Monday, 5 October 2015

A Journey Through the 80s: Asia-Asia (1982)

Born in 1964, Gentle Reader, I started to get seriously into music in late 1977. I am, therefore, in a very key way a Child of Punk. By this I don't mean that Punk was all that I listened to or even that Punk was my first Musical Love. In fact, I found quite a lot of punk hard to digest. Whisper it quietly but to this day I still don't own a copy of "Never Mind The Bollocks", I prefer "London Calling" to "The Clash" and the less said about the bands that trailed in at the arse end of punk (Angelic Upstarts, UK Subs, The Anti-Nowhere League etc.) the better (And don't even get me started on the wretched Oi Movement- the Exploited, Cockney Rejects, Peter and the Test Tube Babies and so on, forever).

No, I was a Child of Punk in that I swallowed Hook, Line and Sinker, the Punk Year Zero Theory. This stated that PROPER MUSIC started in 1976 when Punk came along. anything made before that was the work of ROCK DINOSAURS and HIPPIES or both and therefore had to be consigned to the Dustbin of History.

Now of course, as with any dogmatically held theory, it was, first and foremost, BOLLOCKS and didn't stand up to any thorough scrutiny, The question "What about the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks?" would be dismissed with a wave of the hand and the flimsy aside that such bands were listened to by OLD PEOPLE (i.e. Anyone 10 years older than you). The hand grenade marked "David Bowie" would be ignored amidst muttering that "The Laughing Gnome" was shit! However, just because you were on the flimsiest of thin ice didn't mean that you still couldn't hold to the belief religiously and shout it to the rooftops. With the exception of a couple of Greatest Hits, I didn't buy my first pre 1976 record until the late 90s!!

Where Year Zero theorists did feel on safe ground was in decrying the genre known as "Progressive Rock" or "Prog Rock" as it is imaginatively abbreviated to. And this was because Prog Rock was everything that Punk set out to abolish. The list of perceived Musical CRIMES was endless
  • It was the plaything of MUSOS
  • Many of the songs went on for well in excess of 10 minutes (or 10 years if it wasn't your bag)
  • CONCEPT albums abounded
  • It was the work of HIPPIES (who Punks hated with a passion)
  • It was made under the influence of the wrong sort of drugs
  • Public Schoolboys were rumoured to be involved
  • The lyrics were at best impenetrable and at worst vastly pretentious (Exhibit A: March of the Giant Hogweed by Genesis, in which a giant plant marches across Russia, well obviously!)
  • Everyone involved, both musician and purchaser read TOLKIEN (This was in the pre Peter Jackson days)
Just to colour the picture in further, these were the days of the Musical Tribes: Punks, Mods, New Romantics, New Wavers, Rockabillys (Honest, more later), Heavy Metallers, etc. Most though would adhere to the Year Zero Orthodoxy. True, Heavy Metallers got away with Black Sabbath (There was something "Punk" about Ozzy's bat head biting antics) but if they tried to bring Led Zeppelin into the argument, they would get short shrift. 

However, despite the Punkish Spanish Inquisition, The Prog Rock Heretics stood firm, particularly out in the sticks in Folkestone where I lived. Most of them were a couple of years older than me and so had reasonably well established musical tastes and certainly weren't going to have them influenced by Malcolm McLaren or some spotty herbert gobbing in the gutters with a rubbish mohican. I recall Sixth Formers, with their hair just slightly longer than school rules would allow (Oooh the dare of it all), prowling the school corridors with carrier bags containing Barclay James Harvest albums, the result of a lunchtime foray to the local record emporium. I also remember one of them having some form of nervous collapse when Genesis released "Turn It On Again" which to all intents and purposes (despite the lack of a recognisable chorus) appeared to be a POP SINGLE (The Horror, the Horror). I had lost contact with him by the time that Genesis released "Invisible Touch", which was probably for the best and he would have spontaneously imploded upon hearing it! The fact that their music was both unfashionable and unpopular was more of a badge of honour than anything. For being popular inevitably meant SELLING OUT, which was a thought that was beyond the pale.

