Why they remain the ultimate AOR band
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I believe you should love whatever music you love, and not be ashamed. I love it all equally. I have all of Andy Williams’ albums as well as the entire CAN catalog. And I love Buzzcocks just as much as I love Neil Sedaka. To me, there’s no difference between Van Morrison and Van Halen – they have both made great records. My love for The Carpenters is as strong as my passion for The Beatles. And how could I not love both Elvis Presley AND Elvis Costello? Finally, I sure do love recent Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees Journey! Whether casual readers were aware of it, there was a Journey before vocalist Steve Perry joined the band, and there’s been a Journey since he left, but let us focus on the band’s commercial heyday for a few paragraphs, shall we?
In the ‘80s, you could not get away from Journey – they were everywhere. MTV loved them, the radio loved them, their record label loved them ($$$) and millions of fans loved them. It seemed that there was no other AOR band around that could touch Journey’s level of success. Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Styx and others came close… but not THAT close. There were a lot of great bands from that era but Journey was untouchable. Thankfully, the San Francisco quintet had the songs to back up their immense popularity, and that is what they will ultimately be remembered for.
But let’s not forget the key elements of the band that pushed them over the top.
Steve Perry was – and is – definitely one of the greatest Rock vocalists of all time. Not only did he have an exceptional range, he also had soul and conviction. Going all the way back to 1978’s INFINITY, his first album with Journey, and right up to his last with the band, 1996’s TRIAL BY FIRE, there’s never a time when you didn’t believe that he was truly feeling what he was singing. You can hear his love of San Francisco in “Lights” and feel his regret in “Send Her My Love.” Perry was confident and outgoing when he wanted to be, yet he had the ability to pull back when he needed to as well. There was emotion in every wail and whisper. The songs that he wrote with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain may have been the work of successful musicians living in fancy houses, yet they managed to convey the feelings of so many ‘average’ people searching for something more in life. Steve Perry was the one the fans related to the most because he was the one that ‘spoke’ to them. And they listened. But there was more to Journey than Steve Perry’s truly transcendent vocals…
Neal Schon’s guitar work comes straight from the heart. Not only did he have the power to make a single chord shake you to your soul, his solos, riffs and licks were exactly what was needed to make the songs work. Regardless of what has been said and written, he never overplayed a single note in Journey. Every sound out of his guitar had purpose. His guitar work would circle around Steve Perry’s voice like a hunter coming back time and time again to taunt his prey but never kill it. There were empty spaces in between the notes which gave the listener a chance to take a quick breath before he continued his sonic sorcery. Just listen to “Be Good To Yourself,” a track that begins as a positive Perry anthem but when Schon takes it over at the 2:23 mark, it becomes even more stirring – a religious Rock ‘n’ Roll experience. Sit down and listen to Journey again and you’ll hear plenty of instances like this. Schon was always right there in front but he understood that Journey was a band – an extension of five distinct individuals – and not a self-indulgent side project.
Jonathan Cain wasn’t the band’s original keyboardist. That title belongs to Gregg Rolie (who had played with Schon in Santana before forming Journey). But Cain brought a more commercial style of songwriting to the band. Originally a member of The Babys (with John Waite), Cain was an excellent keyboardist and arranger. His style was different than Rolie’s and it changed the chemistry of the band, but not for the worse. In fact, with Cain on board, Journey’s ascension to the top of the charts accelerated to the point where the band’s popularity was….er… off the charts! However, Cain’s Pop smarts were not calculated – his ability to write a great melody came to him naturally. He’d been involved in the industry a few years before joining Journey, and he had grown into the role of a master songwriter. And with Perry being able to spot a great hook a mile away, their collaborations became the formula that kept Journey moving forward. Regardless of production and arrangements, if you stripped a Cain/Perry song down to its core, you’d find a timeless work of Pop art.
Rhythm section Ross Valory (bass) and Steve Smith (drums) are unsung heroes. Unless you were in The Beatles, most rhythm sections are certainly appreciated, but sadly overlooked. Case in point: Mick Fleetwood and John McVie gave Fleetwood Mac their name and are the only two members that have been with the band since their inception. Yet all anyone ever wants to talk about is the songwriters: Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and, to a lesser extent, Peter Green. In Journey, Valory and Smith brought dynamics to the fold – they were literally and figuratively the heartbeat of Journey. They were the engine that allowed Perry, Schon and Cain to take Journey straight into outer space. When listening to the band, even before you fully comprehended what was going on, you were already feeling what Ross and Steve were bringing to the table. They would hit you square in the chest and knock you over within the first four bars.
Journey reminds us of a simpler time before technology sucked the personality out of music. While social media is supposedly bringing us all together, it is actually driving a wedge between each and every one of us. The ‘80s was the last time that the music allowed us all to share an experience as one, whether it was Journey, The Clash, or A Flock Of Seagulls. For some, Journey was the ultimate party band. For others, they sang the story of their lives and their loves. Journey was the ultimate American band and they sang the soundtrack to so many dreams.
Just a reminder: I wrote in the past tense because I was referring to a specific time period (the ‘80s) but Journey is still very much alive and well. Steve Perry left the band for good 21 years ago and Arnel Pineda has been a great frontman for the last decade. The band – Schon, Cain, Vallory, Smith and Pineda – is probably going to be playing in a town near you soon so keep your eyes peeled.
And for the record, I know that I should end this feature with a pun based around a Journey song title like “Don’t Stop Believing,” but that would be cliché. So I won’t.