It’s hard to imagine the radio and MTV landscape of the early 1980s without the supergroup Asia. A collection of British prog rock veterans, the group filled the airwaves with anthems such as “Heat of the Moment,” “Only Time Will Tell” and “Sole Survivor” from their debut 1982 album.
A second album — “Alpha” — in 1983 gave fans more hits along with the legendary “Asia in Asia” concert in Tokyo, the first-ever concert broadcast over satellite via MTV in the United States. (Watch veejay and 80s Cruise veteran Mark Goodman introduce the band in Japanese!)
Fast forward to 1991 and Asia fans found a new singer fronting the band — John Payne, a veteran guitarist, singer and bass player who had worked with legends such as Roger Daltrey and had befriended Asia keyboardist Geoff Downes along the way. With original vocalist John Wetton leaving the band, Asia needed a new frontman, and Downes asked Payne if he would take the job.
“I didn’t say yes straight away,” Payne told Stuck in the ’80s in the most recent podcast. “I’d been working with Geoff on a project called Rain, and then during that time I was asked to join ELO as a vocalist. … It took me a couple of days to think about it … and then I went, ‘What am I thinking about because I should do it.'”
Payne and Downes guided Asia through six studio albums and tours around the globe during their 15 years together. In 2006, Downes broke ties with Payne to go recreate the original lineup, leaving the singer feeling confused and a little bit hurt.
“I wasn’t really happy. It wasn’t handled greatly. … We had a meeting and Geoff just said, “Oh, I am re-forming Original Asia.’ We were sharing a house together at the time in Burbank, and that was basically the last time I saw him.”
When Asia featuring John Payne steps aboard The 80s Cruise this spring, look for Payne to play the songs that made the band stars of the radio dial in the early 80s — and to play several of his songs from later albums.
Here are some highlights from John’s conversation with Stuck in the ’80s:
SIT80s: This isn’t your first cruise, is it?
John Payne: I did one with the Moody Blues. It left from Florida. The Zombies did it as well. It was a lot of fun, and I didn’t think it would be as much fun. It’s a good vibe with everyone, and by the end of cruise, it ends up as one big family.
SIT80s: Cruises are obviously unusual gigs, but what other shows really stand out for you?
John Payne: One of them would have to be the first official (Asia) show I did with the band in ’92, which was in Tokyo. It was kind of surreal for me, starting as a fan of the band who was actually pinching myself for being in the band 10 years after its inception. That was very magical.
SIT80s: Why do you think Japan is such a hot market for Western rock groups?
John Payne: Japan – the culture is very different from ours, so they’re fascinated by our culture. There is also an extreme fan base for a lot of music starting with jazz. They’re very into top-end players. There’s something about the Japanese that appreciates all the hard work and learning and skill that’s gone into something. And Asia, initially coming from a supergroup of prog musicians who were at the top of their game in 1982, I think it struck a chord with Japan and it still does. I can’t wait to go back there again.
SIT80s: You mention “supergroup.” Did that tag begin with Asia?
John Payne: It was the first band named a supergroup, I think. There was a kickback against it because it might seem conceited to call it a supergroup, but that’s really what it was. … From a prog perspective, all these guys crossed over into the mainstream, which hadn’t really happened so much in that genre of music, which also, I think, pissed off deep prog fans when they heard the first Asia album. You had songs like “Heat of the Moment” that were very radio friendly, and that’s the antithesis of what a lot of prog fans wanted.
SIT80s: What did you think of the first album?
John Payne: I really liked it. I was always song-based and I am to this day. You can have the greatest musicians on the track, but if you don’t have a good song there, it really doesn’t stand the test of time. The song sensibility and the harmonies really blew me away.
SIT80s: A lot of bands have split into two entities – Jefferson Starship, Styx come to mind. What do you do to keep your version of Asia alive and strong?
John Payne: We play some of the material from all the albums that I did. People are wanting to hear – obviously – the original album – even the first three albums. You can’t get away from the fact that if you’re using anything in association with the name Asia, you must play “Heat of the Moment.” You must play “Only Time Will Tell.” You must play “Sole Survivor.” And I’ve played these songs for so long now that they’re part of me even though I wasn’t involved with them in the first place. … The fact is album sales direct most of what your set will be. But I love going deeper into tracks and playing some stuff more from my era. And on the cruise, I want to go deeper into that catalog as well.
SIT80s: I think you’ll find the crowd on the ship is going to be very receptive of that. Cruise fans love good music.
John Payne: Oh, that’s fantastic. I’m also looking forward to it because there’s a few people I haven’t bumped into in ages.
SIT80s: Like who?
John Payne: Terri Nunn and Berlin. I toured with them in 2002 – quite a few dates, like 30 concerts across the states.
SIT80s: If you could book your own music cruise, what bands would you choose for the lineup?
John Payne: Great question. I would like to do an ultimate album tour. So you have the most iconic classic rock albums. Supertramp doing “Breakfast in America.” You have Foreigner doing “Foreigner 4.” Boston – the first Boston album. “Tommy” – The Who. I think that would be very cool.
(Listen to the full interview at www.sit80s.com. Steve Spears is the creator and co-host of the award-winning Stuck in the ’80s podcast. He and co-host Brad Williams also emcee Big 80s Triva on board The 80s Cruise. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter, and listen to their show on your favorite podcast app.)