Entry for October 06, 2006

by

ASIA MAJOR OR ASIA MINOR ?

Just A Coupla White Guys

Sittin’ Around, Makin’ Money, etc.

I do not hate Asia. I do not love Asia. I am not torn by Asia; I am torn by how anyone can make a living writing about them. I’m just puzzled by Asia. Jackie Lomax’s first album was called Is This What You Want? and titlewise, no one’ll ever beat it. Asia might’ve called their album that; they might also have called it At The Mountains of Om or Beyond The Ring Of Saturnalia too, so let’s just be grateful they didn’t call it anything. Point is, Asia is exactly what America wants these days: 100% art-rock, with fat trimmed.

Do you realize you will never hear the 18-minute-and-50-second title track of Yes’s Close To The Edge on your car radio ever again if intelligent radio consultants have anything to say about it? Maybe at 2 a.m., but they don’t bother with ratings that late at night. You will hear the essential elements of that song by bands like Styx, Kansas and maybe even Journey–but their version of “Close To The Edge” and “Roundabout” only last four or five minutes. Artistically these bands travel perpendicularly to the paths of, say, your Yesses and your Throbbing Gristles. T. Gristle: we’ll never make any money so we’ll go for “art.” Yes: now that we’ve made money, we’ll go for “art.” Styx, etc.: now that we’ve made money let’s make more. And so on.

There are those who say Asia are reclaiming their own territory; that they have refined their art-rock to four- and five-minute chunks similar to those of their imitators. Someone who works here heard the Asia album and said it sounded like the “same old shit” the radio always plays. He is right, of course, though whether it’s “shit” or not is another matter entirely. Dobie Gray: “But the original’s still the greatest.” Are the members of Asia in-with-the-in-crowd? If Groups A, B & C make tons of money sounding like Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer and maybe (wheel out the mellotron) King Crimson, and if guys from those bands make tons of monev sounding like Groups A, B, & C, are they good? Bad? Worthy? Unworthy?

STATEMENT ONE: I would rather listen to Asia than Styx, Kansas or Journey.

***

So let’s get down to it. Asia are hot stuff: four guys, John Wetton, Steve Howe, Geoff Downes and Carl Palmer. Three-and-a-half of ’em are biggies–Wetton was with King Crimson & U.K. (and lots more he’ll talk about later); Howe was with Yes and, once, Tomorrow; Downes was one of the two Buggles and, later, Yes’s last keyboard player; Palmer went from playing with Arthur Brown to Atomic Rooster to Emerson, Lake & Palmer and his own short-lived PM. These are what are known as pedigrees. If John Lydon, Joe Strummer, Paul Weller and Pete Shelley form a band in 1992, they will be that year’s Asia. Those interested in Rock History Proper will actually bother to point it out at the time; everyone normal will only give a shit if the band sells records. It’s 1982; Asia sells records.

***

JOHN WETTON’S MINI-HISTORY, UPON BEING REMINDED OF A 1971 BRITISH ALBUM BY MOGUL THRASH: WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

“I left Mogul Thrash when they broke up and I went to the United States to see what was happening on the West Coast. I decided that I wasn’t supposed to be there at all–so I went back and joined Family the next day. From Family I went to King Crimson. King Crimson broke up–I thought prematurely–and I did a stint with Roxy Music, mainly because they were friends of mine. Not for any musical reason.”

Really?

“No, not really. Because I didn’t really advance my musical career too much. Roxy was happening at the time, but with Crimson I was the vocalist and bassist and, to a certain degree, composer–whereas, with the exception of bass player, Bryan Ferry takes that role in Roxy Music. There really wasn’t very much for me to do. But it was good fun.”

And then?

“After that was a very similar thing with Uriah Heep-and after that I decided to go back with Bill (Bruford), from King Crimson. We formed U.K–and after that, we broke up because I couldn’t really see eye-to-eye with Eddie Jobson. That was really not a very good period, towards the end of that band. But in a way I’m very glad it did break up–because if it didn’t, this would never have happened.”

***

YOUTH IN ASIA?

I suppose the reason why I didn’t immediately discard the Asia album like I did similar goodies by Greg Lake or Jon & Vangelis or Rick Wakeman is because of John Wetton. He’s always been on the money as talent and, more importantly, melody go; looking at a list of bands he’s performed with, from M. Thrash through U.K., the only ones he’s ever been involved with that really weren’t cool were U. Heep and Wishbone Ash, both of whom, he matter-of-factly explains when I ask, he gigged with for financial rather than artistic reasons. And I’m not young enough to hold that against him. For the first time ever, there’s a John Wetton band–it’s called Asia, but Wetton (at least partially) wrote each of the band’s songs, and sings them very well indeed.

