If Jeff Beck can be described as the ‘guitarist’s guitarist,’ then Carl Palmer surely has a viable claim to be the drummer’s drummer. Officially voted as a ‘Prog God’ in 2017, he’s been plying his trade for many years, with an early career which saw him playing in The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Atomic Rooster before being invited to occupy the drum seat in the band which became Emerson Lake & Palmer (ELP), whose music helped create the template for prog rock, and where Carl made his name as a virtuoso drummer in an ensemble with two other supremely gifted musicians, performing in a genre which, at the time, was also rammed with many other stellar musicians.
After ELP, he joined Asia who, in 1982, took the world by storm with their eponymous debut album, which sold in excess of 9 million copies and went multi-platinum. They did this by each member of the band (Steve Howe, guitar/John Wetton, bass & vocals/Geoff Downes, keyboards and Carl Palmer, drums) shedding the lengthy prog rock tunes they’d performed throughout the seventies in their previous bands (Yes/ELP/UK/Crimson) and fully embracing a more succinct commercial FM radio rock sound, which was perfectly in line with what the newly established MTV required, which disappointed many prog fans who’d been anticipating an album of top quality lengthy prog pieces, given where the band members had made their names. Asia’s songs were much shorter and more tightly structured, something seventies prog bands had largely eschewed, which left little room for the kinds of sonic expansion and improvisations prog fans enjoy.
Since then, Asia have released several more albums, had a few lengthy fallow periods, been through several line-ups – even tours with none of the original members – but despite it all the band is still in existence, albeit without Wetton (sadly deceased in 2017) and Steve Howe (now back with Yes), and in 2023, are releasing Asia: Fantasia in Tokyo, 2007, a triple album recording of a show which saw the original line-up celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary with a set comprising mostly of their greatest hits, plus several ‘heritage’ tracks from their previous bands, and Steve Howe’s take on a Big Bill Broonzy blues number.
Ahead of Fantasia’s release, Carl Palmer agreed to talk to RAMzine about the new ‘live’ album and Asia. I began by asking him, given the music all four members of the band had spent the seventies playing, what had been the thinking behind four stellar prog talents forming a band like Asia?
“Well, you have to understand the overall context. In the ’80s, prog didn’t really exist any longer on the radio. It wasn’t played, and if it got any radio play in, say, the US, it’d be at something like 4 am. It was all becoming 100% corporate and, while they’d play the occasional concert, it was difficult to get them promoted. So the whole thinking behind Asia was to take prog musicians, put together a prog band and play shorter prog pieces, like ‘Wildest Dreams’ and ‘Time Again’, which were around 5 minutes, which was long for the eighties, whereas in the seventies the intros could be longer than this!
“So, the reason we did what we did was because this was the environment we were now in. Even my previous band, Emerson Lake and Palmer, who were huge, couldn’t get played on the radio, it was very difficult, and it was the same for Yes, Genesis and King Crimson, so we were given the opportunity, and we also made use of the new video technology, which was just becoming available to us. Obviously, we needed a commercial song to open the door, like ‘Heat Of The Moment’, to get on the radio, but even ELP always had a couple of commercial tracks which could get played on the radio.
“So, what Asia was doing wasn’t new, but it was new from the perspective of prog not being as involved or as long as it’d been in the seventies, it had to be cut down, but even our hits like ‘Time Will Tell’ were very proggy.”
Was this a recognition of an eighties audience being very different from a seventies one?
“The Asia audience in America was very female-based due to the singles. There were still guys out there who were prog fans, who’d come along to see what all the fuss was about, but onstage we still played some extended pieces. We’d play proggy pieces from our individual pasts, like ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ and ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, and this made it extremely unique at the time because we were breaking down the doors, still getting played on the radio while being as proggy as we possibly could inside the environment we were now dropped into.”
Asia were also in the right place at the right time in the early eighties, wasn’t they, given MTV had just come on stream?
“Well, the whole music business is about this, really. I mean, having talent and a bit of luck is one thing, but being in the right place at the right time really works. We were part of the new social media movement, which was VH1, MTV, and David Geffen who ran the band got into it and he put it together; he knew what to do, plus how and when to do it, and he did us justice really. Our first album was huge, something like 9 million copies sold, not much by Fleetwood Mac numbers but still incredibly successful.”
