Asia began in early 1981 with the apparent demise of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, two of the flagship bands of British progressive rock. After the break-up of King Crimson in 1974, various plans for a supergroup involving bassist John Wetton had been mooted, including the abortive British Bulldog project with Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman in 1976. In 1977 Bruford and Wetton were reunited in U.K., augmented by guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson. Their self-titled debut was released in 1978. But by January 1980, U.K. had folded after one lineup change and three recordings. A new project was then suggested involving Wetton, Wakeman, drummer Carl Palmer and (then little known) guitarist/singer Trevor Rabin, but Wakeman also left this project shortly before they were due to sign to Geffen and before they had played together.
In late December 1980, Wetton and former Yes guitarist Steve Howe were brought together by A&R man John Kalodner and Geffen Records to start writing material for a new album. They were eventually joined in early 1981 by drummer Carl Palmer, and finally by Howe's fellow member of Yes, keyboardist Geoff Downes. Two other players auditioned and considered during the band's formation were former The Move and ELO founder Roy Wood and the aforementioned guitarist/singer Rabin, who would go on to be part of a reformed Yes in 1983. Rabin, in a filmed 1984 interview included in the DVD 9012Live, said that his involvement with Asia never went anywhere because "there was no chemistry" among the participants.
The band's first recordings, under the auspices of Geffen record label head David Geffen and Kalodner, were extremely popular with record buyers, yet considered disappointing by music critics and fans of traditional progressive rock, who found the music closer to radio-friendly album-oriented rock (AOR). However, Asia clicked with fans of popular arena acts such as Journey, Boston and Styx; Kalodner had once introduced Wetton to Journey's short-lived frontman Robert Fleischman, with a view to Fleischman becoming Asia's lead-singer. As they worked on material together, Fleischman was impressed by Wetton's singing and felt the voice best suited to the new material was Wetton's own. He left Asia amicably.
Rolling Stone gave Asia an indifferent review, while acknowledging the band's musicianship was a cut above the usual AOR expectations.
Asia's eponymous debut album Asia, released in March 1982, gained considerable commercial success, spending nine weeks at number one in the United States album chart and selling over four million copies in the States alone. The album sold over 10 million worldwide and has never been out of print. The singles "Only Time Will Tell" and "Heat of the Moment" became Top 40 hits, both boosted by popular MTV music videos. Both tracks went on to become stadium favourites at United States sporting events. "Sole Survivor" also received heavy air play on rock stations across the United States, as did "Wildest Dreams" (another MTV video) and "Here Comes The Feeling". The band's best performing single, and perhaps their most recognised and popular hit song, "Heat of the Moment", spent six weeks at #1 on Billboard's Album Rock Tracks chart and climbed to #4 on the Hot 100.
In the United States the band sold out every date on their debut tour, which began at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York on 22 April 1982, continued in theatres but quickly expanded into massive arenas because of high ticket demand. Asia would go on to receive a Grammy Award nomination as Best New Artist of 1982. MTV also played Asia videos on heavy rotation—as many as five times a day. Both Billboard and Cash Box named Asia's debut the #1 album of the year. Asia's logo and cover art were created by illustrator Roger Dean of Yes and Uriah Heep fame.
However, neither the second album, Alpha (released in July 1983), nor any following Asia album could repeat the chart success of the first release. "Don't Cry" was a #1 Album Rock Track and Top 10 Pop hit in the summer of 1983, and the video received considerable attention on MTV, while "The Smile Has Left Your Eyes" was another Top 40 hit for the band. The video for "Smile" also scored heavy MTV play. However, Rolling Stone panned Alpha as an over-produced commercial album, while others lamented that Howe and Palmer were effectively reduced to session musicians. Alpha received indifferent reviews from various critics, while still attaining platinum status and reaching #6 on the Billboard album chart.
