By Bill Kopp
That was Neal Schon’s response to the opening question in a recent conversation with Rock On. He was reflecting on the career trajectory of Journey, the multi-platinum selling band he co-founded in San Francisco in 1973.
Between 1978 and 1987, Journey was on top of the pop and rock music world. The band’s fourth album, Infinity propelled Journey to the top of the charts, and featured a pair of hit singles, “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lights.” The latter, a prototypical power ballad co-composed by Perry and Schon, was a slow burn, initially peaking at #68 on the Billboard singles charts. But the tune’s popularity grew, pulling the band along with it. Today it’s widely considered a classic.
Previous Journey releases sounded quite different from these new songs. And Schon admits that he had reservations about the change when Perry first joined the group. “But when I finally got in a room with him, he and I knocked out our first song it in about 20 minutes,” he recalls. “And it was immediate chemistry.”
And “Lights” paved the way – or opened the floodgates; choose your metaphor – for future Journey successes. Starting with Infinity, the Bay Area rockers entered a high profile arc that saw each of seven successive albums go Platinum – one million units sold – or better. In fact one went double-Platinum, three sold enough to earn the triple Platinum designation. And one, 1981’s Escape, went Diamond. That’s ten million copies sold.
But the Journey of those years bore little resemblance to the group that Schon and four other musicians put together in the early ‘70s. At its start, Journey was a musical hybrid, a grab-bag of hotshot musicians who had fled other bands in hope of making their mark with something new.
The Journey of those days – as heard on the group’s self-titled 1975 debut, 1976’s Look into the Future and Next from 1977 – was a progressive-fusion band. Early Journey showcased the instrumental and compositional prowess of its members, and while keyboardist Greg Rolie was nominally the lead singer, vocals were not a top priority.
Rolie, Schon and bassist Ross Valory provided the instrumental backbone of those days and beyond, with assorted other members coming and going. And by fall 1977, the band had added Steve Perry to its lineup. Then in his late 20s, Perry had a powerful tenor voice. He also brought with him an accessible songwriting style; eight of Infinity's ten songs would feature a Perry co-credit.
With Perry on board, Journey’s progressive inclinations were set aside, and largely forgotten. The Steve Perry era defined what would become the group’s signature sound. Today Schon acknowledges that “the younger audience is not aware of our earlier records.”
But there would be no denying the appeal of the “new” Journey. And it was on the singles charts where Journey would truly make their mark. After that initial modest success in 1978 with “Lights,” the band took off for the outer limits.
A list of Journey singles from that era is sure to bring nods of recognition to anyone with even a passing familiarity with 1980s pop culture. “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin” (#15), “Any Way You Want It” (#21), “Who’s Cryin’ Now” (#3), “Don’t Stop Believin’” (#8), “Open Arms (#1) and “Separate Ways” (#9) are only a sampling of Journey’s decade-long dominance on the singles chart.
Neal Schon gives much of the credit for those successes to lead singer Perry, a former drummer. “Steve was a master at manipulating time,” Schon says. “He knew how make things sound faster, even though they weren’t. I learned a lot from him.”
But nothing lasts forever. By the time of 1987’s Raised on Radio, longtime drummer Steve Smith and founding member Valory had been summarily fired by Perry. Rolie had left by 1980, replaced by Jonathan Cain, formerly of pop group The Babys. Though Raised on Radio spawned hit singles, on the whole it was less well-received critically. In the wake of that disappointment, and in the face of changing popular tastes, Journey went on hiatus for nearly eight years.
When the band regrouped, Perry was again its dominant force. But health problems eventually sidelined him. By 1998 Journey’s most well-known member announced his exit from the group.
Many bands have folded in the wake of the departure of their lead singer. But Journey – now effectively co-led by Schon and Cain – kept on. The group brought in Steve Augeri, a relative unknown who had worked with Michael Schenker.
Augeri took an active role in songwriting and handled lead vocals on a pair of Journey albums: Arrival (2000), 2005’s Generations and the band’s only EP, Red 13. None sold in quantities remotely resembling the band’s peak ‘80s period. And vocal problems necessitated Augeri’s leaving the group in 2005.
