Saturday, March 13, 2010

Journey - The Arrival

The next stage of Journey’s odyssey would see the band at the peak of their commercial powers. As a matter of course, whenever an artist makes that transition from a cult act, in this case prog-rock purists, to commercial rock giants, a certain portion of their fan base will be alienated. In addition, stuffy, elitist rock critics will come out of the woodwork to level charges of being a sell-out. Long time prog-rock giants Genesis, and Yes, would resist the lure of the ‘mainstream’ a little longer than Journey, but both would encounter a similar backlash from detractors, eager to voice their collective disapproval at the perceived bastardisation of an art form. Fortunately, any such undercurrent of criticism likely remains largely unnoticed by those riding the prevailing wave of success. In Journey’s case, any pangs of artistic guilt were doubtless assuaged by the American public’s almost universal embracement of their music - none more so than their 1981 album ‘Escape’.

Former Queen engineer Mike Stone came on board to co-produce the album with Kevin Elson, and the brief was clear - radio friendly, melodic rock of the highest order. Jonathan Cain’s recruitment paid dividends from the get go, the form Baby collaborating with Steve Perry to pen the sleek power ballad ‘Who’s Crying Now’. The track, layered with Cain’s crisp keyboard fills, Schon’s shining guitar solo, Valory’s bubbling bass riff, and Perry’s impassioned vocal pleas, was destined for every FM playlist in North America. By August of ‘81, ‘Who’s Crying Now’ had cracked the U.S. Hot 100, and within two months had stopped any thought of tears by peaking at #4 (OZ#65/UK#46). It was the first major strike into what would prove a rich vein of rock gold for Journey. Any lack of faith in Journey’s ability to go the distance was quashed by the release of their follow up single, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, released late in ‘81. An almost gospel style undercurrent added to the tracks uplifting rock anthem creed, resplendent with shimmering layer upon layer of inspired vocals and instrumentation. When you hear ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ there’s nowhere to hide to avoid its surging energy, and if you’d been a regular FM listener or viewer of MTV in late ‘81/early ‘82 (in the U.S. at least), it’s doubtful you could have avoided the tracks airwave blitz. ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ soared to #9 Stateside (OZ#100/UK#62) and more over established a lasting appeal that just went on and on and on, permeating beyond the music charts, and into the hearts and minds of a generation. The track has cropped up repeatedly in motion pictures and television over the ensuing decades, but for mine its most notable pop-culture reference came via an episode in season four of ‘Family Guy’ (that show is freakin’ sweet). Peter, Quagmire, Joe, and Cleveland belt out a passionate rendition of the song, with Cleveland (voiced by Mike Henry) outshining Steve Perry’s original vocal gymnastics by stretching the elastic of his vocal chords two octaves higher on the prolonged ‘whooaaaooooaaaaaa’ at the end of the chorus. Proof of its longevity can also be found in recent digital download figures, across the globe, which still place it firmly amongst the most popular commercial rock tracks of the last thirty years. No doubt, the song writing team of Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain, and Neal Schon are still enjoying the regular royalty cheques.

If the first two singles, ‘Who’s Crying Now’, and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, had been the sole highlights from the ‘Escape’ album, it could still have been considered a runaway success, but the commercial highpoint was yet to come. By late ‘81, the ‘Escape’ album was running free atop the U.S. charts (UK#32), and the marketing machine had kicked into top gear. Journey took on an almost ubiquitous standing in popular American culture, anything from live concert MTV specials, through opening for the Rolling Stones on their North American tour, to television commercials, but perhaps the highlight (or lowlight depending on your perspective) came when the band sold the rights to their music and (heavily pixellated) likenesses for use in two video games (including the title ‘Journey Escape’ for the Atari 2600 - ah, the Atari 2600, those were the days). Blatant commercialism aside, Journey returned to the music charts in January 1982 with the made for radio power ballad ‘Open Arms’. The track’s opening moments feature Jonathan Cain’s delicate keyboard work blended seamlessly with Steve Perry’s earnest vocals - I mean, this track was custom built to tug at the heart strings (or possibly induce nausea if you’re not so inclined to give over to “sentimental rubbish” as former Babys’ front man John Waite apparently considered it). The typical rise to the chorus crescendo is carried out flawlessly, and evidently ‘Open Arms’ tugged on many a heart string, peaking at #2 on the U.S. Hot 100 in the early months of ‘82 (OZ#43). The nostalgia laden ‘Still They Ride’ repeated the power-ballad dose, but fell short of repeating the chart performance of its predecessors (US#19). The band did explore some harder edged rock territory on the ‘Escape’ album, including the title track, and the pulsating ‘Dead or Alive’ (which had a bit of AC/DC about it). Overall though, ‘Escape’ epitomised the sound of the American A.O.R. or melodic rock style, and with sales eventually topping nine million, Journey had staked a firm claim as genuine commercial rock Hall of Famers.