Was it a help or hindrance, when Asia started, to be marketed as a ‘supergroup’?
“It never helps when people label something because you get preconceived ideas. I mean, journalists have to label music, it’s the way they survive, the way they write, the way they create their world as it were. We’d all already come from the supergroup period, so it was nothing new and it was already played out by the time we got called it the second time around in Asia. All the bands we’d previously been in as individuals, except Goeff Downes who’d been in The Buggles, had been labelled supergroups. But it’s an overused term, and I think we can thank Chris Welch (rock journalist) for using that one.”
One critic said of Asia, ‘they sacrificed artistic integrity for commercial success.’
“Hmm, artistic integrity is, what, getting played on the radio and pleasing 9 million record buyers? I’ll go with what we did as being right. One thing people have to realise is, in today’s environment, it’s very difficult for prog bands to exist, it’s nowhere near the mark. Yes, there’s a circuit of bands like Mars Volta, Steve Hackett, Dream Theatre, my own band, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy, but we all survive in this very narrow niche market, and the problem is it’s hard to break out of that niche. It wasn’t in the eighties, the opportunities were there and these were the opportunities we decided to seize.
Now, prog’s an art form that isn’t forgotten, it still has its fans, but it’s like Jazz, it still exists but it’ll never come back any bigger than it is now. We can use social media to advertise but you’re not going to get young black and Asian kids coming to prog gigs. Yes, a hit single in the right charts will help, and this is what Asia did, but whether this could be done today remains to be seen.”
In the past year, there’ve been three sets of releases of Asia ‘live,’ including the new three album set, Fantasia, Asia in Tokyo, 2007 …
“Yes, indeed. In fact, the 1983 show (Asia at the Budokan, Tokyo) was the first ‘live’ streamed satellite broadcast from Japan into the US via MTV, which David Geffen also set up. We’d bought satellite time and were all set to do it, using all the amenities available to us at the time. Unfortunately, John Wetton wasn’t able to do the show, but we’d already paid for everything and we couldn’t pull out, so Greg Lake agreed at short notice to step in and play bass and sing. But John Wetton’s on the 2007 Fantasia release, and it was great having him back in the line-up again. The set list was pretty much from our first two albums, with a few things from our previous bands thrown in, but we had a great rapport in Japan, which is why we went back and did it (25th-anniversary show) there.”
40 years on, all these new ‘live’ releases suggest there’s still a market out there, so what do you think’s the appeal of Asia?
“I don’t know how strong the market is, we’ll have to wait and see when we get the first accounting in about six months or so.
I have no idea. We had all this stuff we’d recorded which was on Frontiers, which’d come back to us, and they were just sitting there, so we decided to release them because we now own them, and BMG stepped up. I’ve a strong relationship with BMG as all of ELP’s catalogue is with them, and they’re also releasing my autobiography. We took along everything we had to BMG, all the ‘live’ recordings to see if there’s any interest, as there always has been interest in Asia, and they’ve decided to release this stuff. So there’re Asia fans at BMG !”
Asia had a stellar 1982, but then the wheels came off in 1983, didn’t they?
“Completely dismantled, yes, you’re right.”
And you never built on the momentum you’d been building up.
“No, we didn’t, absolutely right. Why? John Wetton went into a clinic because he was a chronic alcoholic. He’d been to The Priory three times and had spent 18 months of his life trying to dry out but it hadn’t worked, and maybe it was the success which got to him but, by 1983, it was all over. Which’s why, with the satellite broadcast already booked, Greg Lake stood in for him – which incidentally wasn’t my idea, it was John Kalodner’s (Geffen Records executive) because we couldn’t cancel at such short notice.
John Wetton took a long while to get himself sorted out but, by the time he did, we’d missed the pocket, the period for Asia was over because, when you have this level of success, you have to work on it, keep building on it, and you need to build Box Office around the world because, even if you don’t have a hit, fans’ll still come and see you play, and we never had the chance to do that. We never entered the realms of Journey, Foreigner or Whitesnake as we didn’t do the roadwork needed to accompany such a hit.
