First, it takes a lot of guts to name a band after a continent that has nothing to do with any members of the band. No cultural significance whatsoever. Which may be one reason why critics can’t stand the ‘super group’ Asia.
Asia is the very embodiment of corporate rock that the ‘alternative’ rock movement sprung up to counteract. That’s not to say that there would be no Nirvana or Pearl Jam were it not for Jon Wetton, Chris Howe, Carl Palmer, and Geoffrey Downes’ musical relationship. It’s just that the DIY elements of punk that spawned a group like, say, The Ramones relies on attitude more than musical aptitude as qualifications for the stage.
Asia was assembled by a record company, in a time when the idea was to find winning combinations of players who could write, record, and tour together reasonably well. Asia had just enough chemistry for one hugely commercially successfully venture, their self-titled first LP. But it didn’t play well with music critics because, for one reason, it was obviously so contrived. It was patently catchy competence lacking much of a heart.
Meanwhile, punk and new wave had already made musicianship irrelevant. The heart was where it was at. When Ian Curtis bellowed his dark words for small Manchester crowds, the connection was spiritual. Classically trained and avant garde musicians who played rock and roll under the banner ‘progressive (prog) rock’ were left trying to fit into a world that was rapidly embracing basic chord structures, oddball lyrics, drum machines, synthesizers, sampling, and anything but devotion to an instrument that requires university training to master. Fans wanted rock and roll rather than ponderous noodling and pedantic philosophy.
Yet Asia was, for a moment, somewhat of an antidote for fans of the grandiose themes and complicated musical arrangements of the progressive rock movement. Their innovation from the tried and true of that genre was to shorten the length of an individual work to the span of a pop song. Their quick arrangements were fit for pop radio, plus they had rock credibility through their pedigree with serious rock acts like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and, of course, progressive rock giants, Yes. This lent Asia the AOR station airplay that they needed for the exposure that would later rapidly wither.
Conceptually, it should have worked. Stylistically, it was somewhat of a success. A cursory listen was not unpleasant. But where it fell apart was in the soul of the music. The music had no distinct personality. Instead, Asia, at its heart, had no message to deliver. A pull-back of the curtains revealed lyrical shoddiness. Witness a snippet of their biggest hit, ‘Heat of the Moment’
It was the heat of the moment
Telling me what your heart meant
Heat of the moment shone in your eyes
The overused metaphor ‘heat of the moment’, used to describe a moment of passion doesn’t match the carefully arranged pop sheen and musicianship evident in the recording.
Asia was relatively faceless when their first album was released and offered the antithesis to the emerging street, urban, hip hop music spun by DJ’s in clubs. It was soothing rock for white suburbia. Yet, while rap music had hip hop’s energy, passion, and strong personality, Asia’s music was just more or less pompous prog rock musicianship set in pop music posing. The performances were tight and angular; the lyrics delivered in detached, and sometimes awkward, and nearly always passionless phrases. Very English. Not much soul. Its closest American equivalent was Barry Manilow and miles away from Barry White. While classic rock groups such as the venerable Rolling Stones achieved success through selling their souls to the devil to buy the black man’s, Asia held tight to their white roots and produced music that was more symphonic than stereophonic.
Asia’s revolving line up as the years passed beyond the group’s initial success only proved that any competent musician could perform the music. The problem is this: attitude is the whole point of rock and roll. From Jimi Hendrix to Gene Simmons, the point is personality. KISS is one of the worst music groups in history from a technical standard, yet no one can deny that they have a mass appeal that belies any critical blast. KISS is beyond criticism. Anyone can dress in a God of Thunder costume, but there is only one Gene Simmons.
There are few successful replacements in rock and roll (AC/DC’s Bon Scott a notable exception). The fact that Asia attempted the feat endlessly through the 90’s reduced the band to a traveling revue show rather than a true rock act. Rush, for example, without any one of the members, would no longer be Rush. This is a crucial lesson REM has slowly learned. They once told the press that if any one of the members left, they would disband. There is no shame in that. It is far better to break up and unite with others to form something new than to carry on with only a name that is a shadow of what it was.
Asia has recently reformed with its four original members. I had a chance to see them play the small Innsbrook pavilion to a few hundred people who braved the heat last summer. Had the group stayed together over the years and showed a true affection for one another as people, ala’ U2, I most likely would have had to pay an outlandish cost to see them, since they’d be playing huge arenas instead of quiet little outdoor venues. So, from that standpoint I’m glad they are a footnote in pop history, an enjoyable flashback on a Wednesday night.