A Conversation with ASIA's Geoff Downes

A Conversation with ASIA's Geoff Downes

By David DeRocco dave@gobeweekly.com  https://twitter.com/?lang=en 

Progressive rock music bands are often referred to as dinosaurs, primarily because they ruled the earth for a short period before suffering a mass extinction in the face of punk, disco, New Romantic, 80s hair metal and grunge. Fans of the genre know prog rock never really disappeared. It evolved, as bands like YES, Genesis, and RUSH pivoted away from 27-minute-long epic suites into more pop-infused, radio friendly hit music.

One of the most successful bands to emerge during that early 80s revolution was ASIA, an English rock supergroup formed in London in 1981. The most commercially successful lineup was its original, featuring lead vocalist and bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, Uriah Heep and U.K.), guitarist Steve Howe (Yes), keyboardist Geoff Downes (Yes and the Buggles) and drummer Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer). Their debut album, ASIA, defied the critics while attracting the fans, selling over 10 million copies to become the top selling album of 1982.

Downe’s has always been the torchbearer for the band, and his new-look Asia will once again feature John Mitchell on guitars and Harry Whitley on lead vocal and bass, along with drummer Virgil Donati (UK, Southern Sons, Steve Vai, Allan Holdsworth). Downes took time to chat with GoBe Weekly about his days with YES and The Buggles, the Canadian connection with ASIA, his favourite drummer, and the impact of “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

GoBe: We prog rock fans are nothing if not loyal. How does it feel in 2024 to see the audiences still coming out to hear ASIA perform live.

Geoff: I think it’s an indication that the music was timeless. I know the ASIA music had a special part in a lot of people’s lives. I think of that first album that came out in 1982 and I think it’s carried on over the years. It’s gone from generation to generation. I think it’s a testament to the strength of that first album. It was the biggest selling album in North America that year. I don’t think that’s something that people forget about. I think the music still sounds fresh. I’m just happy to continue the legacy.

GoBe: You’ve been part of so many different musical projects, is it a solid assumption to think ASIA may be closest to your heart?

Geoff: I think as a founding member – I was in YES previously – this was the first big band I had been a part of from the beginning. Obviously there had been a few keyboard players in YES before I joined. Being the first guy in ASIA, it means a lot to me. It’s a very special band to me.

GoBe: There was two year period early on in your career where you went from the Buggles to YES to ASIA. Was that a particularly chaotic time or was it more a period of endless opportunity and musical collaboration?

Geoff: I think over a few years to be involved with all those different types of bands was pretty special. Certainly, it was a great period for me. I had the pop success with Trevor (Horn) in The Buggles. It was the first song on MTV. Then of course suddenly being transported onto the big stage with YES was a real baptism of fire. That was an interesting move, I think. Prior to that I only had done small gigs and been a session man. Being propelled into that world was really amazing and what really gave me a taste for that. When the chance to form ASIA came about, I didn’t have to think too hard about it.

GoBe: They called you a “super group.” Do you recall feelings of musical superiority or did you laugh off such labels.

Geoff: (Laughs) They called us a supergroup, but to be fair it was more a record company tag they put on it. It was a good selling point, ‘hey we got this new supergroup.’ We were the first act of Geffen records and I think Geffen wanted to make a big splash. We were at the forefront of that. We never really considered ourselves in that light. We worked really hard, it was something that was just assembled. I got to know to Steve through YES. We had a good bonding there. It was never, ‘hey we’re going to form a super group let’s pick one guy from one band.’

GoBe: When that original lineup first got together in 1981, what were the conversations like around direction and sound, songwriting. What were you hoping to achieve going into both a new band collaboration and the making of that incredible debut.

Geoff: I think from my standpoint I was really the odd man out in some respects. My background was not like Steves, John, and Carl’s. They’d all come from these big bands in the 70s, the big staging bands like YES and ELP and King Crimson and U.K., John’s connection. I hadn’t really had that 70s background. I think they found it really refreshing to have a guy like me in there, who was a bit more in tune with the mainstream if you like. I think that’s why John in particular wanted to be more involved in that side of it. We really hit if off really well and our writing displays that. We used some progressive elements, but we joined that with some more melodic choruses that was more akin to rock bands like Journey and Foreigner, Styx, that genres more so than YES or King Crimson.

GoBe: Given the often dismissive attitude of the critics of the day toward the entire “prog rock” genre, how vindicated did you feel when the album hit #1 in the US, spending 9 weeks topping the charts and selling over 10 million copies

Geoff: You don’t know what you’re going to do. There’s never predicting success at that kind of scale. I think that our goals were not really that extensive at that time. We just wanted to work together and make a good record and see what happens. Or course, it was a snowball effect we couldn’t control. We were booked into smaller venues in the beginning, some college venues, 1,000 seaters. Within two months of the album coming out it was #1 on Billboard and we had every single radio station on maximum rotation. All of a sudden, we were getting offers to play the Philadelphia Spectrum, 20,000 people. It was a very very fast rise. In many ways it was double edge sword. We were so successful out of the gate there was little growing, it was just band, we’re there at the top. That caused in some ways a few problems in its own way.

GoBe: Was the rotating line-up a cause for frustration or a source of constant inspiration as the music evolved?