In October 1983, Wetton was forced out of the group on the heels of the comparatively disappointing sales of Alpha. The band stated that Wetton quit, Wetton countered that he was fired by phone and there is no universally agreed upon version of what happened. Wetton later revealed one factor may have been his alcohol dependency. In any event, the next leg of their 1983 United States tour (which had begun in the summer but shut down suddenly on 10 September after a performance at Pine Knob in Detroit), scheduled for the autumn, was abruptly cancelled, reportedly because of low ticket sales.
Ex-King Crimson and ELP front man Greg Lake replaced Wetton for the highly publicised "Asia in Asia" concert at the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo, Japan on 6 December 1983, which was the first concert broadcast over satellite to MTV in the United States and later made into a home video. Some of the songs had to be played in a lower key to suit Lake's voice and he read most of the lyrics from a teleprompter; Lake has commented in interviews that he was asked to cover Wetton's parts at very short notice. The Japanese dates were successful financially but not musically.
Lake left in early 1984 and Asia reunited with Wetton that same year to start work on their next album. But Howe soon left to be replaced by Krokus guitarist Mandy Meyer. Howe then enjoyed brief success with GTR, another supergroup, formed with Steve Hackett of Genesis and produced by Downes.
The third Asia album was tentatively titled Arcadia, but during production it was discovered that that name was being used by a forthcoming spin-off project from Duran Duran. The retitled Astra, released in November 1985, was not as commercially successful as the first two albums. The record label cancelled the projected tour because of lack of interest. Howe's replacement, Mandy Meyer of Krokus, provided more of a hard-rock approach. The band charted another single with "Go", featuring Meyer's guitar work as a primary element. The music video was another hit with MTV but in 1986 this Asia lineup folded, bringing the group to an end for the time being. Singer/bassist/songwriter Wetton is quoted as saying "[Astra] did really well in Sweden ... but Swedish sales aren't that large."
Wetton resurfaced in January 1987 with an album recorded with guitarist Phil Manzanera, Wetton-Manzanera, based on material that had been originally intended for Asia. Also in 1987, Wetton played with Phenomena on their Dream Runner album and landed a number one hit in South America with the Phenomena single "Did It All for Love", also appearing in the related music video. Asia were also credited with contributing the Giorgio Moroder produced track "Gypsy Soul" to the Sylvester Stallone film soundtrack to Over the Top, although Wetton was the only band member involved.
Wetton and Downes' attempt to restart the group in 1987 with guitarist Scott Gorham (formerly of Thin Lizzy) and drummer Michael Sturgis (ex-a-ha) fizzled when they were unable to land a worldwide recording deal.
Wetton and Palmer were more successful in reuniting the band for a few tours of Europe in the summer and autumn of 1989. Downes (who was working on a project with Greg Lake) was not available, so keyboards were played by John Young. Guitars on this tour were handled by Alan Darby (who was replaced shortly after by German guitarist Holger Larisch) and Zoe Nicholas and Susie Webb were brought aboard to provide back-up vocals. Unlike Wetton's later anger at Asia continuing without him in the 1990s, this lineup was viewed favourably by other Asia band members.
Asia returned to the studio in 1990 with Downes, Toto guitarist Steve Lukather and other studio musicians and released Then & Now (August 1990), a best-of with four new tracks. "Days Like These" from the disc received substantial airplay during the summer of 1990 on AOR radio stations and re-sparked some interest in the band. Pat Thrall joined Downes, Palmer and Wetton on tour and they performed classic material, including King Crimson and U.K. songs.
The band toured the Soviet Union in November 1990 to play in front of 20,000 fans on two sold out nights. "Days Like These" charted in the United States at No.64 in 1990 and climbed all the way to No.2 on the United States Album Rock Tracks chart. A video was planned but scrapped because various problems hampered the single's chance at the Top 40. Asia received the RIAA Gold album award for Then and Now many years later, but the initial response was modest as the album failed to dent the Top 100. A DVD and CD are available of the Asia concerts in the USSR (featuring a bonus studio track, "Kari-Anne" recorded by the 1987 Wetton-Downes-Gorham-Sturgis lineup and with Francis Dunnery contributing a guitar solo). Wetton left the group in April 1991 after a South American tour, discouraged by Asia's lack of success in the United States.
