 hit in “Only Time Will Tell.” “Soul Survivor,” like Asia’s previous two songs, went Top 10 on the mainstream rock list, as well. Coupled with a nine-week run at the top of the Billboard album charts for Asia, the band became an instant pressure cooker.

“We never had the chance to develop the way that some other bands do, because we had such a huge debut,” keyboardist Geoff Downes tells us, in a separate Something Else! Sitdown. “They wanted such huge success on the back of that first album. The pressure, in many ways, got to some of us. If had been the other way around, if we had some commercial success later on, it might have been a different story.”

Asia’s follow up album, 1983’s Alpha, was the last to feature all four original members until a late-period reunion beginning with 2008’s Phoenix. John Wetton would be ousted in ’83, after a descent into personal issues. Steve Howe was gone by 1984, returning for stints in 1991-93 and 2006–13. Drummer Carl Palmer left in 1992 to rejoin Emerson Lake and Palmer, through he too reunited with Asia in 2006. Youngster Sam Coulson has taken over for Howe, as Asia continues with Wetton, Palmer and Downes — the latter of whom remains this group’s stalwart member.

What somehow survived all of the turmoil, and all of the comings and goings, was Downes’ musical relationship with Wetton. Then, as now, it’s the engine that drives Asia.

“We’ve always been able to sit down and come up with things; that’s really never changed,” Downes tells us. “The principle that we operate on now is pretty much the same one we always did — which is, sit down at the piano, throw a few ideas into the pot, and see what happens. And John is singing better now than he has before. He’s really turned the corner, as far as his personal life. And that’s certainly helped in bringing him to the fore. He’s such a powerful vocalist on stage.”

Wetton cleaned up, returned and has now led Asia to four modern-day studio releases. None, of course, have approached the striking success of the band’s self-titled debut in 1982. But John Wetton is happier, and healthier now. His life experiences inform his creative side, rather than distract from it. And that has given him new perspective on Asia’s early breakout success.

“My stuff now tries to carry a little bit more of a positive message,” Wetton says. “I try and slip in a positive message, even at the end of a piece of bitterness. In general, my stuff tries to carry a message of ‘carpe diem,’ ‘look for the best in things,’ ‘be optimistic’ — because that’s the way I’ve had to be, particularly over the last few years, since I’ve had heart surgery. That reminds you that you’ve only got today. My life changed completely, about seven years ago, when I stopped drinking. All of it pointed me toward a more positive outlook on life. I can’t write the way I used to. I have to write like life is for me today.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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