Yesterday’s explosive post continued our ongoing “smackdown” series by putting 70s folkies America against 80s rockers Europe. Neither band is a particularly big seller in the used records market anymore, but each has their memorable hits. We concluded by asking which was more likely to beat 80s prog rock supergroup Asia. Of course, all of these comparisons fall into the apples n’ oranges field, because America really belongs to a different era than the other two groups. While Asia and Europe were burnin’ up the charts in the early 80s, America was in the September of its career, winding down to a comfortable life on the classic rock circuit. This is part of why we chose them in yesterday’s post: Europe and Asia are awfully similar, although superfans of either group might argue that conclusion. From the perspective of a record browser flipping through the classic rock bin, America feels different. Exploring their catalog became a great experiment all its own, because they are like so many other 70s relics, a reminder of a less cynical, less commercial era in pop music.
Asia, on the other hand, was a supergroup formed by members of major progressive rock bands who were, at the time, disappearing from the charts and the stadium circuit (members of Asia had previously performed in Yes, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, UK and Emerson, Lake & Palmer). The band was essentially put together by a record executive at Geffen for the purpose of creating an enormous hit, and this experiment was a success: Their monolithic debut album sold more than four million copies in the US.
America vs Asia
Asia’s first album was an instant and enormous commercial success upon its release in 1982, but a disappointment to fans who expected something of a prog rock revival. Here and there the self-titled record sounds a little like Relayer-era Yes, but nothing contains the expansive arrangements or instrumentation of a King Crimson album. Most of it, in fact, sounds like the arena rock of contemporaries like Boston and Journey.
Nothing on Asia hit that mark as solidly as “Heat of the Moment,” a natural hit that topped Billboard’s rock chart and propelled its 4x platinum sales. It’s pretty awesome arena rock — better, if you ask us, than anything in Journey’s catalog.
“And now you find yourself in ’82,” sings John Wetton, whose solo album hadn’t received much notice just a couple years earlier. “The disco hot spots hold no charm for you.” These were lean years for classic rock fans, and especially prog fans. King Crimson and Yes were seemingly defunct. Genesis without Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett had transformed into a pop band, which is what would happen to Yes in a year or so. Others like Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull were either fragmenting or trying to reinvent themselves as well. Asia probably inspired a lot of these guys by assuring them they could start to make some serious bank again by playing to a post-punk, MTV audience. And that was probably a pretty big bummer for fans of the quartet’s 70s work.
America went through a line-up change around the same time the major prog rock bands started breaking up and changing direction. Dan Peek left the trio in 1977 to pursue a successful solo career in Christian pop, signing to Pat Boone’s Lion & Lamb label. Bunnell and Beckley sang some backup vocals on “Love Was Just Another Word,” a song from his first solo album All Things Are Possible. It was the last time the trio performed together.
Bunnell and Beckley carried on as a duo, but their first album without Peek, America Live, falls far short of the high standards of a 70s live record (it’s not even a double album) — the first indication that America had run its course even though they weren’t giving up. That only one song from their last LP as a trio (Beckley’s “Sergent Darkness”) was included suggests they were headed towards becoming a ‘here’s our hits’ revue. The biggest disappointment came at the concert’s end, where their biggest hit loses the atmospheric rootsiness that made it memorable six years earlier.
America’s 1975 greatest hits LP features cover art by Phil Hartmann, who later dropped an “n” from his last name before become actor Troy McClure. We remember him from such films as Give my Remains to Broadway and The Revenge of Abraham Lincoln. His painting features a variety of references to America’s first several albums, including the car from Holiday, the Golden Gate Bridge (seen on the cover of Hearts) and a portrayal of Peek and Bunnell which is similar to the one on the poster inside original copies of Hat Trick. Hartmann included a sharp rendition of London’s Elizabeth Tower (known in 1975 simply as the “Clock Tower”) to reference the band’s British heritage.
Hartmann’s other record art has already been featured on the Hymies blog (here), but so has the work of Asia’s cover artist, Roger Dean. He created one of the most distinctive bodies of work found on LP jackets, his designs and lettering the subject of countless imitations. The most famous of these being the blockbuster film Avatar, which borrowed heavily from the imaginary landscapes Dean created for Yes album covers in the 70s (we first wrote about the similarities, and Dean’s subsequent lawsuit, here).
Dean’s work on the first three Asia album covers reflect a less organic world than the one born in Yes’s Fragile and Yessongs. An advanced civilization appears to have developed alongside the surreal landscape, it’s inhabitants perhaps the spooky creature seen on the cover of Astra in 1985. Asia absolutely wins this round, especially considering the legendary Dean is still creating cover art for their albums as recently Gravitas, their album released this year.
You’d think this round would be easy for Asia to win, since their career coincides with the rise of MTV, a time when America was past their peak. Their 1982 video for “Heat of the Moment” was an early Godley & Creme production and it’s innovative and fun, even if the images chosen present an absurdly literal interpretation of the lyrics.