Consider it further. I did not discard the Asia album because of Steve Howe. I could barely handle Close To The Edge and that was about it, but the first four Yes albums (two without Howe) remain state of the art; so state of the art that I’ll never want to hear The Yes Album and Fragile ever again (cf. first two Led Zep LPs). But I’ll never deny their influence. Some people think Sgt. Pepper’s ruined rock ‘n’roll in the ’60s–I’ll just add that if there was no Yes, there’d be no such thing as Styx. But Howe is one hell of a guitar player, period.

Carl Palmer: I’ll always take the Nice–Keith Emerson’s old group–over ELP, maybe because they had a sense of humor and an actual punk attitude where ELP were serious and more often pompous. History speaks to the Anglophile in me, though; Palmer played with Chris Farlowe, with Arthur Brown (I saw him! Back in 1968! I was young!) and even Atomic Rooster.

Part 4: Simple. Geoff Downes, former Buggle and one-time (last time) Yesman, co-wrote the best tracks on Asia, and the Buggles albums–the first one, at least–were good. Put simply, pomp-rock haters should harbor absolutely no grudges whatsoever against Geoff Downes–except maybe that he joined Yes once, but what the hell.

***

HOW COME CARL PALMER ISN’T A MULTI-MILLIONAIRE STAYING HOME AND GETTING FAT INSTEAD OF STILL BEING OUT THERE PLAYING MUSIC FOR A LIVING?

“Because this is the only thing I’ve ever done. And even if I was a multi-millionaire–and I’m not–I’d still be doing this. Because life’s too short to sit at home and eat burgers and watch television.”

***

In Detroit, Asia are playing the Royal Oak Music Theatre, which is a great place when dim-witted cretins do not function as murderous “bouncers” there. The performance has been sold out for at least a month; already the band’s been invited back to the much larger Pine Knob venue a month later. The band’s success is, obviously, the veritable bolt out of the blue.

In concert, the band plays only Asia material–at least that’s what everybody says, but I could swear I heard Steve Howe’s solo spot before: it was called “The Clap” on The Yes Album. He beefed it up. Will John Wetton sing “Easy Money”? Carl Palmer play “Tank”? Geoff Downes “Video Killed The Radio Star”? Nope. Photog Bob Alford had pointed out that Yes guitarist Howe was receiving the star treatment backstage–a separate dressing room with his name on the door–but watching the band run through the soundcheck, the Yesboy had seemed humble, at the peak of humor. Now, watching the band perform in front of screaming mobs of you-know-whos, I find myself wondering: Hey–who is the star here? I stopped keeping track of everybody but Wetton years ago. How DO you gauge a star in one of these deals? Whoever has the most money? Was in the most popular band? Writes most of the music now? Is lead singer? I don’t know.

I also don’t know when Carl Palmer’s drum set actually revolves 360 full degrees, while he plays a drum solo unlike any I’ve seen since ELP were only one-album young. In West Palm Beach, at a Pop Festival, Ron Bushy did it during “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and I applauded; it was 1969. I saw Ginger Baker play “Toad” twice; still I applauded. In 1982, however, watching Carl Palmer do it all over again again; I wonder if it’s at all relevant that while he solos the band is singing: “Here comes the feeling/Here comes the same old feeling again.”

***

CARL PALMER, ON HIS DRUM SOLO

“My solo actually happens the same every night. It’s just like a concert pianist–I play the cymbals at the same time, I play the tambourine, I play the gongs, I play the tympani and whatever. All those things happen at the same time. All the people, they say, ‘Well, that’s not so spontaneous,’ but what I play when the solo begins, and all the little bits in between, that’s spontaneous. The routine goes the same–there’s no need for me to change it, because it’s proven that it works for me. I just really enjoy doing it. I’ve really worked at getting the drum solo interesting, because I hate boring drum solos. I put it on video and analyzed it, cut it up.

“It’s easy to be a great player–because that’s practice. But it’s harder to be a great entertainer, you know what I mean? That’s the fine line. You can be a great musician, if you’re willing to put the hours in, but to be a great entertainer … I like to think of myself as an entertainer as well as a drummer, you know? Because that’s what I am.”

***
HAS JOHN WETTON LISTENED TO THE CURRENT KING CRIMSON?

“No, I haven’t actually. I haven’t. I heard a snatch on the radio and didn’t really like it all that much. I mean, I wish them all the best, but I don’t really know why it’s called King Crimson. Why didn’t they just call it Discipline?

“Obviously, though, I would think there was some pressure from the record company to call it King Crimson. Because–if you noticed–on the back of USA, the live album, there’s an ‘R.I.P.,’ which we intended to mean it was officially … stiff.

“But–whatever. I don’t have any regrets about that now, because it’s worked out OK for me, and I’m much happier than I’ve ever been in my life. Everything is going exactly the way I want it to.”

