Sunday, February 28, 2010

Journey - The Embarkation

Recently, I stumbled upon the opening moments to the Jim Carrey comedy ‘Yes Man’. The film overall, like my stumble, was a largely forgettable affair, but what struck a chord with me was the choice of Journey’s surging rock anthem ‘Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)’ as the musical accompaniment to the opening titles (and as the lead character’s - Jim Carrey - ringtone). It prompted me to think just how frequently Journey’s music crops up on motion picture soundtracks, and how enduring their hyper-commercial brand of album oriented rock (A.O.R.) has proved to be - at least within North American territories (and associated contemporary cultural/artistic endeavours). That particular train of thought transported me to a station of contemplation that greeted me with this question - why had the highly popular Journey juggernaut been consigned to the periphery of commercial appeal here in Australia? Journey notched up no fewer than 17 top 40 hits in the U.S. between 1979 and 1987, with six of those singles scoring a top ten spot. The rock quintet also racked up a dozen platinum certified albums, with worldwide sales in the tens of millions. But by stark contrast, as a collective, the band never cracked the Australian top forty, with either single or album releases. 1982’s ‘Open Arms’ represented the peak destination for Journey, hitting the #43 mile marker on the Australian charts, but other hook laden classics languished in the lower reaches of the top 100 - ‘Who’s Crying Now’ (OZ#65) in 1981, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ (OZ#100) in 1982, and the aforementioned ‘Separate Ways (World’s Apart)’ (OZ#93) proved to be a world apart from Australian turntables in 1983. The only Journey album to make a foray into Australian chart terrain was the appropriately titled 1983 release, ‘Frontiers’ (OZ#80). So, what factors could possibly have explained such a disparity of appeal.

I’ve previously alluded to the significant dichotomy of stylistic trends that have occurred over the years, particularly between the U.K. and U.S. scenes. But the Australian music buying public had already proven themselves to have a marked affinity with the A.O.R. offerings that arrived on mass from the States during the latter part of the 70s, and throughout the 80s. The likes of Survivor, Asia (see previous posts), Styx, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Loverboy, and Toto (see future posts), had all enjoyed moderate to high levels of commercial success down under. So could it have been lead singer Steve Perry who hit a wrong note with Australians? Perry’s vocal styling was aligned pretty closely to those of his FM rock contemporaries, Lou Gramm (Foreigner), Bobby Kimball (Toto), and Dave Bickler (Survivor), largely debunking that theory. And the fact that Perry’s own rock ballad ‘Oh Sherrie’ powered to #5 on Australian charts during the second half of ‘84 puts paid to any residual doubts about his vocal appeal. There was no shortage of label support here either, with CBS (Columbia) a major player both in marketing and distribution muscle - though whether there was an in house decision not to push Journey’s cause in Australia is unknown to me. Perhaps the disparity of commercial popularity could be explained by the fact that the Australian market was crowded with a myriad of differing styles and trends, with only so much available bandwidth for the A.O.R. style, and Journey just happened to be one of the acts to be squeezed off the air, in terms of radio airplay. I have to admit to not being that aware of most of Journey’s early 80s material at the time of its release - with the possible exception of ‘Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)’. It wasn’t until their ‘Greatest Hits’ package had been on the shelves for some time that I eventually picked up a copy, and realised, to my chagrin, just what I had been missing out on. For those who like to indulge in conspiracy theories, rumours have abounded since that a renegade faction of Australian based REO Speedwagon fans conspired against their Journey rivals - but to be fair that rumour is without any anecdotal foundation, and has only ever been expressed via this blog - in fact via this particular paragraph. In all honesty, I am so much at a loss to explain Journey’s lack of commercial yield in Australia, that I felt compelled to throw up a piece of nonsensical conjecture purely as a lark. Still for those people with an irrational interest in REO Speedwagon conspiracy theories, it may well register a hit or two for my blog via search engines.

