It's a long story with some happy parts and some sad parts, much passion and intensity, and years of great music. Read on. . .
ASIA was a self-described progressive art rock band from Rapid City, South Dakota, which is on the edge of the beautiful Black Hills, where spiritualism and Native American lore still abound. The band was formed in early 1977 and toured extensively throughout the upper Midwest and parts of Canada until early 1982.
ASIA recorded two independently released albums, ASIA (1979) and ARMED TO THE TEETH (1980), released two singles, "The Road of Kings" and "Paladin," and backed up many major touring acts like NAZARETH, TED NUGENT, MOLLY HATCHET, KISS, BTO, and others. This is the story of those very special times and, most importantly, of our music.
-- Mike Coates
Lead guitarist, keyboardist, and composer for ASIA and WhiteWing
WhiteWing live, 1971
Lead vocalist/bassist Mike English and I had long been members of a Rapid City art rock band called WhiteWing (1968-1976) and had recorded an eponymously titled album with a Minneapolis- based record company called ASI in 1975. ASI released a single entitled, "Hansa," off that album, which received spotty national and international airplay and made the BILLBOARD Top Singles Picks list.
Album sales were weak, however, because distribution to the hundreds of small Midwestern towns we typically toured were very poor and difficult to coordinate with airplay. ASI also chose rather foolishly to promote us as "the next Moody Blues," when, in fact, we were much heavier, much to the surprise of many promoters, booking agents, and club owners. After considerable album promotion touring and countless radio interviews, ASI chose not to pick up the contract option for our second album (which was fully composed and in demo form) primarily because they were in the midst of a belt-tightening stage after the mid-Seventies recession.
However, company president, Dan Holmes (left), who had produced our album, strongly encouraged me to release the WhiteWing rhythm section, hire guest vocalist Larry Galbraith (from another Rapid City band called FREE FLITE), and to stay in close contact with ASI for future recording projects. I took his advice and made those hard decisions, although leaving WhiteWing and my old friends was very painful and I questioned that move and my motives for many years to come.
Those same ex-band members were reluctant to sell the WhiteWing name (which was a corporate holding), so Mike, Larry, manager Mike Chambers, and I set out to form a totally new band and image. After a series of auditions we landed Nebraska- based drummer John Haynes and the new line-up was complete. Larry coined the name ASIA, and, because we all loved the mystical, exotic and expansive implications, the name stuck.
WhiteWing Band Members 1968-1974
Original WhiteWing: Mike Drew, lead vocals/organ (1968-1973); Rod Schroeder, vocals/guitar; Mike Coates, lead guitar; Gary Cass, bass; Norm Curtis, drums.
Other Members: Mike Niva, lead vocals/organ (1974), Mike English, lead vocals (1974).
Band roster on WhiteWing album: Mike English, lead vocals, Mike Coates, lead guitar; Tim Renshaw, keyboards; Gary Cass, bass; Norm Curtis, drums.
ASIA was formed with the express intent of capitalizing on the successes of WhiteWing and learning from its failures. We set out to make a more sophisticated, yet accessible music, which would clearly feature the considerable vocal and guitar strengths of the band, with keyboards and elaborate production initially taking a secondary role. Our musical objective was to record an album every other year and to establish a strong enough track record of singles airplay to attract the attention of a major label (--and it almost worked!). We especially wanted to correct past business mistakes. Reluctant to leave the Black Hills and our families, ASIA abandoned old WhiteWing practices of touring any and every small town and concentrated on the club circuit in the more urban areas of the upper Midwest (e.g., Rapid City, Fargo, Omaha, Kansas City, Winnipeg, and Minneapolis) where we could more readily supply album stock. And, finally, our manager, Mike Chambers, purchased a bar in Rapid City, ("The Barbarian") that was to become our base of operations. I remember now clearly stating my personal goals to the other band members: "I want to create a music my children will be proud of, and I want to leave this band the way we started it . . . as friends."
The first ASIA album was recorded at ASI studios in Minneapolis in two sessions in early 1978 and it, too, sought to correct problems in the WhiteWing project. ASI had edited what was supposed to have been a total concept WhiteWing album into select tunes to better accomodate airplay objectives. I was so disappointed in the end result that I vowed to make each ASIA composition self-sufficient in its own right. Borrowing on an old Sixties DEEP PURPLE formula, I sought to compose pieces that could be edited for airplay, yet which in their original form featured long middle instrumental passages where the band could really get down to the business of music-making for our more ardent fans.