The band’s members were also finding time to look beyond the confines of the group dynamic. Guitarist Neal Schon struck up a partnership with keyboard guru Jan Hammer (he of the ‘Miami Vice’ theme) on two albums, ‘Untold Passion’ (11/81), and ‘Here To Stay’ (2/83). Meanwhile, Steve Perry hooked up with the future Mr. Footloose Kenny Loggins, on his US#17 hit ‘Don’t Fight It’ late in 1982.

Journey’s decade long odyssey had taken them from obscure prog-rock tributaries to a torrential river of commercial returns and popular (if not always critical) acclaim. The band returned to Fantasy Studios in late ‘82, once more with the Elson/Stone production team, to face the challenge of recording a follow up to the mega-successful ‘Escape’ album. Any doubts about Journey’s ability to live up to the hype were blown away in an instant by the opening salvo of the new album’s lead track (and first single), ‘Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)’. Cain’s piercing keyboard hook stings your aural sense into an immediate response, and before you can catch your breath, a second wave led by Neal Schon’s hypnotic guitar riff, and matched with a pulsating rhythm track, comes crashing over the top. If the entire track had comprised just those instrumental elements, I would be satisfied, but 25 seconds in vocalist Steve Perry enters proceedings and elevates ‘Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)’ from the merely superb to a status of sublime (pity the accompanying video didn’t match those heights of creative genius). The chorus hook is surely one of the most infectious to have ever been offered up to the pop-rock gods. By mid ‘83, ‘Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)’ had crashed through the borders of the U.S. top ten (#8), but inexplicably teetered on the brink of obscurity here in Australia (OZ#93).

The ‘Frontiers’ album climbed quickly up the U.S. charts, peaking at #2, and for the first time Journey cracked the British frontier and set up an outpost at #6 (OZ#80). The Jonathan Cain penned ballad ‘Faithfully’ (US#12) echoed the quality of ‘Open Arms’, but lacked that indefinably quality to send it over the top. Overall, Cain took on a more prominent presence on ‘Frontiers’, both in terms of song writing and the instrumental balance. ‘After The Fall’ (US#23) was formulaic pop-rock at its most blatant, but was a decent enough offering, whilst the album’s fourth single, ‘Send Her My Love’ (US#23) once more showcased Steve Perry’s brilliance in belting out emotion charged lyrics. Personally, I would have held back one of the power ballads in favour of releasing the robust rock of ‘Chain Reaction’.

After a relentless two year train of touring, promotional appearances, writing, and recording, by late ‘83 Journey were doubtless in need of a sabbatical, so they decided to go their separate ways, for a time. Neal Schon thought it might be fun to join a hard rock acronym, so he hooked up with Sammy Hagar (see previous post), bassist Kenny Aaronson, and drummer Michael Shrieve to form HSAS, and record the album ‘Through The Fire’ (US#42), which boasted a soft metal version of ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ (US#94). Steve Perry had yet to explore his vocal talents as a solo artist, and in April of ‘84 released his debut album ‘Street Talk’. The lead single was the heartfelt soft-rock ballad ‘Oh Sherrie’, written for Perry’s then girlfriend Sherrie Swafford (who was featured canoodling with Perry in the primo promo clip). In commercial terms, ‘Oh Sherrie’ picked up where Journey’s recent success had left off, peaking at #3 on the U.S. Hot 100, but Perry went where no journey had taken him before to a high of #5 on the Australian charts mid year. Produced by Perry himself, the ‘Street Talk’ (US#12/OZ#70) album offered plenty in the way of sentimental power ballads, much in the vein of the Journey’s modus operandi. The quality of ‘Oh Sherrie’ shone through as being a cut above the rest of the album, but the follow up singles, ‘She’s Mine’ (US#21), ‘Strung Out’ (US#40)’, were palatable enough in that predictably formulaic, soft-rock kind of way. The fourth single, ‘Foolish Heart’ (US#18/OZ#52), deserves a tick, if for no other reason than the crystalline keyboard track by co-writer Randy Goodrum. As ‘Foolish Heart’ was climbing the charts in early ‘85, Steve Perry lent his sublime vocal talents to the U.S.A. For Africa project on ‘We Are The World’.