So it remains quite the anomaly, that one of the heavy hitters of the A.O.R. movement, Journey, remained but a glimpse in the corner of Australia’s musical vision. And it’s an anomaly that seems to be without obvious cause or catalyst - but then again that is very often the case with anomalies. So, that just leaves me the task of exploring the story behind Journey’s decade long, um, journey.

During 1973, a group of already seasoned musicians came together in San Francisco to form a new ‘supergroup’ - at least of the minor leagues variety. Former Santana road manager Walter Herbert enlisted two ex-Santana members too form the core of the new outfit - guitarist Neal Schon, and Santana co-founder Gregg Rolie (keyboards/ vocals). Rolie had been a key member of Santana, having handled vocals on several of their biggest hits, including ‘Evil Ways’, and ‘Black Magic Woman’. Schon had joined Santana in 1971 at the ripe old age of 17, but by 1972 both he and Rolie had parted ways with Carlos’ crew. For a brief time Rolie left music off the menu altogether, and opted to open a restaurant with his father in Seattle, whilst Schon continued to hone his craft in local Bay Area bands. Another Bay Area band at the time, Frumious Bandersnatch (inspired name), was managed by Walter Herbert, and boasted the talents of ex-Steve Miller Band bassist Ross Valory, and guitarist George Tickner. Following their demise, Herbert suggested Valory and Tickner join forces with Schon and Rolie. Initially operating as The Golden Gate Bridge, the new fellowship were yet to decide on a firm moniker, and an impromptu naming contest was held by San Francisco radio station KSAN-FM. But it was a suggestion by one of the band’s roadies, John Villaneuva, that led to Journey finally being decided upon - an appropriate tag given the journeyman like nature of its members.

One minor detail had yet to be addressed, and that was to enlist the services of a fulltime drummer. Journey’s first shows, which included their debut gig at San Francisco’s Winterland on New Year’s Eve 1973, featured stop-gap sticks man Prairie Prince (of The Tubes - see previous post). In early ‘74, the band found their new goalkeeper in the form of British journeyman Aynsley Dunbar. Dunbar has already racked up substantial frequent flyer points with the likes of John Mayall, Jeff Beck, Mothers of Invention, Lou Reed, and David Bowie. With almost a years gigging, and substantial pedigree of personnel, Journey were offered a recording deal with Columbia late in ‘74. Journey’s early stylistic positioning lay somewhere between the provinces of prog-rock, and jazz infused rock, which aligned them with the likes of contemporaries Genesis, Yes, Ambrosia, and Jethro Tull. Their eponymous debut album, released in April ‘75, offered up just seven tracks, mostly instrumental treks, but with an average track length of over five minutes. The band was clearly positioned within the prog-rock, jazz fusion genres, and their relatively narrow bandwidth of commercial appeal was reflected in sales (US#138). Still, Journey had their niche and had established a reputation as a consummate live act, with a penchant for seemingly ceaseless solos, but it was the band’s relentless live schedule that contributed to the departure of guitarist George Tickner later in the year.

The remaining members of Journey opted to continue their mission as a quartet, and in April ‘76 released their sophomore album, ‘Look Into The Future’ (US#100). The meandering, jazz inflected prog-rock style was a little more focussed, but still lacked the sharp commercial punch to register a hit on the charts. A problem area identified by the band themselves was the lack of a powerful lead vocalist, though the group’s other members all made concerted attempts to strengthen their vocal credentials in support of Gregg Rolie. Next up was the album ‘Next’ (US#85), issued in February of ‘77. The album offered some clearer signals that Journey were looking for a shift toward a more commercial direction, evidenced on the overtly hard rocking ‘Hustler’. Both band, and manager Walter Herbert, arrived at a crossroads, and came to the conclusion that a fulltime lead vocalist was needed, both to serve as a focal point for the band’s sound, and also to free up Rolie to focus on keyboard duties. In June of ‘77, Robert Fleischmann was added to the mix, but the new recipe failed to gel, and within a couple of months Journey were on the look out for another singer. Over the preceding few months ex-Alien Project vocalist Steve Perry had been making overtures towards both band and management, offering his vocal services. On the strength of a demo tape, and the recommendation of a Columbia executive, Herbert contacted Perry and offered him the job as Journey’s new front man. Perry’s debut gig with the band was on the last of a three night run at the Old Waldorf (salad) in San Francisco. The recruitment of Steve Perry would prove to be the catalyst needed to transform Journey into a commercially viable vehicle with five star performance.

