Thursday 17 March 2011

Asia In Asia

Interview with Geoff Downes 8 March 2001

During 1982 and most of 1983 Asia were about as big a rock band, in worldwide terms as you could be. Their first album ‘Asia’ went multi-platinum and spawned a number of hit singles. That the second album ‘Alpha’, released in mid-1983, would be following the same platinum trail was taken for granted. Not by the band, you understand, but by the band’s management and record company. And although by any other band’s standards, ‘Alpha’ would have been considered a massive success (remember the album reached the top 5 and the single ‘Don’t cry’ made the top 10) in comparison with the first album, ‘Alpha’ seemed at the time to be a bit of a let down.

The upshot of this was both management and record company came to the conclusion that a change was needed and that change would be John Wetton. This change duly happened following John’s last gig with Asia on September 10th at the Pine Knob venue in Detroit. In most cases this wouldn’t be a problem – get someone new in, rehearse with them, record a new album, no problems… Except Asia were booked to perform a concert at the Budokan in Japan, which would be broadcast worldwide on the satellite to about 20 million people. This was due to take place some two months after John Wetton’s departure.

Geoff Downes explains how they managed against the odds to pull it off.


Jon Kirkman: The second Asia album ‘Alpha’ was not the success Geffen had hoped for. Was this perhaps the root cause for John Wetton’s departure from the band?

Geoff Downes: Well I think that it didn’t help; the first album had been so successful. that anything less than that was considered to be a bit of a flop. But it was still Top 5 in America and the single went Top 10. But yeah, I think it started a little tremor at the record company because they were banking so much on it. And they’d invested a lot of money into it.

JK: The writing credits for the album were pretty much boxed off by yourself and John Wetton, weren’t they?

GD: Yeah, but I think that was part of the problem with the conflict between Steve and John because I don’t think John felt that Steve’s contributions on the first album were significant because obviously the singles that came off that first album were the ones that had been written between John and myself. And I think the record company didn’t really help there either because they wanted to see that writing combination pretty much across the board on the next album. So I think that was a combination factor. But it didn’t do anything to secure any good relations, particularly between John and Steve.

JK: Following the last live concert the band played with John Wetton, two months down the road, you’ve got this MTV live concert at the Budokan which was due to be seen by literally millions of people via satellite.

GD: Yeah, seen by millions and heard by millions. It was also satellite linked to all the radio stations in America as well, so it was a pretty big deal.

JK: A replacement was needed pretty quickly then. So whose idea was it that Greg Lake came aboard?

GD: I think it was Carl’s really. I think obviously it was a bit of a strange situation because the whole thing had been booked to do it because it was only 2 months to go before that situation with John erupted and the commitments had been made. I think the record company were also er… John Kalodner was fairly instrumental in suggesting Lake. Because obviously, they had similar backgrounds and in some respects similar sounding voices, certainly on the King Crimson era stuff, so I think that you know, Greg was a fairly obvious choice. But obviously it was a very difficult thing. We had a very intensive rehearsal period and a lot of the material that was much more in Wetton’s range; Lake had dropped a few semitones so we had to play all the material in different keys, which was difficult.

JK: Was the set list altered at all to accommodate Greg’s style, or did he just try and replicate what John Wetton had done before?

GD: No, I think we obviously felt that we had to play the main tunes like ‘Wildest Dreams’, ‘Heat of the Moment’, ‘Only Time Will Tell’ and ‘Sole Survivor’, that was pretty much etched in stone, that we’d have to do that stuff from the first album. It was a bit more flexible with the stuff we pulled in from ‘Alpha’ because… I think we did ‘Eye To Eye’ which was a song that was fairly obscure on the original album; I don’t think we’d actually done it live. But I think because of the register of it, it suited Greg’s voice more. So that was one that we sort of plucked up but aside from that, we only had to play for an hour so it meant that we could drop a fair amount of stuff.

JK: Looking at the cover of the subsequently released video and watching the video it seems to all intents and purposes that it was business as usual for Asia. But in reality, how tense was it for the band?

GD: It was incredibly tense. I remember thinking that I was nervous as hell before the actual show, because you have an hour on the satellite and that's it, you know, it goes blank. If there’s any problems or equipment had gone down, or Greg had forgotten his lines or whatever it was. If it had gone wrong, it would have been a disaster, because obviously people knew about the personnel change and they were waiting to see what this outfit was gonna be like and I think in retrospect, considering the amount of work Greg had to do, he did a pretty good job and it’s not an easy thing to do is it, just step into a band that had just had a massive selling album in America and step in and play to that many people.

JK: Presumably then you were happy with the subsequent video and recording?

GD: Yeah! I think so. I think it gives a good insight into what went on there. What it probably doesn’t give an insight into is the amount of work that was obviously going on behind the scenes to make it happen. Once John had left, we had an enormous period of intense work to get not only the songs played in different keys but to get Greg conversant with the material. And bearing in mind we had this set date of whenever it was, December something or other 1983.

JK: Do you actually remember anything about the gig, or was it one of those situations where you just wanted to get your head down and get through it?