After Wetton's departure, vocalist/bassist John Payne joined the band and, together with Downes, enlisted new musicians and led Asia through to 2006. The first album with this lineup was Aqua, released in June 1992. In addition to Downes and Payne, the album featured Howe, Palmer, and guitarist Al Pitrelli (of Danger Danger, Megadeth and Alice Cooper). Howe returned during the sessions having just left Yes again, but Palmer would leave soon, committing to an ELP reunion, and was able to play on just three songs. Drummers Simon Phillips and Nigel Glockler then completed the sessions. Downes' environmentalist single "Who Will Stop the Rain?" (originally written for Max Bacon and the aborted Rain project, later appearing on Bacon's album From the Banks of the River Irwell) attracted some radio attention. The Aqua club tour featured Howe (whose presence was heavily promoted), who took the stage after the fifth song. The tour was successful enough to warrant the band's continuation. The 1992–93 tour featured Downes, Howe, Payne, guitarist Vinny Burns and drummer Trevor Thornton. Before a European festival tour in late 1993, Howe and Burns left and were replaced by guitarist Keith More.
The group released Aria in May 1994, which featured lead guitarist Al Pitrelli once again, who would leave Asia during the short Aria tour. The Aria album did not fare well commercially and the ensuing tour was limited to four concerts. Ex-Simply Red guitarist Aziz Ibrahim took over during the tour. Aria also introduced new drummer Michael Sturgis, who had been involved during the band's aborted 1987 reunion and had appeared on some of the sessions for Aqua. Aria was not released in the United States until May 1995.
Over New Year's Eve 1995/1996, a broken pipe inundated the control room in Downes' and Payne's recording studio, Electric Palace, in London. Amid the lost equipment, a vault containing unreleased material was found intact. The band decided to release the material in two discs, Archiva Vol. 1 and Archiva Vol. 2. The Archiva sets were collections of unreleased tracks recorded during the first three Downes/Payne albums.
Next, Arena, released in February 1996, featured Downes, Payne, Sturgis, Ibrahim and guest guitarist Elliott Randall (ex-Steely Dan, and Randy Crawford). The album was released on Resurgence Records but there was no tour because of lack of interest. The group's lone promotional performance in conjunction with the album occurred on 19 April 1996, when Downes and Payne appeared with guitarist Elliott Randall on the Virgin FM radio programme Alive in London to play the song "Never".
An all acoustic album, Live Acoustic, was recorded by the group at Stadthalle, Bruchsal, Germany on 21 September 1997 (and released in December 1999) that featured a lineup of Downes, Payne, Ibrahim, and drummer Bob Richards.
In 1999 there was talk of a reunion of the original lineup minus Howe. The original proposition included Dave Kilminster on guitar, who had previously toured and recorded with Wetton. While Howe was interested in participating, he was unable to because of his busy schedule with Yes. This reunion did not take place and John Payne continued to carry on Asia with Downes uninterrupted. Wetton and Palmer did, however, get together to form Qango, which included Kilminster and John Young, although the band was short-lived. Kilminster went on to work with Keith Emerson, The Nice and Roger Waters. In 2000, Geffen/Universal released a best-of entitled The Very Best of Asia: Heat of the Moment (1982–1990), which also included three rare B-sides from the early days. In May 2000 the band put out an all instrumentals album called Rare.
2001's Aura featured three different session guitarists, including Ian Crichton (of Canadian progressive rock band Saga) who'd briefly joined Asia in 1998–1999. Aura took a more progressive rock form, but still did not recapture the commercial success of the first album. Former members Howe, Thrall, Sturgis and Elliott Randall also made guest appearances. The single "Ready to Go Home" was barely distributed. Asia then signed with Recognition Records. 2001 did see the band with a stable lineup, achieved during the Aura sessions featuring Downes, Payne, guitarist Guthrie Govan and ex-Manfred Mann's Earth Band/The Firm/Uriah Heep/Gary Numan/AC/DC drummer Chris Slade (who had first joined Asia in 1999, briefly). Asia would tour for the first time since 1994, including the first United States dates since 1993. A live album and DVD, both titled America: Live in the USA, were released in 2003, recorded at the Classic Rock Festival in Trenton, New Jersey in October 2002, which they co-headlined with Uriah Heep.
