As the 40th anniversary of Journey’s signing with Columbia Records passed this year, a trio of members talk about key moments in the group’s record-smashing history of arena rock — including founders Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie, along with platinum-era drummer Steve Smith.
Each made important contributions over nearly a Steve Perry-led decade beginning in 1978 that saw Journey sell 26 million albums in the U.S. alone. Schon, of course, continues to lead the group while Rolie and Smith have left for their own successful solo careers.
Together here, they offer unique insights into Journey’s first Top 20 single, and one of its last, the impact of Roy Thomas Baker, Miles Davis and Sam Cooke on the band, and a certain guitar that Schon will never, ever use again …
“I’LL BE ALRIGHT WITHOUT YOU” (RAISED ON RADIO, 1986): A No. 14 pop charter, this song remains Journey’s penultimate Top 20 hit — followed by 1996′s No. 12 comeback song “When You Love a Woman.” Written by Jonathan Cain, Perry and Schon, “I’ll Be Alright Without You” finds the guitarist trying out a particularly distinctive sound.
“That guitar that I played on ‘I’ll Be Alright,’ you would not believe what it is,” he tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “It was one of those really ugly Roland 707 guitars that kind of looked like a weird synthesizer guitar. I believe it was all graphite. It was a really ugly guitar, but when I went to play that song, my first choice was a Strat — because it sounds like Strat on a bass pickup. It [the Roland] sounded like a Strat, but it was kind of like even, from top to bottom, with the body and neck being graphite. It didn’t vibrate, and that gave it a very even tone. So, I felt like it translated no matter where I was playing, up and down the neck on that one song.”
Of course, in time Schon says he’s found better options. Nowadays, though the choice worked in the moment, Schon admits it’s not an experiment he would try again.
“If I were to play it again,” he adds, “I would definitely play it on a Strat — or some of my new Paul Reeds, the NS-15s, or the bigger semi-hollow bodies. Those sounds good, with really warm, like Strat-y tones — but with a little bit bigger body.”
“LOVIN,’ TOUCHIN,’ SQUEEZIN,’” (EVOLUTION, 1979): On the other hand, this song — with its inventive cadence and real-life storyline, would become the very first Top 20 hit for Journey. Smith says he went back to his roots for the nifty stuttering rhythm signature on “Lovin,’ Touchin,’ Squeezin,’” which builds inexorably toward a soaring nah-nah-nah conclusion.
“That rhythm is a simple 12/8 blues shuffle, a very traditional old-school blues feel,” he tells us. “The song developed as a jam started by Steve Perry playing the bass. Actually, that song is reminiscent of a Sam Cooke song called ‘Nothing Can Change This Love.’ Steve was very influenced by the great Sam Cooke.”
As for the track’s inspiration, Perry — in the liner notes to Journey’s Time3 compilation — recalls seeing his girlfriend give another man this lingering kiss goodbye before he sped away in a Corvette. “Lovin,’ Touchin,’ Squeezin,’” Perry says, became his “love justice.”
As for its genesis in a jam session, Smith says that was common for Journey back then, and it remains so in his subsequent career as a respected jazz drummer. “When Journey worked on writing new songs it was a collaborative effort; the band wrote collectively in a rehearsal room,” Smith says. “The music would develop in a jam session-style situation. Most of Journey’s music was developed collectively at first and then fine-tuned into songs. I learned a lot from that situation and continue to write like that to this day. It’s an effective way to write, because it makes the most of the creative collaboration of all of the musicians involved.”
“SOMEDAY SOON,” (DEPARTURE, 1980): The final major vocal collaboration featuring Perry and the soon-to-depart Rolie — who by then had shared the mic on a series of standout early Journey tracks like “Feeling That Way/Anytime” and “Just the Same Way” — and, still, one of the more memorable for its thoughtful optimism.
“I remember [former Journey manager] Herbie [Herbert] calling me up and saying there was a college that wanted to use this song in their music department to show good songwriting,” Rolie told us. “I said, ‘Really?! Maybe I will finally get a degree of some sort.’ [Laughs.] The thing is, that song was so difficult to write. I ended up looking out the window, and the lyrics just wouldn’t come. Finally, that’s what popped into my head — ‘someday soon.’”
“Someday Soon” appeared on Journey’s sixth release, and their next to the last with Rolie — who was replaced by Cain after a wildly successful tour chronicled in 1981′s Captured. Reaching the Top 10 on the Billboard album charts, Departure was, at the time, the band’s highest charting effort ever.
“SEND HER MY LOVE,” (FRONTIERS, 1983): One of four Top 40 hits found on this album, the lonesome anthem “Send Her My Live” — notable for an atmospheric turn by Schon on guitar — went to No. 23 on the U.S. pop charts.
It also includes perhaps the most intriguing drumming contribution on Journey’s string of familiar ballads from Smith, who adds a slyly involving polyrhythm lifted from a jazz hero.
“The rhythm for that song was inspired by the Joe Zawinul composition ‘In A Silent Way‘ from the Miles Davis album In A Silent Way, Smith says. “The drummer on that was Tony Williams and he played quarter notes with a cross-stick on the snare drum — a very hypnotic groove. It was one of the first jazz-rock albums, and had a particular freshness because of the use of Fender Rhodes and an open modal playing style. That was an album I’d listened to and digested, and this is a great example of drawing upon your background to come up with ideas to inspire you how to play a particular song. With ‘Send Her My Love,’ that became an essential feel for the song — that quarter-note, cross-stick rhythm, and that comes straight from ‘In A Silent Way.’
Frontiers would be the last full-length project Smith would work on with Journey before the one-off reunion Trial by Fire in 1996. Deen Castronovo replaced him thereafter.
“ANYTIME,” (INFINITY, 1978): Journey’s fourth album, the last with early drummer Aynsley Dunbar before Smith took over, became a triple-platinum smash with the introduction of Perry as second lead singer.
“Anytime” wasn’t its biggest hit (that would be “Wheel in the Sky“) but the track is well remembered for its layered harmony vocals — the trademark of new producer Roy Thomas Baker, who had previously worked with Queen. Baker achieved this effect by having Perry and Rolie double track their parts, a time-consuming new approach that almost derailed “Anytime.”
“When we recorded that, we did just the music, and we almost didn’t finish it,” Rolie tells us. “Remember, we came to this having been a jam band. When we finished the music, we listened to all of the tracks, and it didn’t have the fire that we were used to. We had never spent too much time doing all of the vocals.”
The work paid off. “Anytime,” paired with its album predecessor “Feeling That Way,” has since become a classic-rock radio staple — even if it only reached No. 83 on the Billboard charts. “As soon as the vocals were put in, the song came alive,” Rolie says, laughing. “I’m glad we didn’t can it!”