We wanted a leaner, more straight ahead sound with fewer overdubs on the first ASIA recording, and our initial sessions with Dan Holmes yielded the recordings of "A Better Man For Leaving" and "The Road of Kings." When we returned later to ASI to complete the project, Dan inexplicably assigned Minneapolis bassist/producer, Dick Hedlund, to the project, with what I would characterize as having mixed results. Recording my guitar (a 1969 SG through a 1973 100 watt Marshall) was always a real problem in those days, basically because we were very, very loud, and Dick was, after all, a bass guitarist. But we liked working at ASI because they had an unusually large sound room and decibel levels were not an issue there as they were at other studios. However, basic sounds were always a problem. We worked for over 12 hours to get a guitar sound on that project, and the end result was, unfortunately, less than satisfactory.
One of my Marshall cabinets was recorded in an office hallway while I monitored at stage volume level in the main room with the band's full sound system functioning as my monitor! As crazy as it sounds, these were not problems unique to us--we knew that from talking to major artists like NAZARETH and REO SPEEDWAGON. But they were problems that ASI engineers generally could not surmount, and so the sound of the band on vinyl really suffered. Because of the more inferior nature of that first production I have chosen to include the ASIA album after the ARMED TO THE TEETH tracks on the current CD compilation. I am, however, very proud of the performances and compositions.
The second ASIA album...
"Armed to the Teeth," 1980 vinyl release on ASI,
1995 CD release on Wild Places.
MP3 sound sample: "Thunder Rider"
MP3 sound sample: "Khan"
MP3 sound sample: "The Bard"
ARMED TO THE TEETH was recorded at ASI in early 1980 with John Calder (below, right) as engineer. I enjoyed working with John because he was always very patient with me in working on guitar tones and because he had worked with the likes of Eddie Kramer, had album credits with BAD COMPANY, and had mastered a RAINBOW album. I am indebted to him, as I learned a great deal at his elbow. John was also never shy and would readily offer criticism, so we seemed like a perfect match.
Our album recording sessions typically took two short weeks. The first week's schedule was usually something like this: Day One--Sounds and Basic Tracks; Day Two--Electric Guitar Overdubs (18 hours straight on ARMED TO THE TEETH); Day Three--Vocals; Day Four--Sweeteners (all acoustic guitars and keyboards). Friday was always a travel day to a weekend performance. Week Two was dedicated to mixing and that usually worked out to an hour per recorded minute. Anyone who has ever been involved in recording would know that this is a ridiculously difficult and limiting time schedule, as was our miniscule $10,000 budget. However, we were extremely well-rehearsed and prepared to offset these shortcomings. Mike English and I had both become more than familiar with recording studio practices and had begun to assume a very active role in the recording and mixing process. In fact, I view ARMED TO THE TEETH as my first real album production credit. Preparation became our password to bring in the best quality project on a shoe-string budget. To that end for the ARMED TO THE TEETH project we had rented a little studio in Rapid City for two weeks of dusk-to-dawn rehearsals. We were so distressed with past experiences capturing guitar tones that we actually constructed a small portable room with curtains that housed my recorded Marshall 4x12 cabinet. For this project we walked in the door of ASI, set up my room in an isolated area, and were ready to go in five minutes. Nevertheless, these sessions were totally exhausting for everyone involved. It was at that time that I developed our motto, repeated many years later in mantra-like fashion to my audio production students: "In five years you will not remember how tired you were tonight or how much you hurt. The people who will buy your recordings and listen to your music will never know, either--so do what it takes to get the job done now!"
I must also recognize the efforts of Doug Johnson, who, at the time, was a very young drummer we hired to replace John Haynes. Doug was still wet behind the ears and no match for Haynes, but he had classical training and was willing to work extremely hard, so we opted to break in a rookie and teach him the ropes, as our other options at the time were limited and otherwise not acceptable. It is a credit to Doug that he performed as well as he did on this project considering the circumstances.
