In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1982: Asia’s Asia
In 2005’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin, there’s a scene where Steve Carrell is about to go on a date which leads to Seth Rogen commenting to Carrell on the shape of his apartment and how it’s not exactly sexy. One of his critiques includes a poster Carrell has of the ‘80s rock group Asia wondering how hard the people at the frame store laughed when he brought his Asia poster in to be framed. The joke here is that Asia is the kind of lame music someone as lame as Steve Carrell’s character would be into.
It’s not hard to see why Seth Rogen’s character would make fun of someone with an Asia poster. The band named after the continent was an all-out rock supergroup made up largely of ‘70s progressive rock veterans who helped to define the genre. But instead of continuing the prog-rock sound they were known for in their respective bands, Asia pivoted toward heavily corporate-sounding ‘80s rock, not exactly the coolest type of music. So naturally, it blew up. Asia’s 1982 self-titled LP was a big hit commanding nine weeks on top of the album chart getting knocked out for a few weeks by Paul McCartney’s Tug of War becoming far and away the biggest selling album that year. Perhaps many Americans in 1982 were framing posters of Asia in their homes.
Asia were not a band for very long when they put out their debut. The idea for the band came in 1981 after John Wetton ended his supergroup U.K., one of many solo ventures for the former bassist of King Crimson after that band dissolved in 1974. Soon after, Wetton met with John Kalodner, an A&R exec at the newly formed Geffen Records, and at his suggestion Wetton teamed with Steve Howe, the guitarist for fellow UK prog-rock band Yes. Not long after, Howe’s bandmate from Yes, keyboardist Geoff Downes, came on along with drummer Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame. Downes was originally in the Buggles, a British new wave group best known for their 1979 hit “Video Killed The Radio Star” which in America is better known as the first song played on MTV. But by 1981, Downes and frontman Trevor Horn had joined Yes for their 1980 album Drama after singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman left. As soon as the band was formed, they got right to work on an album recording it over five months in 1981 with former Queen engineer and rising rock producer Mike Stone producing.
When released in April 1982, Asia’s self-titled debut polarized critics with some feeling they had sold out. Listening to this album today, it’s not hard to hear why rock-friendly critics and fans would have felt disappointed by Asia. It’s not like progressive rock was still going on in the ‘80s. Two years earlier, Pink Floyd rose far above their prog-rock peers by having the biggest album of 1980 with The Wall and is still one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. But The Wall still sounds like a progressive rock album made by a progressive rock band while Asia sounds like the band gunning for the arena rock crowd that were into Journey and Foreigner. (Mike Stone himself was producing Journey’s Escape, 1982’s #6 album, at the same time.) Musically, it’s more in line with REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, the previous year’s best-seller. Going further into the ‘80s, other prog acts like a reunited Yes and Genesis netted some of the biggest hits of their careers by downplaying their prog roots and diving further into the sleek and expensive-sounding ‘80s productions heard on Asia.
On Asia, the thing that easily stands out the least are the vocals. Tom Wetton is a fine enough lead singer but feels largely anonymous. Wetton doesn’t attempt the typical rock vocal tricks of raspy blues howling or soulful runs or falsetto. He largely delivers the songs in a flat competent style that doesn’t give off much of a personality. I don’t get any connection with his voice. The same thing goes for the other members who sing backup. The singing overall is not bad but not much to write home about.
Of course, coming from prog-rock it’s the music that’s supposed to be the standout. Mike Stone lays on a lot of the common quirks you expect from ‘80s rock productions: clean sound, heavy reverb, loud drums, power chord dominating guitars, precision-based solos, and lots of gleaming synth action. All of it carries the massive slick and blaring styles that show up on a lot of ‘80s music used to its full potential. But there are no obvious prog stylings here like virtuoso solos, shifting time signatures, or long songs with different sections. This is a pure commercial rock record through and through.
With that, a lot of these songs sound like the perfect music for an ‘80s filmmaker to use in a montage or workout scene which I find cool. And it’s that ‘80s bigness that makes songs like the big hit “Heat of the Moment” become serviceable radio rock jams. (The use of the “Be My Baby” drum pattern doesn’t hurt either.) Compared to their arena rock peers, Asia is arguably a step above the rest in terms of pure musicianship but if you don’t know their backstory you wouldn’t really have guessed listening to this that this was the work of band members from Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
When Asia’s self-titled was released, it was released into a dire music business environment. Sales took a hard decline at the beginning of the ‘80s after the tremendous success of the ‘70s as the disco backlash took hold and the industry began feeling the effects of the economic recession America was going through at the time. 1982, in particular, was a bleak year. Rolling Stone reported at the time that the number of gold and platinum records fell fifteen percent from 1981. Asia wound up selling four million copies, six million less than what Hi Infidelity has sold. Perhaps in that moment, Asia’s inoffensive radio rock was just good enough before pop music began reverting back to the blockbuster spectacle now buoyed by MTV that would define ‘80s music starting not long after. It’s not surprising that Asia the album and Asia the band haven’t left much of a legacy today outside of being the butt of jokes on how uncool Steve Carrell’s apartment is.
With their self-titled debut success, Asia quickly catapulted into big-time fame with their videos being played on MTV, a sold-out tour, and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist that ultimately went to Men at Work. But it wouldn’t last for long. The band followed up their debut quickly the next year with 1983’s Alpha. But even in that short time, Asia had begun to falter with Alpha peaking at #6 and only going platinum though it did launch another Top 10 hit with the #10 “Don’t Cry.” Still, that’s a big drop for an act who had the best-selling album in America the year before. An upcoming tour was canceled because of low ticket sales and turmoil ensued in the band with John Wetton leaving soon after though there are differing accounts as to how he left. Things didn’t get better from there with the third album, 1985’s Astra, only peaking at #67. It was their last album ever to chart. Asia would soon break up for a few years.
In the years since Asia has continued with new members joining as the original members have rejoined. After reuniting in the early ‘90s, Asia were putting out new music at a consistent pace until 2014’s Gravitas. Downes and Palmer from the original lineup are still playing in Asia. Howe left in 2013 though still shows up in guest performance while Wetton died of colon cancer in 2017. Later era Yes keyboardist Billy Sherwood and guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal are the newest members playing. Asia is still touring and who knows maybe the members still have posters of their success framed in their homes.
Honorable mention: Right behind Asia on 1982’s best-sellers list is an album that by virtue of the act behind it stands out a lot. With Beauty and the Beat, the Go-Go’s became the first all-female band to write and perform their own material creating a fun and energetic piece of new wave with each song coming across as a sugar rush that still bangs today. In a year dominated by processed studio rock, Beauty and the Beat is a nice change of pace from the pack.
Next time: We finally discuss Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the album that changed everything!