And then in the early summer of 1982, something odd happened. I was listening as was my wont to the American Chart Show on Radio 1 when they mentioned that there was new Number 1 album on the Billboard Hot 200 and they then proceeded to play the lead single off it and it was this

"Heat of the Moment" by Asia" off the self titled debut album. No alarm bells rang particularly. The American Charts in those days were often full of what the suits called AOR (Actually stands for "Adult Orientated Rock", Wags said it stood for "Any Old Rubbish"). Only a few months before "4" by Foreigner had bagged the Top Spot, an AOR band if there ever was one. I found myself liking "Heat of the Moment" (But then I have always been a bit of a sucker for a slice of AOR as future blogs will make clear), it was catchy, lyrics were a bit odd but other than that, it was a fair shout.

However, I was in for a rude awakening. On Monday lunchtime I was dossing around in my form room when one of the PRB (Prog Rock Brigade) came bounding up to me, looking excited. Both of these things were alarming as PRB members never "bounded", merely ambled, and excitement was a state that I thought they were unfamiliar with as their natural mode was"somnambulist". He then thrust an album into my hands and muttered "NUMBER ONE". Upon staring at the sleeve in front of me (Pictured above), I almost stumbled backwards over a stray 1st former who was acting as a foot rest.

I could see quite clearly that this was indeed "Asia" by "Asia". However what made the eyeballs bulge was that the cover clearly featured artwork by Roger Dean! If you were in the presence of Dean artwork, you knew that the vinyl contained within the sleeve was of the PROG ROCK genre. Dean designed the Yes Bubble Logo and his designs were usually drawn from the world of fantasy.

"You have to listen to it, it's great!" He muttered (To be fair, he may have been speaking clearly but in FLAGRANT contradiction of School Rules, this particular specimen has hair resembling that of a Highland Cow, so he was speaking through a hirsute veil) and with that he hurried away, leaving me holding the baby (Or Dragon in this instance). Holding a Prog Rock record in a public space was akin to shouting "I am wearing Rupert The Bear Boxer Shorts and my mum still ties my shoe laces" so I shoved the thing in my desk and made good my escape. I stayed late after school and smuggled the offending article into two Woolworths carrier bags (A re-definition of the phrase "Double Bagger"). I vowed that if asked I would swear to God that I was carrying a copy of "Combat Rock" by the Clash!

Fortunately I made it home without mishap and taking the tongs that my mother used to put coal on the fire. I placed the debut album by Asia on the turntable!

At this juncture a digression is necessary. Upon perusing the sleeve, it became apparent as the Dean artwork indicated, if not the first single, that Asia were NOT American but they were in fact British (As the decade unfolded there were a number of British bands who had far more success in the US than back in Blighty: After The Fire, The Fixx, Naked Eyes). Furthermore, it became apparent that they were a veritable Prog Rock Supergroup (And I can think of few phrases more designed to install FEAR into the heart of a child of Punk). John Wetton played in Wishbone Ash and King Crimson amongst others; Both Steve Howe and Geoff Downes were in Yes (Possibly the archetypal Prog band, their albums lasted several days even though they only consisted of 5 songs tops!) whilst Carl Palmer was in Atomic Rooster and God Help Us All, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, makers of the Prog Rock Piece De Resistance "Brain Salad Surgery"

It was a BAD Business all round.

Fearing that I was about to plunge into a nightmare world of Giant Plants, Arthurian Knights and NOODLING, I dropped the needle.

As will become apparent in my journey through the 80s, I have considerable fondness for 1982. It saw the release of many excellent albums: "Too Rye Ay" by Dexys, "Upstairs at Erics" by Yazoo, "Imperial Bedroom" by E.Costello, "Tropical Gangster" By Kid Creole, "Lexicon of Love" by ABC amongst many. I have to freely confess that I would include "Asia" by "Asia" in that list. It was/is a GREAT record and, like those listed above, didn't really sound like anything else released that year. Whilst both "Heat of the Moment" and the follow up single "Only Time will Tell" could have passed for Great American AOR (And let's face it, both had Cheesy 80s videos), the rest undoubtedly moved into a different territory, it had a greater sense of drama and grandeur, both things that were very much sourced from the world of prog. It certainly wasn't an album that Foreigner or Toto could have made or any other British band of that time for that matter.

That said, we weren't in Yes territory. Whilst most of these songs are circa the 5 minute mark (HERESY again in the days of the 3 minute single) and undoubtedly saw the strutting of Musical Chops (Hellooooo Guitar Solos, a cheeky keyboard noodle here and there but thankfully Mr Palmer, the drummer, was told that he could beat the tar out of the skins but ONLY when everyone else was playing), all had recognisable song structures and (Hallelujah and pass the Tomato Ketchup) TUNES.