Ultimately, ARMED TO THE TEETH is quintessential ASIA. At no other time did our aesthetic come so close to being realized; never were our performing skills more focused and honed; never was my song writing so blatantly unrestrained and concentrated--I had simply given up on trying to be anything or anyone else and had plunged headlong into a world of heroic fantasy and spiritualism where muscular guitars and beautiful melodies passionately embraced. All this made the end of our universe that much more difficult to cope with when it collapsed. And collapse it did.
The demise of ASIA was a tale of classic rock and roll tragedy. I've told the story so many times in the last ten years that I hope this account relieves me, at least, in part, of that responsibility in the future. But here it is for the record.
After the completion of ARMED TO THE TEETH there was a considerable amount of time that passed before we saw finished product--six months, as I recall. So many odd things occurred which affected the release date that when one looks back at the string of events it seemed like our fate was pre-determined. We had put everything we had--financially and emotionally--into that project. I had personally invested almost two years of work and hundreds of hours into the album, and we had all entered the project with a certain sense of desperation. I think the band felt that it was our last shot, but we were very pleased with the final mixes and were excited about the imminent release. Our management had just secured a distribution deal that would rack product clear to the west coast and "Paladin" had entered a coordinated number of Midwestern radio stations. Things were looking quite positive and the morale of the band was high. Then, without warning, a news story came out over the NBC newswire about a European supergroup ASIA that was forming with band members from YES, ELP, and KING CRIMSON. Radio stations dropped our single like a hot potato and we scrambled to meet with our attorneys. We had not yet trademarked the name because our experience in WhiteWing had demonstrated that we actually had to use the name for a number of years before we could officially register it, but now materials were hastily gathered and mailed off.
During the wait for our trademark, we confidently proceeded as if we were certain owners of the name. We sent the European ASIA copies of both of our albums to demonstrate our ownership along with an assurance that we were willing to negotiate a settlement. I remember our initial offer was $100,000 for the name or a slot on their world tour (--we were not money hungry, we wanted the tour!) Not long after we heard from Brian Lane, former manager of YES, and the manager of this new "supergroup." He indicated that he felt our monetary offer was absurd but that his band was interested in negotiating--in fact, he said, they were very interested in our band because they had enjoyed the albums, adding that we sounded "very British." Counter offers were bantered around for several weeks until one morning manager Mike Chambers and I found ourselves sitting in our lawyer's office on a conference call to Brian Lane, who, the day before, had dropped a bomb on us. Mr. Lane explained that his investigations had turned up seven different "ASIAs" in the world, and that he had just procured the name from a Louisiana outfit. His legal representative in the U.S., Elliot Hoffman, had supplied our lawyer with the official documentation, i.e., the alleged registered trademark numbers (which I saw), and we all thought: "This is it . . . it's all over." Then, curiously, he offered a much smaller settlement, saying that his organization was not in the business of crushing other smaller bands--especially good ones. He offered five thousand dollars and proposed to fly to Rapid City to meet us and to help us negotiate a contract with a major label (the eventual contract specified that he would accompany Chambers and myself to four major labels within the year). We were, of course, stunned, but in no position to turn down his offer.
Within weeks Brian Lane was in Rapid City where he watched us perform at "The Barbarian." After the performance he was extremely complimentary, comparing Larry to David Coverdale and claiming that I was "as good as any guitarist on the face of the planet." Two days of intense discussion ensued, and it appeared that Mr. Lane was genuinely interested in the band. He said that our only fault was our birthplace and at one time even offered the services of Pete Sinfield as a lyricist, claiming that he was the English poet's landlord. I also clearly remember asking him why someone like Carl Palmer, who had accomplished so much musically, would ever be involved in such an obviously commercial venture as he had explained this new European ASIA was conceived to be. His answer, in a heavy British accent, was this: "Carl can't get a job anywhere in England, and he's just plain bored." Before Mr Lane left, he even assembled a list of new names for our band, all of which I found to be infinitely forgettable. He also insisted that I begin playing keyboards onstage again, in addition to my guitar duties, which I ultimately did do. All in all, he was extremely complimentary and we were exhilarated when he left--this seemed to be the break we had sought for so many years.