Whilst Journey didn’t reconvene as a unit during ‘84 and ‘85, they did maintain a presence on the charts, via a couple of tracks that had been pushed off the final track listing for the ‘Frontiers’ album. ‘Ask The Lonely’ was included on the soundtrack the box office bomb ‘Two Of A Kind’, but it was the finely crafted ‘Only The Young’ that returned Journey to the U.S. top ten in early ‘85 (#9). The track featured on the soundtrack to the motion picture ‘Vision Quest’, which of course also featured Madonna’s soppy ballad ‘Crazy For You’.

After more than two years apart, Journey decided to reform in early ‘86 to record a new album - though for Perry it wasn’t a clear cut decision, as he had already begun work on his second solo album. Perry opted to place the tentatively titled ‘Against The Wall’ project on indefinite leave, but the overwhelming success of ‘Street Life’ lent Perry an added confidence, and presence back at Journey headquarters. Perry took a lead role in proceedings, and among the fallout was the firing of long time Journey rhythm section Ross Valory (bass), and Steve Smith (drums). The band carried on essentially as the trio of Perry, Neal Schon, and Jonathan Cain, though Randy Jackson (bass - The Jacksons), and Larrie Londin (drums - professional journeyman) were recruited to augment the line-up. ‘Raised On Radio’ was released in May of ‘86, on the back of the lead out single ‘Be Good To Yourself’. Journey fans would have breathed a sigh of relief at the realisation that Perry and co. had lost none of their verve, as ‘Be Good To Yourself’ (US#9) was every bit as invigorating as the likes of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’. Having already mastered an established winning formula, there was no reason for Journey to head off into radical new territory with ‘Raised On Radio’, and by and large the album remained on solid, and well-trodden commercial ground. The searing guitar riffs, killer keyboard hooks, melodic melodrama, and Perry’s vocal dexterity are all on offer in abundance on tracks like the silky smooth ‘Girl Can’t Help It’ (US#17), the ardent pleas of ‘Suzanne’ (US#17), and the late night feel of ‘I’ll Be Alright Without You’ (US#14). ‘Raised On Radio’ (US#4/UK#22) may not have recaptured the level of pandemonium surrounding ‘Escape’, but with four top twenty singles, and multi-platinum sales, Journey had proven they’d lost none of their commercial edge during their sojourn.

The core trio hit the tour road, along with Jackson, and Mike Baird (drums), but it soon became clear that Steve Perry wasn’t willing to go the distance on this one, and by early ‘87 he had pulled the tour bus over to the side of the road and hopped off. That spelled the end of the tour, and with no lead singer, Journey had effectively reached the end of the line - though no official announcement was made that they had split for good. Steve Perry took an indefinite leave of absence from the music industry to focus on his health, and personal issues. Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain opted to continue their collaboration via the band Bad English, put together by Cain’s former crèche-mates John Waite, and Ricky Phillips, of The Babys (see future post on Babys/Bad English). Drummer Deen Castronovo completed the spelling of Bad English in 1988, and the ‘super-group’ of sorts went on to considerable commercial success with their own brand of melodic soft-rock. Meanwhile, Columbia Records saw no reason why the Journey coffers should close, and released a best selling compilation album in 1988 (US#10 - the very album that introduced me to the band’s brilliance, as it’s no doubt achieved for millions since). A three disc box set, titled ‘Time 3’ or ‘Time Cubed’ (US#90), followed in 1992, chronicling the band’s evolution over a fifteen year period. Meanwhile, three key members from Journey’s formative years, Gregg Rolie, Ross Valory, and Steve Smith, teamed up with vocalist Kevin Chalfant, and guitarist Josh Ramos, to form the rock outfit The Storm - they scored a #26 on the U.S. charts in 1991 with the power ballad ‘I’ve Got A Lot To Learn About Love’, but by 1993 The Storm had broken…up. After his stint with Bad English, Neal Schon decided to adopt a more disciplined approach to his musical grammar, and hooked up with brothers Johnny (vocals), and Joey Gioeli (guitar), Todd Jensen (bass), and Dean Castronovo to form the hard rock outfit Hardline in 1992.

