WHILE HYPING ASIA’S UPCOMING ALBUM, Armada, singer/bassist John Payne insists it’s “a return to the sound of the first Asia album.” The album to which Payne refers, of course, is the eponymous one released 28 years ago that has gone platinum six times over and features the timeless classics “Heat of the Moment” and “Only Time Will Tell.”
Comparing a latest work to a coup de grâce is common practice among rock stars. But here’s the thing: Neither Payne nor the three other members of his incarnation of Asia were members of Asia when Asia was released in 1982. And here’s another thing: A second Asia — featuring the four guys who founded the band and were wholly responsible for the band’s several radio hits — is also alive and well.
Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s hardly a secret that almost no rock band — regardless of pedigree — maintains the same lineup throughout its career. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is filled with bands that have had members fired, quit or die. (And in the Rolling Stones’ case, all three — although, technically, guitarist Brian Jones died after he was fired.) In Asia’s case, after their third album, 1985’s Astra, failed to yield any major hits, the band dissolved. It was revived by original keyboardist Geoff Downes six years later. Singer and bassist John Wetton, however, as well as guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Carl Palmer, weren’t interested.
That’s when Payne was brought in, along with some other hired guns, to help round out the new Asia ensemble. For the next 14 years, Downes, Payne and various others recorded eight studio albums and toured the world as Asia — although without any new hit singles, only the most die-hard fans bothered to notice.
Among those most ardent fans was Andy Stitzer, the titular 40-year-old virgin in the film by Judd Apatow. The 2005 blockbuster film sparked an Asia renaissance — and this time, the original members of Asia wanted back in, which, of course, meant Payne was out. But Payne — having been in the band for nearly 15 years — felt he was entitled to use the Asia name too. After some legal tumbling, a deal was reached where the original Asia could carry on as “Asia,” while Payne’s Asia would henceforth be known as “Asia Featuring John Payne.”
Payne admits that having two Asias isn’t ideal. While the Andy Stitzers of the world may be aware of the distinction, those seeing Asia Featuring John Payne amid other classic rock bands in a festival setting like this month’s Thunder Mountain Rockfest in Sawyer, N.D., may not.
“At the end of the day,” Payne says, “as long as people leave the show happy and feel they got value for their money, then I’m happy.”
Downes, who along with his original bandmates released a new album called Omega in May, doesn’t feel threatened by the competing Asia he left behind. “I think the people, if they remember the first couple of albums with the original lineup, that’s the thing they tend to relate to,” he says. “It doesn’t bother us that much, to be honest. Good luck to him, really.”
While the reunited Asia performs no material from the John Payne era, Asia Featuring John Payne does play hits from the original Asia era — despite the fact that no one in Payne’s band had anything to do with their creation. It’s a double standard that Payne is acutely aware of.
“If I didn’t play some of the hits, you would get people being disappointed at shows,” Payne says. As for recording a new album that harks back to an Asia debut he played no part in, Payne explains, “I have to pay homage to what the band is all about. Otherwise there would be no point in hanging on to the name if it was going to wind up sounding like Coldplay or something.”