In the summer of 2003, Downes and Payne undertook the "Asia Across America Tour", which received some media attention. Performing "unplugged", the duo would reportedly play anywhere in the United States that fans requested, provided there was a venue and the fans put up $3,000 to cover costs.
Marking a departure from convention, for the first time a studio release was not titled as a single word starting and ending with the letter A (excepting the partial compilation / partial new album Then & Now). Released on Asia's newly signed label SPV/Inside Out Records, 2004's Silent Nation (name influenced by the Howard Stern vs. FCC incident) picked up some unexpected exposure on the Internet.
In 2004 an acoustic Asia toured once again featuring only Downes and Payne. In 2005 the full band toured in Europe and the Americas playing settings ranging from small clubs to medium-sized theatres. In the United States attendance was poor at best.
In August 2005 Slade left Asia to be replaced by drummer Jay Schellen. The new band started work on an album, tentatively entitled Architect of Time, which was originally planned for release in 2006, though later developments would cause this project to be shelved.
Meanwhile, Wetton and Downes had released some archival Asia material under the name Wetton/Downes in September 2002 and they then reunited to record a full-length album (Icon, released in August 2005) and an accompanying EP and DVD. Two additional Icon projects have since followed: Icon II: Rubicon (November 2006) and Icon 3 (March 2009).
In early 2006, the partnership between Downes and Payne was dissolved when Downes left for a reunion of the original band lineup under the Asia name, a breakup that Payne described as "painful". The existing lineup (minus Downes) continued for a short while before morphing into GPS.
When Downes left in 2006, Payne owned a significant portion of the rights to the band name "Asia", until a legal agreement was set by both bands' management. The original members exclusively continued to perform and record as Asia. On 9 May 2006, John Payne, Geoff Downes, John Wetton, Carl Palmer and Steve Howe contractually agreed that John Payne could continue his 15-year period with Asia as Asia Featuring John Payne. Asia featuring John Payne debuted in 2007 with Payne on vocals/bass, Guthrie Govan on guitar, Erik Norlander on keyboards and Jay Schellen on drums.
The official websites of each band reflect a split between the shared history of Payne's tenure with the band, as the reunited Asia acknowledge only pre- and post-Payne albums, whereas Asia Featuring John Payne claim Payne-era (1991–2006) albums Aqua (1992) through Silent Nation (2004) as part of their own discography. Asia Featuring John Payne perform songs from the entire history of Asia.
Downes and the other three original members (Wetton, Palmer and Howe) convened a group meeting in England in early 2006 in anticipation of formally reforming for work that year. And after a slew of rumours, they announced that this original lineup of Asia were planning a CD, DVD and world tour to celebrate the band's 25th anniversary. The band appeared in October 2006 on United States cable channel VH-1 Classic and began a world tour largely focused on the United States The band secured ownership of the Asia name and toured under the description of the Four Original Members of Asia. The set list featured most of the first album as well as a couple of songs from the second, along with one selection each from Yes, ELP, King Crimson and the Buggles to acknowledge the history of each member of the band. In a 2006 interview, guitarist Steve Howe states, "This is the real Asia. There have been other incarnations of the band, but this is the one that the public truly embraced".
The tour began on 29 August 2006 in Rochester, New York. "The Definitive Collection" was released by Geffen/Universal to tie into the tour in September and peaked at No.183 on the United States album charts--—the first time Asia had made the charts since 1990. A limited edition release available only at Best Buy stores also included a DVD of all the band's music videos.