In 1994, Steve Perry emerged from his long period of seclusion with the album ‘For The Love Of Strange Medicine’. The lead out single, ‘You Better Wait’, proved that Perry had lost none of his vocal vitality, and its expertly sculpted rock melody was enough to push it to a high of #29 on the U.S. Hot 100. I’ve not heard the rest of the album, which achieved a peak of #15, but it’s likely that, in commercial terms at least, its struggle to attract the same level of attention as Perry’s ‘Street Life’ was symptomatic of a shift in the musical landscape post-grunge. Meanwhile, Perry’s former bandmates had been considering reigniting Journey’s flame, but it took until the firing of long time manager Walter ‘Herbie’ Herbert, for Perry to agree to terms. In 1995, the band’s ‘classic’ line-up of Steve Perry, Neal Schone, Jonathan Cain, Steve Smith, and Ross Valory reunited to work on an album of new material. The resultant ‘Trial By Fire’ (which featured striking cover art) hit stores in October of ‘96, and debuted at #3 on the American charts just two weeks later. Doubtless, there were throngs of long time Journey fans who still had an insatiable thirst for the band’s pop-rock blend, but after a decade of estrangement, the quintet came up short in recapturing the exquisitely crafted quality of their best work. The lead out single, ‘When You Love A Woman’, was the stand out exception, and its heartfelt qualities charmed enough listeners to push it to a high of US#12. A proposed support tour was placed on indefinite hold following a hip injury to Steve Perry, and the subsequent delays led to a falling out between the singer and his bandmates. By 1998, Steve Smith had opted out of the whole debacle, and the remaining members reportedly put an ultimatum to Perry about resolving his health issues. Perry refused to yield to their demands, and in May of ‘98, he announced he was splitting with the band permanently. Aside from some sporadic production, and soundtrack work, Steve Perry has largely withdrawn from the music industry, with ongoing health issues a concern. Though in 2005 he met with his former band on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to unveil a star in Journey’s honour.

Schon, Cain, and Vallory were then faced with the unenviable task of finding a replacement for Perry’s vocal vigour. Quality high tenor rock vocalists are a rare commodity, but the trio found what they were looking for in the form of former Tall Stories singer Steve Augeri. Over the ensuing year, the revamped Journey line-up (with Bad English drummer Deen Castronovo drafted to replace Smith) finally completed their tour commitments, and then set about recording material for a new album.

Perry was a hard act to follow, but Augeri delivered a commendable performance on the 2001 release ‘Arrival’ (US#56). The key Journey characteristics were present, with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain once more serving up a palette of pop-rock polish. The arrangements were solid, the melodies half-way memorable, the lyrics heartfelt, but ‘Arrival’ was never going to capture the hearts and minds of millions as ‘Escape’ had done twenty years previous. Over the ensuing decade, Journey have soldiered on in union with many of the so called ‘dinosaur rock’ acts of the 70s and 80s. Augeri stuck around for the band’s thirtieth anniversary tour in 2005, and the subsequent album release, ‘Generations’ (US#170 - on which the whole band took a turn at the microphone), but he was replaced in 2006 by Arnel Pineda. Journey proved that they could still muster mass appeal with the release of their 2008 album, ‘Revelation’, which debuted at #5 on the U.S. charts, and their ensuing summer tour (which also featured Heart and Cheap Trick) proved to be one of the highest grossing of the year. The creative combo of Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain may have passed their commercial heyday, but as the driving forces in Journey, they have continued to prove they are still a force to be reckoned with behind the wheel. The Journey goes on and on and on….