Those of us that came of age in the late-Seventies and early-Eighties got to listen to radio as it was declining from being the place that brought together you and your friends and people like you from all over the listening area to what free radio, and in my opinion XM/Sirrius and the streaming sites, has become: a narrowed wasteland of music that appeals to the lowest common denominator. In the radio station’s effort to maximize their audience, they have developed a culture of people who would rather isolate themselves within their own iPod playlists.
Now (pretend like I am speaking like Grandpa Simpson) in my day we listen to artists whose faces were unknown to us, but the bands almost sounded interchangeable. Yes, I know that many of us can tell the difference of the sounds of bands like Journey, REO Speedwagon, Styx and Foreigner, many of today’s teens probably could not. Those were the first generation of what Rolling Stone magazine once collectively referred to as the “faceless” bands. Whatever! Many of us dug these artists. What was interesting was the second generation of these artists who popped up after these guys all became successful. Let’s look at these names: Asia, Loverboy, Toto, Quarterflash, April Wine, Triumph, Planet P Project, to name just a few. The difference between the first and second generation bands? The second generation bands, like most every other artist of all genres in the Eighties, moved the synthesizer to the forefront of their sound in order to sound modern. This week, let’s take a look at some of these bands.
Today, we begin with what was called at the time the first supergroup of the Eighties: Asia. Back in the late-Sixties, the word supergroup was bandied about to describe a new band that was formed by former members of currently successful bands. Ironically, this phrase was used to describe two bands that Eric Clapton had joined. The first group to receive this description was when he left The Yardbirds to join Cream, which had a couple of highly regarded session musicians, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The next band that Clapton joined was also called a supergroup because he brought drummer Ginger Baker with him to join multi-instrumentalist/singer Steve Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and bassist Ric Grech. At the time, critics were not kind to the work of Blind Faith, but Cream did, so historians have seemed to retroactively labeled the band as the first supergroup.
Regardless of the historical derivation of the term, Asia was going to be Generation X’s first musical supergroup. So, who were the band members, and from which groups did they come? First, there was bassist and lead vocalist John Wetton of art-rock band King Crimson fame. Since King Crimson had a reputation of creating music that was dark and challenging, music people were excited by the mention of Wetton’s name. Next up was former Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Add to them, the drummer from art-rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Carl Palmer. Finally, out of left field, came new wave keyboardist Geoff Downes from The Buggles, though to his credit he had just finished up a stint in the band Yes with Howe. So, the hype was high for this band. Imagine the critic’s disappointment when the sound that came from this band was the English equivalent of Toto. Yes, the musicianship was extraordinary, but the songwriting was pedestrian.
Their 1982 eponymous titled debut album went on to become one of the top three selling albums in the United States, on the strength of their two hit songs “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell”. Although these were great songs, I personally was hoping for so much more, like anything from the King Crimson catalog. In the place of 10 to 15 minute epic compositions, we were given three-to-six minute pop/rock songs. To further the band’s movement toward the “faceless band” category, the cover did not have any of the artists, but had was appeared to be Asian-influenced sci-fi art of an ocean-bound dragon battling (or is it playing?) with a silver orb. Like all the faceless bands, the logo and their album artwork were the import thing to go with hard rock songs with pop/rock constraints. To many critics, the whole thing seemed to be contrived in order to sell records. You know what, it worked.
I mean, c’mon! I loved those first two songs. And, the albums isn’t really THAT bad. But, it was NOT the art-rock, mind-blowing music I was hoping for. But, then again, maybe Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, ELP and the rest had all ready done. Maybe, these guys deserved a big it album and a couple of hit songs.
Unfortunately for Asia and many of the other bands I plan to cover this week, their time in the sun was limited. By 1983, MTV’s muscles were flexing and thus changing the playlists of radio all over the country. No longer did Asia seem fresh, since they could not keep up the pop/rock songs that had filled their debut album. These guys were all virtuosos and needed to flex their muscles. But, for the summer of 1982, “Heat of the Moment” sure spoke to us.