Geoff: I think it’s more inspiration. When we were working together, the four of us in a room, there was a definite magic there. All very different types of musicians in some respects, but I think we had a common goal. I remember the very first rehearsal we did once we finalized who was going to be in the band. We were all sort of nodding saying, this is really good, we’re all enjoying this. That was what kept us going.

GoBe: A lot of Canadian ASIA fans might not know there’s a Canadian connection on 2001s Aura album, on which Saga’s Ian Crichton played as a brief member in ’98 and ’99. What do you recollect of those sessions.

Geoff: It was a different era of ASIA then. It was really only me from the original band still in ASIA at that point. We experimented with the AURA album and Ian Crichton, I’d actually done festivals with him years earlier. I always thought he was a punch guitarist, so I called him up and he came over and played on a bunch of stuff. We had a host of players, Simon Phillips. Tony Levin. It was a bit of an all-star unit. It was a good album. I think it stands up today.

GoBe: The family tree of the prog rock era from the late 60s through to the early 80s included so many incredibly young musicians who were making incredibly complex music. To what do you account for that generation of British virtuosity and its penchant for experimentation?

Geoff: I think we had the Beatles. They paved the way for experimentation on a number of levels. There were so many great bands around at that time, The Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, Rolling Stones of course. It was a great feeling at a time. I was a bit younger than those guys. They’re all in their 80s and I’m in my early 70s. I wasn’t really part of the 60s revolution, I was too young. Certainly looking back on it, it was an amazing period for British music because as you say there were all these incredible musicians coming up, absolute masters of their craft. That’s what really made it appealing to the Americans and the Canadians because it wasn’t their type of music. They didn’t have a moment like that. Rhythm and blues was still very much a fundamental part of American music. This progressive music movement, bands like The Who were very much pop bands until they started becoming more progressive. An album like Tommy was very progressive. There was a slow move from being pop bands into this type of progressive music. I think it was a great period. The 70s were a great period for British music generally. It travelled continents, it wasn’t just a think happening in

GoBe: What do you like and/or dislike about today’s rock music scene? The radio industry is collapsing. There are advances in technology good and bad,  Autotune, social media, home studios. What are your thoughts.

Geoff: I think there are not so many demographics. You don’t have things like Motown or straight pop. I suppose you can call it a cross referencing of things. There’s still alternative music, pop music of course. I think the technology has changed the way music is perceived in terms of the musicianship.  A kid can get on a laptop with audio interface and make records in his bedroom. That wasn’t available in our day. You had to go into the big studio together and play together. Now it’s much more modular. People work in different ways. I’m not going to knock it. I use technology as well. I think the downside is the actual musicianship is not to the fore. I think that it’s a bit like everyone can take a picture with a phone and call themselves a cameraman or photographer. It’s the way the world goes. You have to accept it because you’re not going to go back.

GoBe: You played on one of my favourite YES albums, DRAMA. What are your recollections of that stint with YES?

Geoff: That was a great period for me. As I was saying earlier, suddenly being thrust into one of the biggest bands in the world was an incredible honour but also a challenge. You can’t be in that band if you can’t make a good contribution. So I really enjoyed making the album. I think “Machine Mesiah” was the peak of that album. It’s a song we still play today with YES. It’s a great opening track.

GoBe: I’m from St. Catharines, Ontario, home to Neil Peart of RUSH. We love our drummers in this city. You’ve played with many greats including Carl Palmer. Who impressed you most over the years as the guy behind the kit.

Geoff: They all do different things. Certainly Alan White stands out for me as a phenomenal drummer, the late great Alan White, because he had a groove that no one could match. Carl’s a great drummer and an incredible showman. He’s brilliant to watch. Now that you say that I’ve worked with some of the greatest drummers in the world, Alan, Carl, the drummer we have now with ASIA is absolutely phenomenal, Virgil Donati. They’re out there these boys. I’ve been privileged to have worked with them.

GoBe: Let’s talk about the Niagara Falls show. What can fans expect from you at the OLG Stage.

Georff: We’re going to be playing quite a bit of our catalogue of music. The main thing for us is that we go out there and enjoy it. There are other bands on the bill FOCUS, Wishbone Ash, we’ve got a very good line up. I think people will be happy with that.

GoBe: Final question. You’ve created one of the most memorable pieces of ear candy in the song “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It still stands up today and it’s almost prophetic with those predictive lyrics about the fall of radio with the advent of video. When you were done recording that, did you feel you had a hit or just a novelty song?

Geoff: I feel we did because we had the backing of Island Records. They signed me and Trevor. They said this is a standout track. We worked really hard on that. The Buggles did their first album, Age of Plastic, but that one was the focus of attention. I think some people thought it was good, but really unusual. We got Island Records first ever number one. Of course it was picked up by MTV for their first video. Those were great times.


Current members


Geoff Downes – keyboards, backing vocals (1981–1986, 1990–present)

Virgil Donati – drums (2024–present)

Harry Whitley – bass, vocals (2024–present)

John Mitchell – guitar, backing vocals (2024–present)



Studio albums

Asia (1982)

Alpha (1983)

Astra (1985)

Aqua (1992)

Aria (1994)

Arena (1996)

Rare (1999)

Aura (2001)

Silent Nation (2004)

Phoenix (2008)

Omega (2010)

XXX (2012)

Gravitas (2014)


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