***

There is always the topic of bad press, which Asia are predictably getting. Why? Ideally, because critics do not like their album or their live show. I think, however, that Asia would have been sitting ducks had they released Crimson Tales Of Topographic Tarkus or Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s Asia; nobody “hip” really wanted to give it a fair chance, let alone hope it would be good.

Says Wetton, extremely affable by all counts: “I don’t mind. We’ve got the Number One album, so I don’t really mind what people say about it. You try not to take too much note of that, because you can really be brought down by it. We try to look at it as positively as possible.

“I’ve always got along with the press rather well. But, um, success is something that people tend to resent a little bit, and we’ve been very successful very quickly. And we’ve been very lucky. I don’t think there’s any reason to be disliked because of that. We just happened to come up with the right combination at the right time.”

Carl Palmer, after the show, adds this: “All I can tell you is that when bands have been knocked, when they’ve had a successful record, when the fans have bought the album and the concerts have been sold out and when the critics still knock it–I’ll tell you, that’s probably one of the biggest factors in breaking up bands in the industry.

“Because I can tell you–and I can’t you specifically, for professional reasons–but that had a lot to do with Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s split. For one particular member of the band. When it goes on and on and on–I mean, I don’t believe what anybody writes about me, I know how good I am, I know what my weak points are–it’s very nice if they write something nice, I appreciate it, and if they write something bad … you know. But when one person constantly gets a knock in a certain direction, that plays havoc with certain people. I am very strong, my personality is very strong. Certain musicians aren’t. And there was one person in Emerson, Lake & Palmer who wasn’t–I can’t tell you who.

“That’s all a part of the business that I don’t really like, but there you go. As long as people come to the concerts and buy the records, that’s the thing. It’s just a bad feeling, when you think that one person can influence so many people–when so many people are content, when you’ve made them happy with your music. It’s a drag.”

***

And there is always the question of guilt. Do these guys feel guilty for being responsible for Styx, Kansas and every other band that gluts the airwaves? Hey, don’t forget–a guy from King Crimson started Foreigner.

“Well, there’s nothing wrong with people sort of copying you,” grins Palmer. “It’s flattering, really. But I don’t want to play that way anymore, today.”

Says Wetton: “You’re talking about Styx and Kansas, really–that kind of heavy art-rocky thing. I don’t really want to be responsible for that kind of stuff. The kind of music you’re talking about comes from the geographical positioning of Europe–which is halfway between American rock ‘n’ roll and European classical music. That’s where it all came from. You’ve got guys who play classical music who got turned on by rock music.

“If you want to lay the blame anywhere, you should lay the blame with the Beatles, right? Because they started the whole fuckin’ thing. Basically, what they did in a nutshell was take American rhythm & blues and put classical-type harmonies on it. Really good harmonies–which you didn’t get with blues music. Blues music was one guy wailing away; you never got harmonic interplay. What they did was take the infectious sort of beat of blues music, which would become R&B, and then add additional harmonies to it.

“And it sounded great, everybody loved it. And then bands started taking it further, and stretching the numbers out. At one time it was very fashionable in London to do Beatles numbers but to draw them out. Like the Vanilla Fudge had done with the Supremes, right? That was very much the fad. And that’s where all these bands came from, make no mistake about it–they all took Beatles songs, stretched them out to full-blown arrangements, and then thought: ‘Wait a minute, why are we playing the Beatles? We get no publishing royalties on this. Let’s write one a bit similar. And then we get the money.’

“That’s what everybody did, I know Yes did that. But that’s how it happened. The whole sort of art-rock movement started out with Spooky Tooth and all those bands–Yes, Jethro Tull. It mainly came from people rearranging blues numbers and Beatles standards. Taking standards and then rearranging them, writing their own songs like that. And then they stretched them out further and made 15-minute epics out of them, out of one two-minute tune.”

***

STATEMENT TWO: I am glad Asia plays short songs.

Asia‘s record is better than their live show; Detroit‘s is only their 20th, but I suspect the lack of Wetton’s smoothly overdubbed (tripled three times, someone in-the-know told me) voice may continue to be a slight handicap. No one else seems to think so–at least not in Detroit, where high school kids applaud guitar and drum solos alike and share in the same communal joy their older brothers and sister experienced 10 years earlier.

After the show, the band meets a few people and exits via a waiting limousine. Outside, a huge crowd waits. This is not the same crowd that waits after a Clash show to discuss politics with Uncle Joe Strummer, not the one that waits anxiously to meet The Boss, to discuss how much rock ‘n’ roll means to them. Not even the one that waits for Rick Springfield today, or the Beatles long ago, eager for just a glimpse. This crowd is respectful; they are waiting for musicians, maybe some of the best ever, and so they wait by the limousine, hoping for an autograph, a pick, a drumstick, who knows?

I sure don’t. But it’s a big crowd.

(CREEM, Aug. 1982)

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