Asia’s Geoff Downes, we should mention, was one half of the english pop duo the Buggles, and a co-author of their single hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star” — a song with the distinction of being the first featured on MTV.
Thevideo for the other single from Asia, “Only Time Will Tell,” is an equally goofy gem from the era (check it out) but the video for “Go” from their third album, Astra, flops altogether while attempting to realize Roger Dean’s bizarre art by telling the story of the eerie creature seen on the album jacket. The result looks more like a Lazertag commercial than the surreal world in Dean’s painting.
America’s official video for “A Horse with no Name” mixes live footage with the band, predictably, wandering around in the desert. Periodically wild horses are seen running in the hills, but nothing really matches the hazy, drugged mood of the song (an interpretation Bunnell has long denied, incidentally). Still, it is what it is, and the live footage makes America look pretty cool, on a stage that is half Merv Griffith Show half Muppet Show. It is, unfortunately, no match for Asia’s cool “Heat of the Moment” video.
Best skeleton in the closet:
A single from America’s seventh album, Harbor, attempted to revive their lackluster sales with a light dance-floor jam, “Slow Down.” It is one of the last songs Peek wrote the group before leaving, and could likely be seen as the songwriter’s message to himself.
The song didn’t chart, and its disco was already not cool anymore by ’77.
In this scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin, Steve Carrell’s character Andy is mocked by his friends for having an Asia poster. “You know how I know you’re gay? You like Asia.” Ouch. The truth hurts, and America wins this round.
Best song that sounds like something else:
From the very beginning, “A Horse With No Name” was mistaken for a Neil Young song, something that surely bristled the budding band in 1971 as they celebrated a first success. As it happened, when their single hit #1 on the US singles chart, the song it displaced was Young’s “Heart of Gold.”
Another hit single by America is just as easily mistaken for another artist. It’s almost impossible to hear the opening of “Sister Golden Hair,” their second #1 hit, without thinking of George Harrison — folks have long speculated if the legendary producer George Martin, who produced America’s Hearts and several other albums, pulled some strings to have the Beatle sit in, since its one of the only such appearances of the distinctive slide guitar style on an America LP.
Gerry Beckley, for his part, sounds an awful lot like George on the song, although the lyrics are clearly more Jackson Browne than George.
Pretty much every song on Asia’s second album, Alpha, could be mistaken for any other arena rock band of ’83. Shades of Journey, Foreigner and even REO Speedwagon are all this contrived attempt to recreate the first record’s success — one song, “The Heat Goes On,” even tries to tap the success of their breakthrough hit. Guitarist Steve Howe, still best known to fans for his long tenures with Yes, left the supergroup after this album and hardly contributed to it. His only songwriting credit is on a b-side appropriately titled “Lyin’ to Yourself.”
Where are they today?:
Like the progressive rock bands its members started with, Asia contained huge personalities that weren’t able to share the stage with one another for long. In fact, by the millenium, Asia only included one original member, Geoff Downes. When he left to join the re-formed original lineup in 2006, there remained a band led by bassist and lead singer John Payne, who by this time owned a share of the name “Asia.” Eventually a legal settlement allowed him to continue touring and recording with a band called “Asia Featuring John Payne.” The re-formed original Asia, meanwhile, released Phoenix in 2008, their first album together in decades.
The result of all of this confusing business is that Asia is one of several classic rock bands that exists out there in two completely different forms, as reflected by their different official websites: Original Asia and Asia Featuring John Payne. Payne, it seems worth noting, is also a former member of ELO Part II.
America continued after Dan Peek left in 1977, but the highest they’d ever chart again was when Janet Jackson sampled “Ventura Highway” in 2001. The remaining duo has augmented their sales with a number of career retrospectives and live albums, and even a Christmas album in 2002. Meanwhile, Peek never returned to the group but continued to record sporadically until he passed away from pericarditis in his sleep in 2011.
In July of this year America announced the retirement of their long-time drummer, Willie Leacox on their official website. Leacox, from Iowa, had played with the band for forty-one years. America’s longtime lead guitarist Michael Woods had also retired this year. The band is currently touring, including a three night stand in Hawaii later this month.
So who won?
In the world of international diplomacy and war, there often aren’t any winners.
In a lot of ways, Europe is the only band whose music reflected the continent for which they were named, sounding undeniably like a Scandinavian hard rock act on nearly every track. For the life of us we can’t figure why Asia was named Asia, except that Roger Dean’s lettering of the name looked sweet. Of the three they’re the only one enjoying enduring success, having finally pleased fans by turning towards their progressive rock roots in their records since reuniting in 2006.
We probably couldn’t fill a mix tape with songs we love by these three bands, so once again the true loser of the smackdown is us, the listener. Then again, we had a lot of fun digging through these albums, some of which probably hadn’t left their jackets in years. And if its not fun, why work in a record store. If it’s not fun, why go to a record store. We hope you enjoyed reading.