The band also enlisted the services of Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, with a view to overhauling their in-studio sound. During late ‘77, work was completed on Journey’s fourth album, ‘Infinity’, a set that would represent a marked shift in style, and fortune, for the band. No longer promenading purveyors of prog-rock, Journey had been reborn as savvy exponents of sleek, radio friendly pop-rock, with Steve Perry the conduit through which the band would channel their newly fashioned craft. With the release of the ‘Infinity’ album in January of ‘78, Journey finally laid to rest their jazz-fused, prog-rock heritage, and emerged with an overtly melodic, commercial pop-rock formula. Tracks like ‘Wheel In The Sky’, and ‘Lights’, finally offered up an appealing enough invitation for programmers to add Journey to FM playlists. In addition to his stridently dynamic tenor vocal talents, Steve Perry also proved to be a key song writing ally for both Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie. ‘Infinity’ offered up a wall to wall mix of tight, melodic, and polished pop-rock, replete with pristine vocal harmonies, and infectious guitar/synth hooks. By year’s end, ‘Infinity’ had achieved in excess of a million units sold, Journey’s first platinum certified album, and knocked on the door of the U.S. top 20 (#21). With the moderate success of the single releases, ‘Wheel In The Sky’ (US#57), and ‘Lights’ (US#68), it appeared Journey had finally discovered a pathway to popular appeal.

But not everyone was happy with the band’s strides toward star status. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar left the band late in ‘78, in the midst of a marathon support tour, though some sources cite conflict between Dunbar and new vocalist Perry as being a major contributing factor. Whatever the exact reason(s), the split was acrimonious to say the least, and as is the nature of these things, mutual litigation was initiated in subsequent years. Dunbar, who later played with Jefferson Starship and Whitesnake, was replaced by ex-Journey drum technician Steve Smith. Smith did more than just tend to the tom-toms, and had studied formally at the Berklee School of Music, in addition to stints behind the skins with Focus, Ronnie Montrose, and Jean-Luc Ponty. Smith proved to be a complimentary element to the band’s new chemistry, and came on board just as Journey were about to hit the fast lane to fame and fortune.

The alchemic process continued on 1979’s ‘Evolution’, the title an apt reflection for the musical metamorphosis Journey had undertaken. With the April ‘79 release of ‘Evolution’, Journey reaffirmed their commitment to the polished pop-rock prescription, with Roy Thomas Baker once more helming production. The band’s live tour venues were also now reflecting their newly crafted arena-rock sound, with the band now a firmly entrenched headliner across the States. Journey were also firmly entrenched as a staple on FM radio playlists, and following the promising performance of the lead out track, the Boston-esque ‘Just The Same Way’ (US#58), the band scored their first foray into top twenty territory with the Perry penned smouldering rocker ‘Lovin’, Touchin’ Squeezin’ (US#16). With a sell-out tour and saturation airplay as a backdrop, the ‘Evolution’ album produced a bountiful harvest of multi-platinum sales throughout 1979 (US#20/UK#100), and elevated Journey to a new level of prominence on the North American music-scape.

Following the release of the compilation set, ‘In The Beginning’ (a selection of material from their first three albums), Journey continued their march to the top with the March 1980 release of ‘Departure’. The album had been recorded during late ‘79, with the production team of Geoff Workman and Kevin Elson working with the quintet on further refining their already razor sharp commercial sound. The Perry/Schon songwriting partnership really came to the fore across the album’s twelve tracks. ‘Departure’ kicked off with the hyper-kinetic ‘Any Way You Want It’, a song that announced the surging energy of the album from the get go. ‘Any Way You Want It’ was yet another booster rocket of a hit (US#23) that would help propel Journey into the pop-rock stratosphere. The follow-up single, the sultry and seductive ‘Walks Like A Lady’ (US#32), proved that this sleek rock machine still had more than one gear to select. The album balanced high energy racers like ‘Where Were You’ against obligatory A.O.R. power ballad offerings like ‘Good Morning’, and throughout Journey offering up a bounty of hypnotic hooks, coated in a shimmering pop-rock sheen. ‘Departure’ duly delivered its cargo of radio friendly rock to #8 on the U.S. charts, and the band embarked on their biggest tour commitment to date, by the end of which founding member Gregg Rolie had announced his own departure.

