Journey didn’t start out as a stadium band roaring out power ballads. It germinated in the progressive rock scene, an outgrowth of the bands Santana and Frumious Bandersnatch. The new group, brought together in 1973 by Santana manager Herbie Herbert, was originally called the Golden Gate Rhythm Section, and their goal was to provide backup onstage and in the studio for other San Francisco artists. But their destiny was much bigger.
The original line-up included lead vocalist and keyboard player Gregg Rolie and lead guitarist Neal Schon, both of Santana, along with Bandersnatch’s bassist Ross Valory and rhythm guitarist George Tickner. After a brief stint with drummer Prairie Prince, they settled in with Aynsley Dunbar, formerly with Frank Zappa, at the kit. Rumor has it that a roadie suggested they call themselves Journey when they couldn’t think of a decent band name.
Thanks to the players’ impressive pedigrees, they snagged a contract with Columbia Records, which released their debut album, Journey, in 1975. The prog-rock influence in this collection of songs is obvious even before the first listen: All seven of the songs are longer than three minutes, several more than twice that!
“In the Morning Day” is written by Gregg Rolie and Ross Valory. The contemplative, bluesy guitar style is maybe the element most in contrast with the later, pop-icon Journey. The organ track, set against piano, provides a comforting soul feel. But things change at about 1:58, and Dunbar takes the reins and ups the tempo and energy. There’s a hint of the stadium-filling Journey here.
Look into the Future (1976) had the same lineup, except that Tickner had left. Like the debut, this record didn’t make much of an impression on the market.
Although stylistically less random and progressive, there are ever longer tracks on Look into the Future, particularly the 7+-minute title song with music by Schon and lyrics credited to all of them. One appealing aspect of the song “Look into the Future” is its simple but effective melody, almost prayer-like in its repetition. This time the organ intensifies the emotions, and Schon’s guitar has powerful grit in its low register.
Schon, Valory, and Dunbar focused on learning to do harmony vocals in hopes of getting the 1977 album Next into the charts. Their plan worked, to a degree: Next broke the U.S. top 100 at number 85. But this was to be the last time Rolie acted as lead singer.
Because Next turned out to be the end of an era for Journey, they later shelved most of its songs. “Spaceman,” for example, has never been performed live, which is remarkable for a band that has toured so much. The pattern in the guitar, repeatedly moving down a halfstep to a dissonant note, gives this song a distinctive sound, a bit reminiscent of David Gilmore.
After Next, it was clear that Journey was a band that had almost made it, but not quite. They needed a little something to push them over the top and into full-blown stardom. They briefly worked with a singer named Robert Fleischman, but that didn’t work out. Enter Steve Perry, with his high cheekbones and skyrocketing voice. Infinity (1978) hit no. 21.
Besides Perry, another important factor in changing the band’s sound was the hiring of producer Roy Thomas Baker, nowadays best known for helping to put Queen on the map. In “Winds of March,” Baker’s famously complex multitracking makes the band sound like an orchestra.
Although Baker stayed to work on Evolution (1979), Dunbar departed, leaving the band to find a new drummer. Steve Smith took the job, and was to leave and rejoin several times over the decades. Evolution produced Journey’s first U.S. top-20 single, “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.”
Rolie is using synths more and more, as you can hear on “Daydream.” Perry’s melody, with help from Baker’s keen ear at the sound board, is perfectly blended into the instrumental environment. It’s really an ensemble piece, with a better balance of voice and instruments than becomes normal for Journey as they increase in popularity and fans clamor for Perry’s sound to be front and center.
Whatever you think of Perry-era Journey, you have to hand it to them: They wanted to rise on the charts, and rise they did. Each album sold better than the previous one, and Departure (1980) got them into the top 10 for the first time.
The acoustics and musical interactions of this project are interesting because it was recorded “live in studio,” with everyone playing and singing his part at once rather than capturing individual tracks at separate times and places. As producer, Journey used Geoff Workman, who’d engineered for Baker in the past, including on Queen records.
“Natural Thing” from this session was added only in 2006 when the Departure CD was remastered. The synth-piano part moving downward and the ascending bassline as a pickup to each phrase gives the song a sound reminiscent of classic R&B. Neal Schon cranks up the rock value during his solo starting at 2:15.
Because Escape (1981) and Frontiers (1983) were such huge sellers, with so many hit singles, we’ll jump over them here and proceed to the 1986 record Raised on Radio. This is the only album without Valory on bass; it took both Randy Jackson and Bob Glaub to take his place. Perry, itching for a solo career, left after this album.
That could have been it for Journey. But time does funny things to rock bands. Ten years later, the gang – including Perry and Valory — got back together to make Trial by Fire (1996). This turned out to be Perry’s true swansong with the band. Maybe the market had passed them by: The only hit was “When You Love a Woman,” which also got a Grammy nomination.
Columbia Records and Journey parted ways in 2000, after recording Arrival with their new drummer, Deen Castronovo, and short-lived lead singer, Steve Augeri. For Generations (2005), the band signed with Sanctuary Records, which was at the time the U.K.’s largest independent label.
This is the only album where every member of the band sings lead on at least one song. Castronovo demonstrates his grainy, pleasingly sentimental voice on “A Better Life.”
For 2008’s Revelation, Filipino singer Arnel Pineda joined Journey as frontman. He stayed with them for Eclipse (2011), in which the band seemed to be trying for a harder rock sound. Not everyone thought they succeeded: in a comment that brings the band full circle to its origins, the review in Rolling Stone complains the album sounds “distractingly proggy.”
Most of the album is written by Schon and Cain, but Pineda gets co-writing credit on “To Whom It May Concern,” featuring some leapy, “proggy” synth riffs along with harder power chords. It’s certainly a prog-rock topic, basically taking on all of humanity’s inconsistencies and internal conflicts.
So Journey keeps journeying on. Steve Smith rejoined in 2015. They’re currently touring. And if you can make it out to Las Vegas, they’re planning a residency at Caesar’s Palace for most of October, 2019.