Interview with John Wetton of the rock band Asia

(This interview was originally published May 1, 2011 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

Mr. Wetton passed away after battling cancer in January of 2017 at the age of 67, so this opportunity to interview him before that is even more special to me.

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is John Wetton. He is the bassist, keyboardist, singer and songwriter best remembered by '80s fans as the frontman and principal songwriter of the supergroup Asia. The band formed in 1981 and, in addition to Wetton who formerly belonged to King Crimson and UK, included Geoff Downes and Steve Howe from Yes and Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Asia’s debut album was one of the most commercially successful of the entire '80s decade and the band would play to sold out arenas full of adoring fans. Asia certainly had the love of the record-buying public as well as the respect of their peers. You will find out a little more about how the supergroup came together, the origination of some of their biggest hits and the ups and downs that have led to the original line-up breaking up and reuniting as we get on to some selections from my interview with John Wetton…

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician and performer?

John: Yes, I was musically minded as a child, learning the piano (my first instrument) from the age of six, my elder brother being an organist and choirmaster. While I was growing up, my influences were hymnal and European church.

Q: What is the story of how the supergroup Asia formed in 1981? How and why was the band name “Asia” chosen?

John: I had become the protege of John David Kalodner, from Atlantic records. He had been “grooming” me for a band of my own for many years (since 1976). When he moved to Geffen records, the time was right. I had recently moved management from EG (with King Crimson and UK) to Brian Lane. It was Brian who suggested the name “Asia”. No-one particularly liked it except me, I persisted, and it became our name. I liked it —four letters, four people.

Q: At that time, was there a preconceived effort to commercialize the bands’ progressive rock roots and target mainstream pop success?

John: Not particularly— listen to Caught in the Crossfire, my solo album for EG directly prior to the formation of Asia . It tells you the direction very clearly.

Q: In 1982, Asia’s amazing self-titled debut was released becoming a massive worldwide success and the #1 album of the entire year. When you recorded this album, did you feel it was going to be something special? Could you have ever anticipated the incredible reaction this album would have worldwide?

John: We knew it was special, but we had no idea that it would be quite so stratospheric. The singles, plus recent MTV video promotion, put times ten on our sales. The image of the group was perfect for MTV, and we sounded terrific on the radio (courtesy of Mike Stone), so we had a lot going for us.

Asia released its self-titled debut album in March of 1982. The album would go 4x platinum selling over 4 million copies in the U.S. and over 10 million worldwide. It would spend 9 weeks in the top spot on the Billboard album chart in the U.S. and would ultimately become Billboard’s #1 album for 1982 on the year-end chart.

The album included two big hits with the first being “Heat of the Moment” which would reach #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and peak at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was written by Wetton and Downes. The song's lyric “incidents arose from circumstance” is one of my all time favorites. I also feel the guitar riffs, drum beat and harmonies make the song quite special. Here is the video for “Heat of the Moment” by Asia…

Q: The first single from the album, “Heat of the Moment” became a huge hit. You and Geoff Downes are credited with writing this song. Please take us back to when you wrote and recorded that song. Is there any back story to its creation? What inspired it? Did you expect it to be such a pop hit?

John: The lyrics are an abject apology for my dreadful behavior towards a particular woman (the woman I would eventually marry, but divorce 10 years later), the chorus began its life as a 6/8 country song, but when Geoff and I started writing together, we moved the time signatures around, and “Heat of the Moment” emerged. No-one else particularly “got” the song, and it was the last song to be recorded for the album. This was the case with the next two albums (that the last song recorded was to be the first single—I think it’s because Geoff and I are very, very focused by the end of recording) with “Don’t Cry” and “Go”.

Q: Your next hit single, “Only Time Will Tell” is a personal favorite of mine. Again, please take us back to when you wrote and recorded that song. Is there any back story to its creation? What inspired this one?

John: It’s fairly self explanatory. It’s my lyrics again; a very personal one about the end of a relationship, and it’s my verse, Geoff’s chorus (“Heat of the Moment” is the other way around). I had been stockpiling songs during the leadup to Asia, and a lot of my lyrics were about personal experience–Joni Mitchell is one of my all-time heroes, and she is undisputed queen of the confessional.

“Only Time Will Tell” was the third single released from the album and would peak only at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 while reaching #8 on the Mainstream Rock chart. It begins with a distinctive keyboard riff followed by percussion leading into Wetton's outstanding vocals. Here is the video for “Only Time Will Tell” by Asia…

Q: When you have mega hit songs like those, do you (or did you) ever get sick of playing them?