His replacement didn’t work out. Schon admires Jeff Scott Soto as a vocalist, but says that ultimately he wasn’t a good fit, lacking “the tenor-alto-soprano voice you need to be able to cover the [Journey] catalog.”
After Soto’s departure, Neal Schon again sought a new lead singer for the band. In February 2008, Philippines-born Arnel Pineda became Journey’s sixth lead singer. A powerful vocalist, Pineda helped Journey return to the charts. Self-released in 2008, the aptly-named Revelation sold more than one million units.
But that level of success would prove difficult to sustain. Pivoting, the resilient band turned its attention to live work, releasing a string of concert albums and DVDs. Journey would release no new studio material between 2012 and 2021.
Meanwhile, the lineup changes that had been a characteristic of the group’s past would return, marked by frequent additions, dismissals and departures. Valory and Smith – both of whom were on hand when Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 – were fired in 2020; a flurry of lawsuits ensued. “The cool thing about the name Journey – and the brand Journey – is that the name means you're always evolving,” Schon says. “It's okay to make changes.”
The band’s long studio silence was broken with a 2021 album, Freedom. And 15 years into his tenure with the group, Pineda remains an effective ringer who can render faithful readings of the classic Journey tunes.
Neal Schon is as compelling and tuneful an axeman as he’s ever been. As Journey’s sole remaining original member, he represents the through-line that ties it all together. “To be frank about it,” Schon says, “it’s my guitar playing. I’ve still got the fire; I’ve still got the chops.”
He’s right. Though they’re subtle, echoes of the prog-fusion era band are in there on Freedom, if one listens closely and past the studio sheen. “You never quite leave things behind,” Schon admits.
And he’s looking toward the future. “Everything just keeps on going straight up,” Schon says, passion and determination in his voice. “We keep attaining younger audiences. I'll look in the front row, and they're singing every song at the top of their lungs.” Journey seems poised to return to the big time. “We went back into arenas shortly after Lollapalooza this year,” Schon says.
Journey should be celebrating its half-century of music in 2023. That might not happen, and the reason is actually good news. “We already have 2023 and ‘24 planned out,” says Schon. So a 50th anniversary celebration may have to wait a bit. “I think,” says the guitarist with a hearty laugh, “it’s going to take a couple more years.”
And nobody really knows what changes might be in store for Journey between now and then, let alone in the years to follow. It’s all okay, though, because as Neal Schon reminds us, “bands evolve.”
After a highly successful run, beloved rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up in 1972. John Fogerty had been the group’s undisputed creative center of gravity: he wrote nearly all of the songs, sang and played guitar. But CCR might not have earned its place in rock history without the peerless rock-solid rhythm section of bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug “Cosmo” Clifford.
Internal dissension toward the group's end led Fogerty to insist that each of his band mates contribute songwriting to what would become the band’s swan song, Mardi Gras. By most accounts they weren’t ready, and the results didn’t approach the quality of their best work.
But both Cook and Clifford had plenty of talent beyond playing their instruments. After CCR split, Cook went on to do some historic work as a record producer, working with psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson on the album The Evil One. And Clifford released an enjoyable solo album, Cosmo, in 1972. Lifelong best friends, Cook and Clifford continued on with a group of their own, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, playing live until retiring the band in 2020.
Along the way, Clifford recorded another album’s worth of music with some talented friends. When those sessions were completed, the master tapes went into a vault, where they would remain, almost forgotten, for more than 40 years. But now Clifford has rescued those tapes from obscurity: California Gold is set for release November 11.
The sessions for California Gold drew on some heavyweight talent. Clifford recalls the genesis of the project. “This was back in ‘78,” he says. “I was at Duck Dunn’s house.” Dunn had already gained great fame as bassist for Booker T & the MG’s as well as for his session work on scores of Stax Records recordings.
Clifford explained to his friend that he was trying to put a band together. “I’m looking for a singer,” he told Dunn. “You know anybody?” Dunn suggested Bobby Whitlock. Dunn had known Whitlock for many years, since the Stax days when the singer was signed as the first white artist on the label.