The reunion tour continued into 2007 with venue size based on the success of the 2006 shows, where the band was mainly playing in clubs and theatres. Many of these sold out, including all seven dates in Japan. Also in 2007, the band released Fantasia: Live In Tokyo on CD and DVD through Eagle Records, commemorating the 25th Anniversary and documenting the success of the 2006–2007 tour.
In mid-2007, all four original members (Wetton, Downes, Howe and Palmer) went into the studio to record a new album, marking the first recorded material from all four original members since 1983's Alpha. The band continued to tour until major heart surgery for Wetton in the second half of the year saw remaining tour dates rescheduled for 2008. The new studio album, entitled Phoenix, was released on Frontiers Records on 14 April 2008 (via EMI/Capitol on 15 April in North America), along with a world tour to promote. The 12-track album includes "An Extraordinary Life", based on Wetton's experience of ill health; rockers such as "Never Again" and "Alibis"; and power ballads such as "Heroine" and "I Will Remember You". The world tour also featured a couple of the new songs. The album cover featured Roger Dean's illustration and design. The Phoenix album did well in both the American and European/Japanese markets. It debuted at No.73 on the American Billboard 200; the band had not charted with a studio album since 1985.
As a special finale to the US Phoenix tour, the band performed, for the first time ever, the entire first Asia album from beginning to end at their San Francisco concert at The Regency Center on 5 May. The album comprised the entire 2nd set of the evening's concert.
In summer 2009, Asia toured the United States with Yes. Asia opened with a 55-minute show, while Yes closed with a 1-hour and 50 minute set. Asia's set included only "An Extraordinary Life" from Phoenix, the rest of the songs coming from the first two albums plus one cover each from The Buggles ("Video Killed the Radio Star" with Wetton on lead vocals and Downes on vocoder), King Crimson ("The Court of the Crimson King", which was recorded by the original incarnation of that band with Greg Lake on lead vocals) and Emerson, Lake & Palmer ("Fanfare for the Common Man"). Yes songs were omitted from this tour's setlist, though Asia also covered "Roundabout" on earlier legs of the "Four Original Members" tour. Contrary to some early expectations, Downes did not perform with Yes, although their set list included two songs from the 1980 album Drama, which featured Downes on keys. A series of shows late in the tour featured a special appearance by Ian McDonald (flute and vocals on "The Court Of The Crimson King", which he co-wrote, and backing vocals on "Heat Of The Moment").
In late 2009, the band began working on their follow-up CD to Phoenix. According to Wetton's website in late November 2009: "Good news is that the new album is starting to leap, rather than creep (or sleep) in terms of progress. This week I have two completed lead vocals, with complete harmony/chorus voxes on three. It's just me, Geoff [Downes], Steve R[ispin], and Mike Paxman in the studio--- Carl [Palmer] is pretty much all done, Steve H[owe] is half done, and returns to the fold after Yes tour. It sounds absolutely wonderful". The follow-up, titled Omega, was released in the UK on 26 April 2010.
The band finished a new studio album timed to coincide with the band's thirtieth anniversary, titled XXX, and released in the U.K. on 2 July 2012 and worldwide around the same time. In September 2012 they played 4 shows in Japan and a North American tour started on 11 October 2012. The UK tour, however, had to be cancelled after a number of shows due to Palmer contracting a serious case of E. coli.
On 10 January 2013, Steve Howe announced his retirement from the band to focus on other projects, including Yes, bringing an end to the reunion of the original lineup. Asia in turn announced they would be continuing with new guitarist Sam Coulson, with a new album in the works entitled Gravitas. The new lineup performed live in 2013.
On the website ultimateclassicrock.com, Howe explained his decision to leave Asia:
Something had to give. Because I'd just done five years with both bands and then Geoff had joined [Yes] when we did Fly From Here, which is maybe a lot shorter, only a quarter of that time for him. He only experienced the tip of the iceberg of being on call for two bands. But there were times in the first three years — it actually got easier when Geoff joined. It was easier because we were both in the band and we could both wrestle with the schedules — but before that, at times, Yes or Asia would extend a tour by a day and then Yes or Asia would then expand the start of the tour, so the gap would start to close.
