Rock’s easiest target or no, the music of Journey is inescapable. For close to 30 years, their instantly recognizable catalog of hit singles has either delighted or disgusted music fans. But love or loathe them, songs like “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” are etched into our collective subconscious, deeper than most of us would like to admit. This summer, Sony/Legacy has re-released most of their recorded work in lavish digipaks with expanded artwork, and a handful of bonus tracks, providing an opportunity to reflect on Journey’s career as America’s most beloved corporate rock band.
If you were alive during Journey’s heyday in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, you probably have distinct memories linked to a song or two. I remember being fascinated with my father’s copy (on vinyl of course) of 1983’s Frontiers, whose neon-cyborg on the cover reminded me of my Star Wars 2-1B action figure. That album’s hit “Faithfully”, along with Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” and Paul Davis’s “Cool Night”, was a strip of sonic wallpaper inside my young skull. Keyboardist Jonathan Cain wrote the music (and lyrics) to be the epitome of lighter-waving majesty; and while we, in more cynical times, share laughs over the cheesy, over-the-top quality of that anthem, we still remember it don’t we? Journey, with Steve Perry’s sweaty, lung-busting wails, and Neil Schon’s oil slick lead guitar, does seem the exclusive province of state fair carnies in beat-up Camaros, but stripped of the cultural backlash that remains after the “alt-rock” “revolution” of the last decade, the band’s story—and music—are more than ironic air guitar fodder.
Not that Journey didn’t deserve its reputation as a capital-C Corporate Rock Band; named as part of a radio station contest, the Bay Area band always played to the whims of its sponsors and fans. Former Santana guitarist Neil Schon formed the group in the early ‘70’s as a jazz-rock trio with bassist Ross Vallory, and drummer Prairie Prince. They released three albums (none of which have been re-released in this current promotion) of mostly instrumental cuts that sold modestly well, but not enough to satisfy their label. Eventually they sought out a lead vocalist, finding former turkey farmer/Alien Project drummer Steve Perry to be the perfect fit, and tilted their style heavily in the direction of pop metal with 1978’s Infinity. This back-story has long provided fuel to the fire of debate on Journey’s integrity and credentials. After ditching the less commercially viable prog-rock of their earlier work, the band latched on to the rising popularity of metal. By negating the genre’s inherent danger and lawlessness, focusing instead almost exclusively on gooey melodies and harmonies, Journey helped make metal palatable to a wider audience. In return that wider audience made Journey one of the biggest bands in the world.
Infinity features “Lights” at the top of the order, immediately announcing the purge of any former art-rock pretensions. Opening with a cool little rhythm ‘n’ blues guitar lick, it’s a dead simple bit of pop soul, and an homage to the band’s home of San Francisco (many of you may be shocked that Journey are not Jersey boys; I sure was). The histrionics, both vocal and guitar, make their way into the song fairly quickly after its modest intro. That burst of quavering tenor and high-gloss fretwork that explodes just after the one-minute mark is where most people either bail out or rock out. But Neil Schon had always been a technique guy, and certainly no farmer was going to keep his flying fingers down. As for Steve Perry, it’s hard to imagine his voice ever sounding restrained, whether belting towards the shittiest stadium seats or asking for extra salad dressing at a restaurant. And why restrain it? When the microphone is handed to keyboardist on “Anytime”, the appeal of Perry as the voice of Journey is immediately clear. Perry’s enormous voice has character and nuance, however overblown, on schmaltzy ballads (“Patiently”) and bizarre metal riff-fests (“La Do Da”). Rolie sounds flat and average by comparison. However, it must be noted that Rolie is anything but flat or average in the accompanying press photos, wearing tighter than tight pants that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
Journey Don’t Stop Believin’
The artwork is important to discuss, because Journey was obviously very purposeful in crafting its image. Beyond the white man ‘fros, trouser snakes, and well coifed chest hair, the band worked a serious sphere/beetle/wing fixation throughout its career. Perhaps holding onto the proggy aspects of its earlier incarnation was move to retain even a mote of credibility with harder rock fans, mythical status by proxy. But the songs are mostly lovey-dovey, and at the very least mournful of lost lovey-dovey. Lovers are covered with roses, love, and joy, in that order on “Winds of March”, aiming straight for the hearts of young couples, practically begging them to slow dance with their hands in each others’ back jean pockets. Android and eagle cover art aside, Journey’s metal was unconcerned with misty mountain hopping and iron men; it was designed strictly for fornicating. Evolution hit in 1979, featuring the icky smash “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” and more gratuitous shots of Gregg Rolie’s pocket monster. By then, Journey’s pop ambitions were even further crystallized, with an abundance of ballads to showcase Perry’s burnished arena-rock charms. A cascade of swaggering blues piano opens “Lovin’” as Perry struts his voice around like Rod Stewart minus one or two lifetimes of cigarettes. But the “na na na na na” chorus is undeniably pleasurable the way good pop should be. “Lovin’” is really no different in most ways from “Yummy Yummy Yummy”, but it’s the butt of jokes because Journey presented itself as rock and roll instead of just a really good pop singles band.
Journey Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’
As Journey themselves discovered this, they became more and more popular, with a seemingly limitless supply of catchy songs climbing the charts. In 1980, the band dropped Departure on the masses, which featured every adman’s wet dream in song form “Any Way You Want It”. By that point, Journey was giving the masses exactly want they wanted, how they wanted. They’d figured out the success formula and just kept on milking the cow: dinosaur-sized hooks, Steve Perry’s voice pushed further and further up in the mix, and alternating life- and rock-affirming rock tunes with sensitive weepers. 1981’s Escape was a gigantic hit, with “Don’t Stop Believin’”, “Who’s Crying Now”, and especially “Open Arms” cradling the pop world in their hairy, meaty, yet soft and comforting arms. The band also moved so incrementally with the times as to be imperceptible, but the changes did come. They began to lean heavier on pianos and synths, especially after the replacement of Rolie with Jonathan Cain. Escape begat Frontiers begat Raised on Radio and so on and so forth. These are the songs you know so well it makes little sense to describe them here. They were everywhere then, and are everywhere to this day. Long before being assigned to cover the reissues, I’d begun to notice how often I’d been overhearing Journey songs during my daily routine, until I finally cracked and made “Wheel in the Sky” my phone’s ringtone.
After a successful Steve Perry solo jaunt, the boys reconvened for Raised on Radio as a trio of Cain/Perry/Schon, and quietly disbanded until a 1996 reunion. All eight of Journey’s albums with Perry are given the treatment, as well as their Greatest Hits, which is probably the most important. I don’t know whether or not Journey cared more about penning successful radio songs or making solid front-to-back albums, but hindsight proves their far greater skills as a singles band. The parent records are sugary fun, and the curiosity factor might be high for people who only know the hits, but the hits were hits for good reason, and the rest weren’t. Put another way, the quickie Journey is a lot more satisfying than the tantric Journey. When you’ve grown weary of irony, self-loathing seriousness, and aggression, and you can let go, Journey is great fun, and there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that.
Journey Any Way You Want It