After Brian Lane returned to England we were to call and arrange a time for our rendezvous at various major labels (Geffen & Atlantic were his early targets). Over the course of the next three months we called more than forty-five times, but Lane was never available. His secretary alluded to the fact that he had been in an auto accident, but no other information was forthcoming. Then, the next bombshell hit--our trademark application suddenly returned granting us exclusive ownership of the name ASIA! We were stunned. Apparently the Louisiana ASIA story had been a total scam. We immediately notified Mr. Lane and his attorney that we considered the deal null and void and that we were suing him and his band for fraud. Two days later Mr. Lane called, claiming he was on the coast at a major record label and inquiring why we were not there to meet him!
Over the next several months our manager drove to both Minneapolis and Denver to meet with Lane and the actual members of ASIA about our suit. There was even talk that Carl Palmer wanted to manage us, but that we needed to make an effort to be more commercial. I remember screaming, "Carl Palmer, of EMERSON, LAKE, & PALMER, is going to call me and ask me to write more commercially?!" But, of course, nothing happened.
We toured arduously for months with a new incarnation of the band known as SOLOMON KANE in order to pay our mounting legal fees. Our lawyers had all maintained that if we could bring the case to court in South Dakota we could win. But the fact that this was an international suit, requiring many depositions from international celebrities and exorbitant amounts of money, eventually overwhelmed us. In early 1983 the other members of the band decided we could no longer fight and dissolved the band.
The postscript to this tale is not quite so gloomy. I was horribly depressed and distraught by what had happened in the last months of ASIA. Always the strength of the band, this time I collapsed and there was no one to pick me up except my family. I subsequently moved to Moorhead, Minnesota and enrolled at Moorhead State University as a freshman at the ripe old age of thirty. I did make efforts to continue the lawsuit, especially when I met David Ludwick, the lawyer for the country band, ALABAMA, at a seminar at MSU. But after a couple of years, Mr. Ludwick conceded that he could not risk the case on a contingency basis--and I was still broke. He also pointed out the fact that several key documents--most notably the one chronicling the fraudulent trademark numbers supplied to us by Mr. Hoffman--were missing from our files. It didn't surprise me.
Years passed and I wound up teaching electric and classical guitar and audio production as an Assistant Professor of Music at Moorhead State University for the better part of a decade. My exceptionally fine students performed regularly with my wife Linda and me in a number of rock music concert extravaganzas (pictures below) that included tributes to Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Beatles, Queen, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer as well as special programs for the university that included "You Say You Want A Revolution: American Music from 1968-1971" and "The Scary Monsters of Rock" Halloween show (which covered thirty years of rock history!). All of these programs were also aired as video programs on Prairie Public Television throughout a five-state, two-province region.
My audio production students--who were second to none--released six consecutive annual contemporary music recording projects called "Dragon Tracks" (left) that showcased their musical and technical skills. All in all, it was an incredible period of time for all of us that came to an abrupt and unpleasant end two years ago. Unspeakable academic power struggles and an expressed desire by the MSU Music Department to de-emphasize the role of rock music in the Music Industry program caused me to resign. Linda and I subsequently created both Raptor Studios and Barking Dog Records--on-going efforts that bring us never-ending artistic joy and musical pleasure (as well as the typical hassles of independent business!) and I must confess that I still marvel at the strange workings of the fates!
However, the saga of ASIA was not yet quite complete. About five years ago I started getting telephone calls from a couple of album collectors who sought old ASIA product. Most of these people turned out to be self-serving entrepreneurs (buying product from former band members at bargain prices and selling units for exorbitant prices) so I generally ignored them, but one stayed after me like an old dog--Michael Piper (right). And, after several years of cautious communication and business dealings, Mr. Piper agreed to release both ASIA albums on a single CD collection. The original master tapes were not to be found, so Michael had virgin stock transcribed to DAT on the west coast. I subsequently had that transcription run through Sonic Solutions at Precision Tapes in Minneapolis, and then re-mastered the DAT tapes myself at Moorhead State. The restoration still has blemishes--surface noise, tape hiss, and groove distortion are occasionally evident--but it does finally document the band in the digital universe, and I am still extremely proud of this work and grateful to Michael Piper for his relentless diligence and caring in pursuing this project. Those were very special times which I will always cherish. ASIA was not just a band, but a way of life for some extremely dedicated and talented musicians who sacrificed so very much--and I am proud to have called them friends. And I am indeed proud to play the music of ASIA for my children.
November 27, 1996
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