GD: Yeah, I can remember being more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life before (laughs) and I think really I just wanted by the end of it, I just wanted to get it over with. Funnily enough, we did actually have a fail safe, where we’d done a complete recording of the show as a sort of dummy run where we gave out free tickets the day before, where we wore the same clothes and everything like that. So that was running concurrently with the live satellite broadcast so if there had been any major technical problems they were capable of being able to actually switch to the pre recorded version.

JK: So there are actually two versions of ‘Asia in Asia’ in existence then?

GD: There would be, I mean, I don’t think that it would ever have been available, it might have got scrubbed or something once the original version was OK. But the one that you see and the one that you hear is definitely the original date that we did.

JK: Was Greg Lake ever thought of as being the permanent replacement for John Wetton or was it just a case of “we’ve got this gig, can you help us out of this hole that we’re in”?

GD: No. I think we thought that we’d see how it went and then take it further and I think that we tried a little bit of work afterwards. But it wasn’t’ really doing what I think Asia should have been doing and then I started working with John on some material outside of the camp, and that sort of precipitated his return I think, and by that time, Greg wasn’t really interested in it particularly. If you look at it really it wasn’t his band. It was never his band. He was more like a kind of a high paid session man for doing it in a way.

JK: How long after the gig was it decided then that Greg was going to go and John Wetton was going to return, because there was a certain amount of press speculation about it, and of course, when John did return, Steve Howe left.

GD: Yeah, well that was what eventually did happen. I think that we actually did have a period of time where we started working together as the four of us, the four original members and that went on for a while, and we did rehearsals and we actually cut a few demos, about half a dozen or so, but at the end of those John turned around and said “Look, you know, I can’t carry on working with Steve Howe in the proceedings”, so it was a case of, it was either one of them but not both at the same time. (Laughs)

JK: Some 18 years down the road, are you not curious as to what it might have been like, had the situation worked with Greg?

GD: Yeah, I did actually do some work as you know, with Greg at a later stage, and we worked together for about a year on an album of material, some of which came out on his own solo retrospective CD. And one of the songs came out on ‘Aqua’. So yeah! He’s a pretty likeable person to work with, but I think that we were being manipulated very heavily by the record company at this stage. You’ve got to realise that Asia was big business to them at this time and they weren’t really that interested in who was in the band, particularly as long as it was a “supergroup” that they could sell. I often do think that maybe it could have been something with Greg but it wasn’t just the John Wetton/Steve Howe problem, there was also the fact that Carl and Greg were not exactly “Seeing Eye to Eye” either. So it was a combination of things.

JK: How do you think that line-up stand against the original Asia or the current line-up of Asia? It was a one-off really, wasn’t it?

GD: Yeah, I think that it was enjoyable, but it was almost as if I felt we were each playing different roles. It didn’t feel to me specifically like a band, I think it was more, not going through the motions, because it sounded pretty good, and I think that we gave a good account of ourselves on the show, but I don’t know whether anyone’s heart was really in it, specifically to take it any further.

JK: The question is then did it feel like Asia?

GD: Oh yeah, it felt like Asia, to me it did. It felt pretty much like it did before. Obviously John wasn’t there, and I was the closest to John out of any of them. The thing is, because Asia was so big so quickly, we were all being carried along on the snowball. And you don’t really get chance to step out of it and look at it and think, “am I having a good time here or am I not?” Every day was just full of rehearsals, interviews, it was just solid, and you don’t ever really get time to step out of it and say “is this Asia or not Asia?” In the infamous works of Charlie Watts, when asked about playing with the Rolling Stones, he said, “Well you know, it’s a job innit?” (Laughs). It did seem a bit like that at times.

JK: So John came back, but left again in 1991 following the filming of Nottingham Live and some Russian dates you presumably thought, I’ve done this once before when John left and continued, so I guess it wasn’t too difficult to bring John Payne in and move it on again?

GD: Yeah, I think that’s a pretty wise observation, that the incoming Greg Lake set a precedent for Asia in the future, that nothing was actually etched in stone. Asia was in many ways I think bigger than the sum parts, and to me it’s always been about a sound and a type of music and in many ways I think that I would put that before anything of anyone’s individual contributions. I think that it’s a collective. I think you’re right to say that once we’d gone through a personnel change in the vocal department, the second time you do it, it’s not such a big switch for the overall sound of the group.

So here it is, a one–off really, of one of the biggest rock acts of the early 80’s. Only a fool would have dismissed a line-up like this and the potential was there for all to see, and hear on this CD. Could it have worked with Greg Lake? We will of course, never know. Of the members involved in this particular chapter of Asia’s history, Geoff Downes still writes, records and performs in the current Asia alongside vocalist/bassist John Payne, guitarist Guthrie Govan and drummer Chris Slade. John Wetton has a thriving solo career and has just released his latest solo album. Carl Palmer has formed a new band. Steve Howe is firmly back in Yes although has made guest appearances with Asia on occasion, and Greg Lake, following his departure from ELP, is working on solo projects.

(Update 2006) As of late spring 2006 the original line up of Asia re formed for a hugely successful tour of America and plan further dates in Europe and Japan towards the end of 2006 and into 2007.

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