English Rock Invades the U.s.a. Again, by Way of Asia
When it comes to all-star groups in rock, the whole is most often less than the sum of its parts. From Blind Faith, the late-'60s group that included Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker of Cream, Steve Winwood of Traffic and Rick Grech of Family, to Rockpile, the British quartet that foundered last year despite the presence of such performers as Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, big-name conglomerates have been about as successful in pop music as the waltz and polka.
But that was before Asia was discovered. The group's album, Asia, was approaching a million copies sold after barely three months and can be found geographically at the top of the charts. Many dates on the first leg of Asia's current American tour (scheduled through July) were sold out before a note of its music had been heard. "It's like Star Wars," said a jubilant David Geffen, whose label released Asia. "Somehow people just knew immediately that this was very, very good."
Asia's success is no accident but the result of calculating planning by a quartet of rock veterans—drummer Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & You-know-who; guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes, both of Yes; and bass player John Wet-ton of King Crimson.
The collaboration began more than a year ago when Wetton and Howe got the idea and invited Downes, then Palmer to join the unit. They added record producer Mike Stone, who'd crafted LPs for potentate bands such as Journey and Foreigner. Once in the studio, Asia aimed for a style markedly more accessible than the sprawling, often almost symphonic progressive rock of Yes or ELP.
Even their name was selected with at least one eye on the cash register. "Having a name that starts with 'A' helps when you appear in catalogs or in the racks," explains Palmer. "Besides, Asia sounds big—it's a big place." The band commissioned expensive designs for five separate album jackets before settling on a painting by illustrator Roger Dean of an Oriental dragon, a symbol of wealth. Finally Warner Bros. Records, which distributes Geffen Records, gave Asia an extra promotional boost.
The first single released, Heat of the Moment, leaped into the U.S. Top 20, though rock critics complained about the group's scheming. Carped Rolling Stone reviewer David Fricke: "The disturbing thing about Asia is the sound of talented players rolling over and playing dead for the sake of airplay."
The Asians confess some concern. "It is a thin line between trying to structure a group you think will be successful," said Howe, "and just relying on clichés." Says Wetton, unapologetically: "What used to take us eight minutes to put across, we can now do in four." But he adds, "We are meeting a certain degree of cynicism."
They've set some limits. While the four musicians do nothing to discourage the loyalty of fans of previous groups, they haven't mentioned their alma maters in advertising. They shun former bands' material in concert, too. Explains Palmer: "Why harp on the past? I don't think it's nice to take one situation and push it into another."
They also know, partly from experience, that others have tried forming "supergroups" with marginal success. "There are plenty of bands made up of veteran players that are not successful," says Geffen, "because the music isn't good." Palmer bristles at the supergroup tag, saying, "You can't just put X number of talented musicians together and expect a great band. It just doesn't work that way."
While they are in agreement musically, Asia's members have distinct life-styles. Palmer, 32, was born in Birmingham, England and, with the help of his musician father, was gigging in local pubs at 12. "By the time I was 14," he says, "I was halfway there." From 1971 to 1978 he was the drummer/xylophonist/vibraphonist/timpanist for ELP. For the past seven years he has lived on Tenerife (one of Spain's Canary Islands) with his Scottish girlfriend of 14 years, Maureen Fraser. Their house is a custom-built four-bed-roomer, complete with a gym (Palmer is a karate black belt), swimming pool and garage (he owns a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, a 1973 Mercedes and a Volkswagen diesel). "I don't like to live music 24 hours a day," he says.
Derby native Wetton, 33 this month, claims he "started playing bass lines on the piano for Bach when I was about 5." Three years after his best-known group, King Crimson, faded in 1974, Wetton tried another all-star formation, U.K., which foundered in 1980 and left him free to join Asia. His previous label, E.G., didn't release his last solo album in the U.S. "They said if I were 10 years younger, they would have promoted the record," he recalls. "I know when I'm not welcome."
In the Brook Green section of London, Wetton owns a Georgian town house, which he shares with his girlfriend, Jill Briggs ("We live in sin," he says). As chief lyricist for Asia, Wetton claims that many of his songs are inspired by what he happens to be watching on TV. Sole Survivor came to him during the Borg/McEnroe showdown at last year's Wimbledon final.
Howe, 35, grew up in London and was smitten with the guitar early. "I remember my parents banging on the wall asking when I was going to stop playing and I'd answer, 'As soon as I'm successful!' " He changed his mind, and has been plucking and strumming for 22 years. ("After 25 years," he says, "I'm going to have a party.") He spent 11 of those with Yes, which disbanded in 1980. Howe lives in a five-bedroom town house in London's Hampstead Heath neighborhood with his wife, Janet. Together 13 years, they have three children: Dylan (after Bob), 12, Virgil (after a cartoon character), 7, and recent arrival Georgia. The Howe family also has a 300-year-old country house on eight acres in Devonshire.
The baby of the group is Downes, 29, who grew up in Manchester as the son of a church organist father and piano teacher mother. He began playing piano at 7 and graduated to the organ four years later. After attending the Leeds College of Music, he became a session player and wrote ad jingles. "You've got to start somewhere," he says. "I wrote jingles for anyone—nappies to nitrogen." Downes' most successful group venture other than Yes was with an electronic experimental group called Buggies, which had a hit in England called Video Killed the Radio Star. Downes names no steady and lives in Wimbledon. He predicts the key to Asia's survival will be a willingness to try new things. "Experimentation—not reputation—keeps the band members interested in each other."
Just in case that doesn't work, the band has another reason for maintaining togetherness. The musicians not only have a long-term contract with Geffen, they have a three-year contract with each other. "No one can leave," says Wetton. "That's it."