"Soul Survivor" is a cracking "Punch the Air when you get to the Chorus" song (Arse knows what the lyrics are about but when the song is that great, who cares?). "Wildest Dreams" is an Apocalypse Song, soldiers on the streets, world in danger of being wiped out, all accompanied by a driving synth, crunching guitar and choral vocals. PREPOSTEROUS nonsense and, of course, TREMENDOUS FUN!! "Here Comes the Feeling" was the perfect album closer. The verses stray a bit close to Foreigner ballad territory (albeit with chunkier instrumentation) before bursting into another "Punch that air" anthemic chant and a BIG SYNTH SOLO, which says both "80s" and "But who gives a shit?"

Now to be fair, I could have done without "Without You" which I suspect is intended to be the Big Ballad but the record doesn't need it and, in any case, it's a bit STODGY. However, matters are more than compensated by my two favourite tracks. At the time of playing said album, I was in the depths of UNREQUITED LOVE (I loved her, she thought I needed new glasses and plastic surgery, you know the score) and "One Step Closer" became one of my TEEN ANGST records. I would play it and imagine that I too was drawing One Step Closer to winning her over. Bollocks, of course. I had more chance of pulling the cows on her fathers farm but such is the way of the world. Of course whether Messrs Wetton and Downes knew that their song would be used as such by a badly dressed teenager I know not. It's a cracking song, punch the air defiant chorus, guitar solo here and there, some very interesting percussion. You know the score by now!

As I am sure you will have guessed, as I listened to the album for the first time, I had two voices in my head. One said "This is GREAT" and the other said "Marsh, get a Grip, it's a Prog Rock Supergroup". Given my previous aversion to all things Prog and my religious adherence to Year Zero theory, it is perhaps even more remarkable that my favourite track on the album is the most obviously Prog inluenced and longest track, "Cuttting It Fine". It has the least cohesive song structure, guitar and syth solos a go-go and then after 3 minutes 25 seconds the song suddenly drops out and a piano takes over and we are treated to a 2 minute musical coda! If lengthy guitar solos, rambling song structures and choral vocals were to be avoided, musical codas were a sign that pretension had won the day and the 4th Horseman of the Apocalypse was making his rounds.

Yet, those two minutes are the highlight of "Asia" by Asia are sum up what makes it great. Preposterous, probably silly, definitely great and oddly moving.

As much as I had enjoyed the experience and clearly needed a copy of the thing myself, I was in a quandary as to how I would respond to my hairy friend when he asked me what I had thought of it. If I let on that I liked the ruddy thing, word might get round and I would be cast out of the school Jam Fanclub and the next thing I know people would be assuming I liked "Love Over Gold" by Dire Straits (More of which in a later blog) and my hair would find its way mysteriously over my collar.

In one sense I needn't have worried, the album (plus Woolworth Double Bag) was removed from my clutches with nothing more than a "You better not have got any Marmalade on this" (A reference to an unfortunate incident when someone had lent me "Out of the Blue" by ELO and it had had an unpleasant encounter with the Golden Shred. I had to buy a replacement!)

Over the next few days and weeks though, a bizarre phenomenon started to occur. A bit like a rather virulent stomach bug, it transpired that the bloody album was going round the school like wildfire. No one openly admitted it at first but the symptoms started popping up all over the place, People were seen drawing the Dragon from the cover in their rough books; "Cutting It Fine" got played in Assembly and people were seen mouthing along to the chorus and sighing as the song moved into the coda! You would be in trap two of the bogs and hear someone outside singing "Only Time Will Tell". As soon as you opened the door, the singing would stop and there would be no sign of the culprit. Like some kind of bizarre secret society, you KNEW several members of your Class owned it, they had that look in their eye but they would never admit it!!

4 years later I found myself at University. After a night of drinking local Kentish Scrumpy, I decided that confession was good for the soul and I declared that I thought "Asia" by Asia was a classic album and, fortified by the alcohol I said that anyone who thought otherwise was welcome to have a word outside. Ignoring the (frankly feeble) threat of physical violence, everyone in the room (except for the odd cove who didn't seem to like any music except Jean Michel Jarre and Classical) rushed to join me in lauding the self titled mastework to the skies.

As I mentioned at the ouset of my musical journey, many of my CDs don't (due to time pressures) get played that often but this one always has and it hasn't changed. Still over the top, still unlike anything else of it's time, still preposterous and still brilliant!

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