I got a chance to speak with Journey guitarist Neal Schon for a piece that ran in this week's edition of the Cleveland Scene prior to their upcoming show here in the area on Tuesday evening with Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power.
As is often the case, writing that story sent me to the music stacks to pull out some Journey. I was going to Buffalo to see Blue Rodeo and wanted to load in some tunes for the car. It's funny, for a long time, there wasn't really a lot of live Journey available officially beyond the well known (and for many people, the essential) Captured double live album which was released in 1981.
What I really wanted was a proper live album that covered more of the later material from Journey that came after Captured, you know, albums like Escape, Frontiers...they sold a few copies of those albums and had several hits, right?
Journey filled that request in 1998 with the appropriately titled Greatest Hits Live, which even though it was compiled from a couple of different shows, had a track listing that had the expected hits, but also went a little bit deeper with tunes like "After The Fall," "Still They Ride" the title track to "Escape" and "Line of Fire." It was a good starter package that still works great if you're looking for a single CD that has a lot of their best tunes from across the years.
Released in 2005, Live in Houston 1981: The Escape Tour brought a famous Journey gig home to consumers, available on both DVD and CD (marking the first time that a Journey performance from that era had been officially released on DVD, unless you count the semi-official release of Frontiers and Beyond, which was available very briefly for a minute from the official Journey website in the early '00s). For reasons that aren't quite clear, the CD has a live version of "The Party's Over (Hopelessly in Love) while the DVD does not, which could be quite simple to explain -- maybe it just wasn't filmed. First shown on MTV in the early '80s, the Houston show had only circulated on bootleg prior to the official release.
I couldn't find my CDs for either of those releases when I went hunting for them, so instead, I grabbed a couple of bootlegs. One of them was a show recorded in Norman, Oklahoma for Westwood One in 1983. The other one was a 1979 show from the Evolution tour, captured in Chicago for the syndicated Studio Jam series.
Listening to both shows back to back as I drove to Buffalo, it was interesting to hear the differences between the Gregg Rolie era of Journey and the Jonathan Cain era of the group. Cain gets a lot of criticism for his alleged role in turning Journey into a ballad band, but that wasn't really what stuck out to me, listening to the shows. Instead, it was interesting to note how Perry's role changed in the group between the two shows. During the 1979 performance, Rolie still had a commanding presence vocally in the Journey lineup, but it was hard to miss the charisma that Perry brought each and every time he took the microphone, especially for the songs he sang the lead vocals on.
Journey as heard during the Norman, Oklahoma performance is a different story -- Perry has very clearly taken the reins of the group and even if it wasn't necessarily Perry's band behind the scenes, it was without question, a hell of a partnership. The songwriting that he, Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain were engaged in produced quite a powerful batch of material that gave Perry and the members of Journey a lot of firepower to work with onstage.
Even now, more than 30 years later, Schon realizes why the power of Journey still endures. It comes down to the usual things that are most important for a band that wants to build a legacy (even if you might not realize that's what you're doing at the time). It's all about hard work and good songs, as he shared during the interview.
“I think on the Journey level [that’s] why we’re still prominent and out there,” he says. “I think it’s because we basically work our butts off and we tour every year. And we continually play the music and have new audiences come in all the time, we’re claiming younger fans. And also I think mainly, I think we just got it right, you know we wrote a lot of really great songs, the three of us; myself, Steve Perry, and Jonathan Cain. And it was like we just got some things right and I think that’s why it’s etched in stone.”
Journey soldiers on with Arnel Pineda at the helm in place of Perry these days and together, they present a concert experience that is arguably as close to seeing the band with Perry in his prime as you're ever going to get. While Perry himself has recently returned to the stage for the first time in nearly 20 years, performing a handful of guest appearances singing Journey songs while backed by the band eels, it doesn't seem likely that he and Journey will reunite again.
And that's okay with me -- in my mind, there's room for both. Let Journey continue to do what they do and let Perry make whatever sort of music he might want to make on his own terms. I enjoy both. I like to watch Neal Schon play guitar and I enjoy hearing Perry sing -- so even if that doesn't happen on the same stage, it's all good. And although Perry's vocal abilities appear to have diminished from what he was capable of "back in the day," it would be fun to see him play some shows.
But as always, who knows what's up ahead?
I was talking on the phone with Addicted To Vinyl’s fearless leader about a great many things the other day, when an unscripted, non-thought out discussion about Journey broke out. At some point, the discussion turned to the fact that neither one of us found much validity to the “Greatest Hits” add-on that Journey put out with last year’s great Revelation release. My mind quickly started darting as I made the genuine point that the actual Steve Perry greatest hits disc was of no use to me because of the shoddy editing of the song “Girl Can’t Help It” (want proof, listen to both versions of the song at the 2:37 mark, where the original has a sort vocal line from Perry that’s omitted from the remaster for some unknown reason – horrible). Through the discussion, it kind of dawned on me an interesting fact that I don’t think I’d ever considered before. The popular era of Journey was, by far, the worst era of Journey.
