As the new wave ‘80s eclipsed the convoluted ‘70s, glancing back a quarter century brought visions of rock in its infancy. From Chuck Berry duck-walking across America to Bo Diddley infusing music with his proprietary beat, the landscape of 1955 was as uncharted as it was uncluttered, and rife with potential. In 2006 however, the same 25 year retrospective view returns us to the dawn of the ‘80s, where genres collided and platinum sellers sprouted from the earth like crabgrass. It was a time when music became more a corporate endeavor than an artistic one, and the rock’n'roll innocence of the ‘50s lived on solely in television and film. And it was in 1981 when a quintet of pop-rockers from San Francisco staked its claim as one of the globe’s biggest attractions, with a mix of lightweight rock fare and infectious balladry.
Looking back from a 21st century perspective, the success of Journey is puzzling, yet undeniable. The band morphed from an early-‘70s prog-jazz outfit into a massive commercial success in but a few years’ time, and nary a prom-going high-schooler from ‘79-‘83 didn’t have a Journey tune ingrained in his/her memory bank. The DVD Live in Houston 1981—Escape Tour chronicles the group on stage and rapidly approaching its career peak, but does little to answer the questions of How? and Why? Journey became as popular as it did.
The roughly hour-and-one-half set showcases Journey touring on the heels of its album Escape, which, by the time the Houston concert was filmed, had reached #1 on the charts. Journey’s popularity had steadily grown since Perry’s arrival in 1977, appealing to a wider fan base than similarly generic pop-rock bands like Styx and REO Speedwagon. And with Escape, the band was very much a Steve Perry-directed entity, despite its earlier incarnation as guitarist Neal Schon’s project. Perry’s unique vocal range was the defining quality of Journey, and his voice is identical live as it is on record. He belts out flawless renditions of (what would become) staples like “Lights” and “Wheel in the Sky”, incorporating requisite degrees of crooning passion as he did in the studio. Perry also boasts a peculiar, albeit engaging, stage presence as he stutter-steps his way around the perimeter. Often he seems oblivious to the band around him, other times, he is completely engrossed in bonding with his audience and interacting with his fellow musicians. (Perry’s aloofness toward his band mates would become problematic down the road).
From the opening notes of the album’s title track there is a glaring incongruity between the band’s industry stature and its visual image. The spectacular success Journey enjoyed in 1981-82 is juxtaposed against its decidedly unspectacular appearance; merely five guys in designer jeans, track sneakers, and sleeveless t-shirts all looking painfully early ‘80s. Witnessing the band nearing its commercial and creative zenith also reveals an aspect of Journey that has been lost to history: Aside from the focal point of Perry’s vocals, the music’s most important element is Jonathan Cain’s keyboard prowess. Cain’s contributions to Journey were no less than Billy Powell’s to Lynyrd Skynyrd, as “Open Arms”, “Who’s Cryin’ Now” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” each open in I-can-name-that-tune-in-three-notes fashion. What Journey lacked in rock muscle was made up for in Cain’s piano, which laid the foundation for the group’s biggest hits. The extent of Cain’s work also hid a strange truth about Journey… that Neal Schon was a helluva guitar player. Unfortunately for Schon, the scope of Journey’s musical style afforded him minimal opportunity to let loose as a pure rocker, and kept him out of the upper echelon of ‘70s and ‘80s six-string practitioners.
So with a full set list, including the two-song encore of the excruciatingly earnest “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” and upbeat “Anyway You Want It”, what purpose does Live in Houston 1981—Escape Tour serve 25 years later? For long-time Journey fans, the DVD is a classic piece of concert footage, one that will transport aficionados back to a time when the band was a major force in music. It also includes some interview segments from 1981 which give band members face time to discuss Journey’s origins and musical direction. But the disc will do nothing for viewers who never cared about Journey, nor will it gain any converts.
The DVD is very much a period piece, highlighting a rather unremarkable band that happened to strike a chord in the hearts of the musical mainstream. Journey appealed mostly to fans eschewing punk, new wave, disco, and heavier rock, and carved out a successful niche for itself . . . that appeal lives on in Journey’s loyal, and maturing, fan base. The music hasn’t aged particularly well, as it harmlessly traversed the pre-MTV realm of pop-rock, but there’s no denying the magnitude of Journey from nearly a quarter century ago. Chalk it up as one of life’s great unsolved mysteries.