Rolie’s reason for giving up his seat onboard the Journey train was cited as being primarily tour related exhaustion. It was also evident that Rolie’s role within the band had also diminished in terms of song writing and vocal contributions. The band’s mammoth 1980/81 tour also resulted in the release of the live set ‘Captured’, the double album’s peak of #9 on the U.S. charts indicative of the surging popularity of Journey at home. Though Rolie didn’t stick around to record the one studio track included on the live set, ‘The Party’s Over (Hopelessly In Love)’ (US#34 - with Stevie ‘Key’s Roseman filling the keyboardist void), he made a key recommendation to the rest of his band concerning who his potential replacement might be. Keyboardist Jonathan Cain was the man identified by Rolie as being the perfect fit for Journey. Cain was already a proven pop-savvy performer of the highest order, having established his pedigree with the recently dissolved outfit The Babys (see future post). His addition to the Journey crew, as both player and songwriter, would prove the decisive step in elevating the band to the pinnacle of the U.S. pop tree.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Pilot Of The Airwaves Revives The Radio Star

The management here at Retro Universe are proud to announce the arrival of The Ultimate 80s Radio Show, hosted by Ultimate Bart, which kicked of to much fanfare and suitable salutations on Wednesday 17th February. DJ Ultimate Bart shall be reliving some of the highs (and lows) of the magnificence that was the 1980s via hit after hit after hit streamed live to your laptop, desktop, or whatever top you see fit to use. He shall also be regaling you with some tidbits from Retro Universes own cavernous vault of music trivia and scintillating anecdotes.

You may avail yourself of this most excellent entertainment via the link on the left hand side of this page, and be sure to check out Ultimate Barts personal blog here:

So drink deeply from the rich waters of 80s music brilliance!!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Where's the Light Switch?

Today's post is a spur of the moment affair, which is the kind of affair I don't usually indulge in. My posts are more often given over to pain staking research and planning, and the resultant material verbose and some might say meandering in nature - to be kind to myself. But it occurred to me not five minutes ago that this is my blog, therefore I make the rules - and if I want to flaunt those rules by being impetuous then I'm damn well going to do so (after 500 posts I think I've earned it). The catalyst behind this mode of self-rebellion, was my listening to the George Harrison song 'Beware Of Darkness'. It's a song that has, over many years, offered me solace, and a compass of reason when the haze of self doubt, and the fog of depression blankets my mindscape. Everyone has at least one song that provides a sanctuary from whatever external, or internal, maelstrom is raging. 'Beware Of Darkness' is one such port in a storm for me.

The song is lifted from George Harrison's post-Beatles' opus, 'All Things Must Pass', which provided the vehicle via which Harrison emerged from the creative shadows of his former Fab-mates, Paul McCartne
y, and John Lennon. Many would later cite the #1 album, 'All Things Must Pass' as the high watermark for George Harrison the ex-Beatle. Commercially, that's no doubt the case, but later albums such as 'Dark Horse', '33 1/3', and 'Cloud Nine', all stand up strongly to the rigours of post-Beatles carping by critics. Besides, to many, including myself, George Harrison became a creative and spiritual entity (and inspiration) far beyond his role as Beatle George. At any rate, on a triple album's worth of material - that featured the brilliance of 'My Sweet Lord' (charges of plagiarism aside), 'What Is Life', and another personal favourite 'Isn't It A Pity' - it is 'Beware Of Darkness' that still shines brightest for me.