I’m sure at this point, you are scratching your head and going, “huh”? This being said though, let me spell out a few things to make the argument. First, I’m a Journey enthusiast. I’ve seen the band easily 20 times, with the only vocalist in the band that I haven’t experienced live being current vocalist Arnel Pineda. I saw them as far back as 1981 or 82 (whenever the tour with Bryan Adams was). I almost got kicked out of the Army for sneaking out of training to see the Raised on Radio tour in Indianapolis. I’ve seen some of the Perry solo shows. I own everything they’ve ever done, and am always on the prowl for bootlegs of the band (which, by the way, if anyone has the King Biscuit Flower Hour Frontiers concert from around 1983, please email me!). Simply, I love the band.
That being said though, as time has gone on, I’ve come to where I find the “popular” era of Journey to be not only the weakest musical point of their career, but in some ways unlistenable when compared to the other two eras of the band. To define the “popular era”, I would say it runs from 1981 to 1996; encompassing the albums Escape, Frontiers, Raised on Radio and Trial By Fire. Sure, that’s basically the timeframe when you find 99% of their hits. Being honest, there’s no denying some great music in that time. “Stone In Love”, “Escape”, “Be Good To Yourself”, “Don’t Stop Believin’” were all massive, while lesser known songs like “Why Can’t This Night Go On Forever” or “Eyes Of The Woman” were as good as anything they ever recorded. That being said though, I would argue that the entire era of the band was, by far, the weakest musically and was carried solely on the massive success created from Escape. To that end, Frontiers followed Escape and went platinum six times, even though the reality of the situation was that it’s basically less than half of a good album. Sure, “Separate Ways”, “After The Fall” and “Faithfully” were all decent, but none of the big three there were anything more than recycled ideas that didn’t make Escape. As for the rest of the album, utter trash. “Chain Reaction”, “Back Talk”, “Rubicon” – all were fragmented ideas that Herbie Herbert listened to and said, “just polish that turd and get back on the road while you are hot”. The song “Troubled Child” would not have made it on any level with the old Journey either. You have to think that the tired, lack of substance they were creating is what led the band to begin to fragment as the musician’s musician, drummer Steve Smith, no longer wanted to make tens of millions of dollars with the band at this point and left. Ross Valory also left too. When Raised on Radio emerged, it felt just like what it was – a splintering band performing a collection of average songs written with the Cain polish with no artistic agenda other than to take it back to the road with some other guys and squeeze the last penny out of the band. Seeing those shows, it’s clear that Perry was ready to move on as well, but stuck around for the payday (which had to be enormous at that point). He had mixed in a solo album that did very well at that point, and was a better album artistically than either Frontiers or Raised on Radio. It’s not surprising that the band did nothing for the next decade following – almost ashamed of the commercial success they had achieved at the expense of their artistic integrity.
Looking at that artistic integrity, it’s clear listening back to the 1st era of the band that their career was built on that before Jonathan Cain poured his syrup on this hard rock band. Listening to albums like Infinity or Departure as examples, it’s clear that they really were a very different band from the radio hit machine they became. Listening back now, the songs just hold up. Certainly, they did have hits during this era as well. “Lovin’, Touchin’ Squeezin’, “Wheel In The Sky”, “Lights” – all were hits, but not nearly on the level that future songs would bring. Listening back now though, the grit and rawness of these songs makes these songs much more timeless than anything from the popular era. There was much more of a sense of attitude with the band at that time too. To hear a song like “Where Were You”, there was a swagger that permeated the song; a swagger that would be completely removed when the band got popular and wrote little more than happy, feel good music. There was also a sense of fun that left as the band got sterilized by fame. Listening to the vocal trading and the overall brilliance of “Feeling That Way/Anytime”, you can tell that these guys had a lot of fun in the studio producing this masterpiece. You can literally feel Perry doing his best to one up Gregg Rolie vocally, and Rolie fighting back as the song progresses. Arguably, this era of the band was the best. Certainly, it packed the most substance and has the musical integrity that the popular era lacks. Listening to this stuff now, it’s much less dated than the hits era.
Interestingly, the post-Perry era of Journey has seemingly taken a lot of these elements from both eras and created a more interesting hybrid than the hits era ever produced. Sure, albums like Arrival smelled of Jonathan Cain trying to wedge his glucose into every note of every song, but for some reason you have to envision that vocalist Steve Augeri (a guy who made his mark in more metalled up bands like Tyketto and Tall Stories) pushed back a bit, and got some support from Neil Schon (a guy who always wanted to be a metal guitarist, but chose cash over passion). The Augeri years had a lot more rock than most expected, and even some experimental stuff which seemingly left the band the day Cain joined the outfit. Listening to the Red 13 EP, you can only classify that as Journey trying to do something different. For me anyway, it worked well. Finally, enter Perry sound-alike Arnel Pineda to the mix, and you find Journey just trying to write an album that’s encompasses both classic and the hits era of the band. Revelation is, to me, the best album this band has done since Departure for many reasons. It brings the old school rock (“Never Walk Away”, “Change In The Weather”). Cain has his places to overload the music with hooks and radio ready schlock (“After All These Years”, “Where Did I Lose Your Love”). The highlight though is the return of the older, raw writing vibe. Songs such as “Like A Sunshower” could have been written in 1975, and would fit beautifully up next to the classic music of yesteryear. The band is back, and they’ve found a way to solidly mix all of their eras together. Hopefully the platinum success of Revelation will keep them from trying to reinvent the glory days again. Simply put, that era just didn’t hold up.