But for the last 13 years of John Wetton’s life, he was completely straight and it was a great pleasure to work with him again. He was also a great friend, one of the few friends in the music business I was involved with on a personal level. Unfortunately, he contracted cancer and died in 2017 but we had 13 years of being able to play together, and it was fun.”
Asia have had their ups and downs and, at one time, there was even a version of Asia touring with none of the original members!
“I think there still is occasionally! There’s a guy who goes out and tours and calls the band Asia. It was a band down in Texas and we had to buy the name Asia from him. Geoff Downes worked with another guy and was using the name Asia, which was fine with Steve and me. But when Geoff left, the other guy carried on using the name so there’ve been things like various injunctions served preventing them from going out within three months of the original Asia going out. It was all very messy but it’s reached a stage where it now kind of works for everyone.”
Asia have always had bad press from critics. Why do you think this is?
“I think it’s because of what we did. Being honest, I’ve never been in a band which’s been liked by rock critics. ELP were described as a ‘sabre rattling prog band,’ but I’ve never taken any notice of what they say. I take notice of ticket sales and album sales because this is what really means something to me, because if people are prepared to spend hard-earned money to come to a concert, who cares what the critics say? I know if we’re good and I know if we’re bad, so I don’t need any critic to tell me. I take notice of what the general public says. If they criticise the band on social media or YouTube, I’ll look at that and see what I can take from it, but I rarely take notice of what journalists say.
I’ve had this point of view for years, and I’ll tell you how it came about. Years back, some journalist wrote an article about ELP. I read it… I was one of the few in the band who did and when I got to the set list, he’d used a set list from the year before we played in the UK… he wasn’t even at the concert!! So, whatever the critics said about Asia, it was water off the duck’s back, really. I never take any of that stuff seriously.”
Mentioning critics, John Peel was famously dismissive of ELP, once stating they were “a waste of talent and electricity.” Chris Welch, who wrote the recent biography of Keith Emerson, said John Peel never forgave Emerson for breaking up The Nice.
“I don’t know if that’s true or not. I mean, Peel actually did say that, but The Nice (Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP band) had come to a very natural end, to be honest with you. I’d known Keith Emerson since I was 17, an awful long time, and whether The Nice could have gone on and done anything bigger, I don’t know, but what Keith wanted to do and the way he wanted to do it, not to say anyone’s better than anyone else, but he needed stronger, more talented people to play with, it’s really as simple as that. Greg Lake was a great songwriter and wrote songs like ‘Footprints In The Snow’, ‘C’est le Vie’ and ‘Lucky Man’, and I don’t think Lee Jackson (bass player in The Nice) ever wrote any songs like this, top 10 hits. Keith was just looking for stronger talent to work with, and he found them. John Peel not forgiving Keith for breaking up The Nice is a bit strange really.”
Looking back at everything Asia’s achieved down the years, do you think there’s a case for the band to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as, currently, neither Asia nor ELP have been inducted?
“No, we’ve not. I’m not too sure really, and I’m not too sure I’d even accept being inducted into the Hall of Fame. But, I’d probably accept it from the point of view that I’d auction the trophy or whatever it is they give you for being inducted, and try to raise some money for charity, try to do some good with it.
I’ve never really stood by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, mainly because the public has nothing at all to do with it. It’s mainly 4-5 guys, maybe a couple of women, sitting round a table deciding who goes in, and really, as far as I’m concerned, I’m already in a rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame because the public have supported ELP for so many years, and are still supporting them, both with the show I’ve got (Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy) and with Asia when we go out and play, so this is my Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the guy in the street, not 5 guys behind a desk, and I’d probably make this kind of speech on behalf of ELP when I collected the award. I would say exactly that.
It’s a bogus award, really, because the public’s not been involved. How can 5 people choose what goes in there when the music chosen is sold and played to the world? How can 5 people have the right to say this? Greg and Keith would have felt exactly the same.
As far as the guys in Asia are concerned, I’m not too sure, but this would be my approach to it. Really, it’s down to these 4-5 guys, who they like and who they don’t. It’s nothing to do with talent, or albums sold or concerts you’ve played or what the public thinks.”
When you look back over your forty years with Asia, any regrets?
