Whatever else might be happening in the world at present, now is currently a good time if you’re a fan of Asia, because following on from last autumn’s 5-CD boxset of Asia gigs from 1982-2008 comes a sumptuously packaged boxset release of the band’s 6 December 1983 gig at the Budokan, comprising 2 CDs, featuring both the US and Japanese versions, 2 coloured vinyl albums, one white and one yellow, a Blu-ray disc of the gig taken from the original MTV concert footage, previously only available on video, which also includes a documentary, The Road To Budokan. There’s also a 40 page booklet containing sleeve notes and contemporary comments from three of the band, showing all the glossy colour pics of the band you could ever want, plus a badge and 9 especially created pieces of memorabilia from the tour, eg, a mock-up of a backstage pass. The artwork on the box was especially designed by Roger Dean, and all this can be yours for a mere smidgeon over £100.
Asia rode to almost instant fame upon the release of their eponymously titled debut album in 1982, which effortlessly embodied the sound of the newly started MTV and it sold in the quadrillions, going multi-platinum in the USA. All four members of the band – Steve Howe (guitar) Geoff Downes (keys) Carl Palmer (drums) and John Wetton (bass and vocals) – had lengthy pedigrees in prog rock but, on this album, they left prog well and truly behind them and fully embraced the MTV ethos of a slick presentation and clean sound taking precedence over substance.
In 1983, they released the follow-up album Astra, which sold nothing like as many, and toured to support the album, which included three dates at the legendary iconic Japanese venue, The Budokan, and in December 1983, the second of the three shows made televisual history by being the first ‘live’ broadcast between Japanese TV and MTV, which required a special control room having to be constructed to cope with the production requirements and, to cover themselves just in case, the previous night’s show was also recorded and is included in this set, though one disc says US time and the other says Japanese, but whatever, for the period, the ‘live’ broadcast was still an amazing technological feat.
However, be warned… this isn’t the original Asia. Following the release of Astra, John Wetton left the band in the autumn of 1983. But Asia were committed to performing the gig so, despite being asked at only two weeks’ notice, Greg Lake agreed to help out his old ELP friend Carl Palmer and stepped up to the plate, learning the whole set very quickly and fronting the band, though certain songs had to be changed slightly to allow for Lake’s differing vocal range, with Downes stating certain keys had to be modulated down by as much as a major third to accommodate Lake’s voice. Steve Howe: ‘The show was an important global commitment, and we had to rise to the occasion, which we did with Greg’s help. We couldn’t have done it without him, that’s for sure.’
This was the only gig Lake ever performed with Asia, but his singing is a standout feature of the gig, and it’s an intriguing thought to wonder what Asia would have been like had he been one of the original band? Similarly, as virtually everything is written by Downes and Wetton, what would’ve been the case had Steve Howe been involved in the songwriting? Didn’t he want to get involved or was he overruled?
If you’re a fan of Asia and you know their first two albums, then you’ll know everything on offer here, which includes tried and trusted favourites like Sole Survivor, Here Comes The Feeling, Open Your Eyes and, of course, Heat Of The Moment, all of which had been road hardened after a year of touring and playing, and all performed as well as you’d expect from musos of this quality. However, like everything Asia have ever recorded, what they produce on stage is almost note for note what’s on the studio album. The only main difference is in the quality of the vocals where, despite Wetton’s ability as a musician, Greg Lake’s vocal delivery towers above anything Wetton could offer. There’s no doubt every one of these four guys is a master of his instrument, but Asia epitomise the maxim ‘you play safe, you get safe.’ There are hardly any deviations from the script, which at the time was very surprising given the four musicians here had all made their names in bands where going off-piste with inspired improvisational pieces was almost de rigueur. But then they’d hit on a formula, they knew what worked, it was clearly what their audience wanted and they stayed true to it.
Twelve of the sixteen tracks are from the first two albums, and three others being the obligatory solo spots. Of these Steve Howe’s glorious Sketches In The Sun is the standout track, with Steve showing dexterously gorgeous touches on 12-string acoustic guitar. Geoff Downes gives us the imaginative pieces Setting Sun and Bolero, and Carl Palmer works his way through a powerful solo, a short one by his standards, only three minutes, which is high on audience participation with the crowd clearly enjoying it. Palmer remains, along with the late Jon Hiseman, one of the very few drummers who can perform solos and make them interesting rather than musical marmite.
Two years after this show, Asia fell apart – for the first time – but Asia At The Budokan is a timely reminder of what they were like in all their pomp and glory where, for a short period after forsaking prog, from a standing start, they became one of the biggest bands in the world. As Downes says ‘This set deserves its place in the Asia Catalogue’.