And I would start freaking out saying "yeah, but hang on ... if you add that date here and they've just added this date here, I'm now squeezed like a concertina." So there was going to be a time at some point when this was unworkable and unfortunately it was the end of last year that made me realize that this being on call was really too much. I couldn't keep either really happy. I was either making Yes miserable or Asia miserable, because of the other one being in existence.XXX
The band finished the recording sessions for Gravitas in December 2013 and in January 2014 they started shooting the music video for "Valkyrie", which was released as a single. The album's cover artwork was designed by Asia longtime collaborator Roger Dean. On 30 January 2014, Wetton revealed the album's track listing through Asia's official website and talked about each song from the album. The album was released on 24 March 2014 and reached Number 1 in the Progressive Rock Chart for emusic on 27 March.
Following Gravitas and the subsequent tour, the band went on an almost three-year hiatus due to Wetton having cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. On 5 December 2016, Asia announced a US tour opening for American rock band Journey, beginning with 12 dates from 15 March 2017 at the Yakima Valley Sundome in Yakima, Washington, and four days later, announced their live album Symfonia: Live in Bulgaria 2013, upon which they performed with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra.
On 11 January 2017, Wetton released a statement that, due to receiving another round of chemotherapy, he would be unable to perform on the 12 dates announced for the Journey tour, and that he would be substituted by Billy Sherwood, one of Downes' Yes bandmates, and John's own co-author and producer of the album Raised in Captivity. Wetton died on 31 January 2017 at the age of 67.
Through the years, Geoff Downes has been the most consistent member of the band, which experienced a revolving roster of noted musicians, particularly in the 1990s; although the most constant member in the band's history, Downes himself was out of the band from its 1989 reunion to 1990. The original, 1981 line-up initially lasted until 1983 when John Wetton left. It was reunited on two occasions: first, one year later when Wetton rejoined, but Steve Howe left before the band could work together again, and a second time in 2006, when Downes, then the last original member left, replaced the rest of the band by his original bandmates. This last original reunion lasted until 2013, when Howe left once again. Wetton died from cancer in 2017, making another reunion of the original lineup impossible.
Several musicians have joined and left after a short time without recording any studio material with the group. The most notable collaboration of this kind was the participation of Greg Lake in the "Asia in Asia" concert on bass guitar and lead vocals. Yet more musicians have played as session musicians or have guested with the band without formally joining. Some of these artists include: Robert Fleischman, Vinnie Colaiuta, Francis Dunnery, Ant Glynne, Scott Gorham, Tomoyasu Hotei, Luís Jardim, Ron Komie, Tony Levin, Steve Lukather, Thomas Lang, Kim Nielsen-Parsons, Nigel Glockler, Simon Phillips, and Alex Thomas.
This is an approximate timeline of the members of Asia.Asia (1982)
Then & Now (1990, half studio album, half greatest hits album)
Silent Nation (2004)
In 2005, DJ Manian's dance remix of "Heat of the Moment" was released to nightclubs.
In the episode "Kenny Dies" of the animated TV series South Park, Eric Cartman and the United States Congress sing "Heat of the Moment" a cappella.
A cover of the song "Heat of the Moment" is playable in the PlayStation 2 game Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s.
In the film The 40-Year-Old Virgin, main character Andy Stitzer is mocked for having a framed Asia poster in his apartment. Also, "Heat of the Moment" is played during the scene in which Andy chases Trish's car after she leaves his home.
The song "Lay Down Your Arms" was used by the animated film Freddie the Frog (1992) starring Ben Kingsley, Jenny Agutter and Brian Blessed.
In the film Over the Top with Sylvester Stallone, a song called "Gypsy Soul" is credited to Asia, although John Wetton was the only member involved as the song was written and recorded by Giorgio Moroder.
In the episode 'Mystery Spot' of the CW series Supernatural, every Tuesday morning, Sam is awakened by "Heat of the Moment" coming from the radio, followed by a "Rise and shine, Sammy!" from Dean.