Hard to believe that last week Journey’s Infinity had become thirty-six years old; I can still remember how fresh and exciting the album sounded when I first heard it. I feel like it was a breath of fresh air into a late 70s rock scene that was increasingly abandoning melody and craftsmanship (are you feeling that way, too?).
As the first song from Journey’s first platinum seller, “Lights” introduced to the world an unknown skinny kid from Hanford, California who would soon become known as one of the all-time great singers in rock, Steve Perry. His high tenor could easily soar above Neal Schon’s stadium-class guitar riffs and Gregg Rolie’s thick slabs of Hammond B-3.
That synergy quickly coalesced, not just in performance but in songwriting partnerships Perry formed with his new bandmates. “Lights” was a Perry/Schon co-write that brought mature lyrics to Schon’s knack for a good melodic rock hook. Both become the focal point of a song that begins with Schon’s gruff but tasty lick ushering in Perry’s lone vocal that not only sounds pure, but with a phrasing that’s dead-on, too.
When Perry sings “well my friend I’m lonely, too,” he really does sound like he is. But he wouldn’t be for long because he finds company when gorgeous harmony vocals swell up in the second go-round of the “oh–ooo” part of the chorus, it sends the song off into orbit. Following a short bridge where Schon applies more power to his chords, the chorus is nearly entirely those rich harmonies, and again after Schon applies one of his now-signature short but memorable solos.
The ensemble vocals speaks to the other, less talked-about key move Journey and manager Herbie Herbert made in 1977 when the first three albums failed to catch fire: bringing in Roy Thomas Baker to produce album #4. Baker was already making a name for himself helming recording sessions for Queen, and so it goes without saying that he understood the power of layered, stacked harmonies. Having another lead singer in Rolie already at hand made it all the better, and Rolie’s backing and occasional lead vocals was an important component the band had lost when he departed a few years later.
Of course, most of what I described above could also be said of another Almost Hit from that record, “Anytime.” But “Lights,” which managed to peak at #74 on the Billboard Hot 100, seems to be the more forgotten of the two. And this was the track chosen to begin an album that put a band — and a singer — on the path to immortality.