John: I never tire of playing any biggie. I am grateful that it chimed with so many people, and the “hits” (whether they be Asia, King Crimson, UK) are my tattoos.

Q: Asia videos received heavy rotation on MTV which surely helped exposure and popularity. What are your thoughts on the music video medium and the impact that MTV had on music in the '80s

John: I think I mentioned earlier that MTV turned the record industry into a multi-million selling industry — songs were being paired with movies, movie clips were being used in promotional videos, and records were selling 10 times as many as before.

Q: Would you be willing to take us through what happened back in 1983 when you were briefly replaced in the band by Greg Lake? This was surprising timing since you were not there for the big “Asia in Asia” concert in December of that year which was covered live from Tokyo by MTV. Then in early 1984 you reunited with the group to start work on another album. How did that all go down?

John: I was expelled from the group in a Machiavellian conspiracy. Management and the record company combined to oust me “for personal reasons”. They said I drank too much. True. That I was arrogant. True. That I wasn’t a team player. True. But did I deserve to be expelled from the group that I started? No. Would the public accept this blatant travesty? No.

Asia's second studio album, Alpha, released in 1983 had some minor hits, but was not nearly as successful as their first. The band's third album, Astra, released in 1985 was even less successful.

Q: How did your song “Gypsy Soul” end up on the soundtrack to the 1987 Sylvester Stallone film Over the Top? You worked with Giorgio Moroder on that song, correct? What can you tell us about that experience?

John: It wasn’t my song. I just sang it. I spent a week in California with Tom Whitlock and Giorgio Moroder. I was supposed to sing “Winner Takes It All”, and did—but ended up in the film 'Over the Top' just with “Gypsy Soul”. Tristar preferred Sammy Hagar’s “Winner”. I still like mine better—it sounds more “Asia”, more controlled, with perfect harmonies, but they liked the Rock ‘n Roll of Sammy Hagar.

Here is that song featured on the Over the Top soundtrack, "Gypsy Soul" by Asia...

Q: Some '80s pop superstars “run away” from the '80s and some embrace the success and fans from that decade. (If at all) How do you personally deal with and keep the '80s alive and in perspective?

John: I love the people that still follow me from the '80s. Asia toured with Yes two years ago, and it was obvious that their core audience is a good ten years older than ours—I prefer the way we are. Also the gap is not too drastic for younger listeners.

Q: What led to you leaving Asia again in 1991, this time for a prolonged time?

John: I’ve never left this band! I decided to do a solo album ('Battle Lines') and Geoff decided to carry on without me. You be the judge of that decision, not me.

While Wetton was focusing on that solo album, John Payne joined the band as vocalist and bassist and would front Asia for about 14 years until 2006. After Wetton returned, an agreement was reached which allowed Payne to continue performing as “Asia Featuring John Payne” while the original members would also begin performing as Asia as well.

Q: What is the deal with the “Asia Featuring John Payne”? What are your feelings about another band out there performing your beloved classics?

John: Anyone, any tribute artist, can play my songs—it’s legal, and does not bother me. However, someone trying to pretend they originally performed or wrote that material does. I don’t lose any sleep over other bands staying within the law on this point.

Q: After over four decades in the business, from your perspective, how has the music industry changed over that time? And how do you see the future?

John: I don’t care to dwell on the past, or look too far into the future. I try to keep my mind firmly in today, this moment.

Q: Asia just released the album Omega in 2010. What are your feeling regarding this particular album? Where do you feel that Asia fits in to the contemporary musical landscape?

John: I don’t know, Geoff and I just do what we’ve always done—write and produce quality material—prog/pop, if you will. People still seem to like it. When they don’t, we’ll stop.

Q: What else is John Wetton up to nowadays? Musically and otherwise? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

John: No unfulfilled ambitions or regrets—everything that happened so far has been for a reason. I’ve just finished my next solo album, 'Raised in Captivity' with Billy Sherwood producing in California. I’m going on the road with Eddie Jobson, Marco Minneman and Alex Machacek in April as UK’s 30th anniversary, and Asia is back on the road in May, recording later this year.

I am very honored that John took some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. Special thanks to Patzi Cacchio for helping to coordinate the interview. To find out more John Wetton's music and legacy, please visit the official website. You can also visit the official band website.

I want to take this opportunity to again thank John Wetton for his contributions to '80s pop culture especially with Asia and, even more, for taking a moment to reminisce about the '80s with us here as well.

Follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter for a daily dose of  '80s nostalgia and read more Retro Interviews on RD80s.

Post a Comment


Close Menu