“I regret it didn’t last longer when it was running at full steam, and I regret John Wetton having such a terrible disease as he was a chronic alcoholic. I regret those moments as John’s a highly talented guy, great topline writer and extremely melodic. It got a little bit MOR towards the end, as per some of the last albums we made. But he was absolutely perfect as a writer for that time, coming from King Crimson and understanding prog, understanding commerciality. He was the perfect singer, writer and bass player to have in a band at that moment in time. I regret that didn’t last longer, but I don’t regret doing it, that’s for sure.”
After all the recent ‘live’ releases, any likelihood of a new Asia studio album?
“We’re not doing anything with Asia right now. We were supposed to be touring this year, starting the back end of February. It was a double header tour, going out with Alan Parsons, but Alan’s had an operation as he has a bad problem with his back, so the tour got cancelled, and we hadn’t put anything else in as the promoter wanted to buy a package, and by the time we heard from Alan it was too late to do anything. So, at the moment, Asia has nothing on the table concerning recording or touring. This isn’t to say something won’t happen, but everyone is starting to get booked up for the rest of the year, so I can’t see anything happening in 2023 as things stand.”
You’re aware of Chris Welch’s recent book about Keith Emerson; have you seen the book and what are your thoughts?
“Yes, I’ve thumbed through it. The book arrived yesterday and it’s not the usual kind of book, it’s a celebration of his life. Some of the pictures I hadn’t seen before, though there’re some great photographs in there, and I haven’t read it all so I can’t tell you if it’s factually inaccurate or not. But Chris Welch writing the book was a good choice, no doubt about that, so I’m sure it’s as factual as it can be. I did speak to Chris when he was writing the book, and in general the book looks very good.”
Lastly, in 2017, you were voted ‘Prog God’ by Prog magazine. What did this mean to you as a musician?
“Being voted prog God is quite nice when it’s voted for by people in the same industry, and this kind of accolade I enjoy, because it’s coming from colleagues, people I’ve known for many years, so it’s a nice thing to have. I’m only opposed to anything done by a committee because music is to be shared, it’s not something for a committee to decide. I mean, record companies have committees, but at least everyone involved has to listen to the new release and put in ideas as to how it’s to be released, so even record companies have more than 4-5 people sitting around listening and deciding about a project.
When entry into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is decided by 4-5 guys, I find it degrading, but when people vote yay or nay for something like Prog God, then that to me is real because it’s the people who buy and listen to the music, who come to the shows and buy the merchandise. They’re the people that know. So, Prog God, I was okay with that, I enjoyed that.
I mean, I got put into the Hall of Fame by ‘Modern Drummer,’ a drum magazine which’s been going for many years, and that was great because, again, it was people voting and that’s really important to me. The Prog Rock awards are fantastic whereas, at the Hall of Fame awards, they’ve all paid lots of money just to be there at the awards when they’ve not been involved. That to me sucks because not one of those people has had the opportunity to vote, yet they want to pay to be part of it all. It’s just a money-making machine, and it’s nothing to do with music, it’s all to do with them. I just find this slightly weird.
Here’s a story about the Hall of Fame. As you know, they’ve a huge museum at their place in Cleveland, Ohio, and it’s full of items they’ve been given, as they very rarely buy anything. It’s a great museum and a great history maker and, from that point of view, I admire them. But, I offered them the very last drum kit I ever played with ELP. It was a stainless steel kit, all the shells were hand engraved with hunting scenes, it was an absolute work of art.
I offered to give it to them, free of charge and said they can have it for their museum as a gift in perpetuity, they didn’t have to return it. I did this because what they’re doing with the museum, I thought was the right thing. Anyway, I gave them all the details of the pick-up place and the shipping company… and then I received a message asking me if I’d pay the transportation bill from the UK to the US! I pointed out what I could get at auction for it, and I was giving it to them for free, and I’d set everything up for them, but they said they’d only accept it if I paid to send it to the US. So, there you go …
That’s when I started to look into the rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame because I wanted to know why Joan Jett had been inducted but ELP hadn’t, and that’s when I found out how they vote. Then when I realised what the company was all about, which didn’t go down well with me. It’s not right, there’s something wrong with this.”