Artist’s Remorse: What Went Wrong with Asia’s ‘Alpha’

In the 1970s golden age of progressive rock, the idea of combining musicians from three of the genre’s most admired bands to create a singles machine would have sounded absurd. But the formation of Asia in 1981 did just that—at least for a short time. While it may not have satisfied fans of the bands from which its members came, Asia surpassed the loftiest expectations most people could have reasonably had for their more pop-oriented 1982 debut album.

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That initial success only raised expectations for Asia’s second album, Alpha. Though it reached the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 (No. 6) and was certified Platinum, it was a commercial disappointment when compared to Asia. Alpha was also panned by critics and viewed as a letdown by the band members themselves. As it turned out, Asia fell victim to the unexpectedly massive success of their debut album.

Prog Stars Turned Pop Stars

Asia consisted of ex-King Crimson vocalist and bassist John Wetton, former Yes members Steve Howe (guitars) and Geoff Downes (keyboards), and drummer Carl Palmer, late of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Each member had built a reputation for virtuosity, but the progressive rock bands from which they came were not known for their consistent hitmaking. Yet Asia’s self-titled debut was a major commercial success, spending nine weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and a total of 64 weeks on the chart.

Far more surprising was the success Asia had on the singles chart, with “Heat of the Moment” (No. 4) and “Only Time Will Tell” (No. 17) both reaching the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. Six of the album’s nine tracks entered the Mainstream Rock chart. Slick videos for “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell”—directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme—received heavy airplay on MTV and added to the band’s pop appeal.

Because Asia’s debut album was so popular, executives at Geffen Records were eager for the band to make a follow-up album. Palmer told Louder, “With an album that enormous, we should have toured for 18 months and built a global audience. Sadly, that didn’t happen.” Instead, Geffen released Alpha 17 months after Asia made its debut.

Where’s the Guitar?

Aside from feeling that the making of Alpha was rushed, members of Asia had issues with how the recording process progressed. Not only did Geffen want to put out Alpha as quickly as possible, they wanted to replicate the success of Asia’s hit singles. While Howe co-wrote five of the debut album’s nine tracks, the three tracks chosen as singles were all written by Wetton and Downes. The label, then, wanted the duo to write all of the songs for Alpha, and they ultimately got their way.

In a 2001 interview with Goldmine, Howe pointed out that by empowering Wetton and Downes to be Asia’s sole songwriters, the band lost an important part of what made their first album so successful. He said, “John and Geoff really did take the bull by the horns and started writing endless songs. But we could have done it with a few less of them and a few more songs that didn’t rest on the keyboard direction, because the original Asia record had a really good guitar-and-keyboard stylings.”

“Too Much Pop”

According to Howe, his bandmates were also dissatisfied with the final mix of Alpha. Mike Stone, who produced both Asia and Alpha, had engineered and mixed the former album, but on Alpha, he delegated those duties to Paul Northfield. Howe told Louder, “Paul is a great engineer, but there was something inspiring about Mike twiddling all of the knobs. Mostly, though, there was too much pop.” In Martin Popoff’s 2016 book Time and a Word: The Yes Story, Howe was more blunt, saying Alpha was “Mixed in completely ass-about-face values.”

Palmer’s objections to Alpha went far beyond a dislike of the final mix. In Popoff’s book, he called the album “a complete mistake” that was “full of pop tunes that just died miserably.”

Alpha‘s Bitter Aftermath

One of the pop tunes bemoaned by Howe and Palmer—”Don’t Cry”—became Asia’s second Top 10 hit as well as their second song to top the Mainstream Rock chart. However, things disintegrated quickly for Asia after Alpha’s August 1983 release. The band canceled the fall leg of the Alpha tour, with poor communication and Wetton’s excessive drinking leading to problems during the band’s summer dates. Wetton subsequently left Asia (or, by his account, was fired from Asia), and they returned in December to play dates in Japan with former King Crimson and ELP vocalist/bassist Greg Lake as Wetton’s temporary replacement.

Wetton agreed to rejoin Asia prior to the recording of their third album Astra, but under the condition that Howe be let go. He explained to Louder, “Steve had squeezed me out of the band, so I did the same to him. I lived to regret the decision, but I wanted my toy back, and I was prepared to do absolutely anything.” Mandy Meyer, formerly of the Swiss metal bands Krokus and Gotthard, replaced Howe on guitar for Asia’s third album. Though Astra mustered only a No. 67 placement on the Billboard 200, Palmer felt it was a much better album than Alpha. He cited conflict with Geffen and the label’s lack of interest in promoting the album as reasons for Astra’s relative obscurity.

Not the End of Asia

Asia went on hiatus from 1986 to 1989, and after being part of a revamped lineup, Wetton left Asia again in 1991. Howe returned briefly for the 1992 album Aqua, and all four original members reconnected to make three more albums: Phoenix (2008), Omega (2010), and XXX (2012). Upon the reformation of the classic Asia lineup, then-lead vocalist and bassist John Payne formed a splinter group, Asia featuring John Payne. Meanwhile, with Sam Coulson replacing Howe, Asia made their final album to date, Gravitas (2014). Wetton died of colon cancer in 2017.

Some may look at Alpha as the beginning of the end for Asia, but the band eventually overcame the album’s flaws and the turmoil that surrounded it. Though they didn’t command the same level of hype as in their early days, the original foursome returned to the Billboard 200 with Phoenix (No. 73) and XXX (No. 134). It’s not a bad legacy for a group that was never a lock to be a singles band in the first place.

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Photo by Richard Lewis/WireImage

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