After his Stax period, singer-keyboardist Whitlock joined legendary music collective Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. From there, he and guitarist Eric Clapton formed Derek and the Dominos. But by 1978, Whitlock had fallen on hard times and was in semi-retirement. “He was pretty broke,” Clifford recalls.
Clifford was interested, and so was Whitlock, who promptly drove up from Los Angeles to Clifford’s place in the Bay Area. “We got together and started writing songs right off the bat,” Clifford recalls. Once the pair had written all of the ten songs that would eventually make up California Gold, Clifford turned to his new songwriting partner and said, “You know, we’d better record these songs, or we’re going to forget them!”
A studio lineup was assembled, featuring Clifford on drums and background vocals; Whitlock on vocals, Hammond B3 organ, piano and guitars; Duck Dunn on bass; and Mike O’Neill on lead guitar. They recorded nearly all of the songs that Clifford and Whitlock had co-written.
Songs like “Good Times” explore a grooving, funky character reminiscent of Whitlock’s work on Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. O’Neil’s stinging slide guitar is a highlight of the bluesy “Get Down Fever.” The stomping beat of “It Ain’t Like Mama Told Me” has hints of the old CCR sound. And the soulful ballad “It’s Always the Darkest Before the Dawn” has an Allman Brothers Band feel.
Taken as a whole, there’s a cohesive character to the songs. “We recorded in several places,” Clifford recalls. That lineup completed six tracks before opportunity intervened. “Duck got an offer that he couldn’t refuse,” Clifford explains. “He joined The Blues Brothers with John Belushi.” And in doing so, Clifford adds with a smile, “he became the best bass player/movie star ever.”
Billing itself as California Gold, the group did play a few live dates around that time; bassist Tom Miller filled in for the departed Dunn. “We did play about six gigs,” Clifford says. “Tom was filling the shoes of Duck, which nobody really can.”
Meanwhile, the remaining group pressed on in the studio, finishing a few more songs. But Dunn had been a key part of the sessions. “We were looking for more guys to revamp the process, to get a full band,” Clifford says. “That didn’t happen, so into the vault [the tape] goes.” And there it would remain for decades to come.
Doug Clifford says that the original idea behind the sessions was twofold. In addition to preserving the songs that he and Whitlock had written, they had hoped to create a demo recording in hope of landing a record deal. But unlike many other artists, the team that made the California Gold tapes was aiming for a polished finished product, not a rough recording that merely “demonstrated” the songs.
“That's where I put my producer's hat on,” Clifford explains. “Anytime I'm doing anything [in the studio], I approach it as if it's a master [recording]. If I'm going to go in and buy studio time, I'm going to make it like I make a record.”
But with the group having fallen apart, Clifford soon turned his attention to other projects.
In 1981 he played drums on Deal it Out, the third solo album by his former CCR band mate (and John Fogerty’s brother) Tom Fogerty. In 1983 he lent his drumming talents to Midnight Sun, an album by Texas legends The Sir Douglas Quintet. Along the way, he did additional live and session work for Bay Area artists including Greg Kihn and Steve Miller. And by 1995 he and Stu Cook were reunited as Creedence Clearwater Revisited; that kept Clifford busy for the next couple of decades-plus.
And then a few years ago, when Clifford found himself at home in Lake Tahoe, he decided to take the decades-old California Gold tape out of storage and give it a listen. He remembers thinking, “That's pretty good! I think I could probably do something with that!”
But even though the performances and recording quality were top-notch, the ravages of time had worked against that master tape. Magnetic recording tape has a finite shelf life; over time, the coating on the tape can become loose and begin to flake off, taking the recorded sound with it. Luckily, studio engineers discovered a way to preserve such damaged tapes: they’re placed in a low-temperature oven – an actual kitchen oven – and “baked” for several hours. That process can allow the loose bits on the tape to re-adhere.
But it’s a short-term solution: once the baked master tape is cooled, it’s good for about one playback. During that playback, a digital copy is made. When the process is finished, the original master is often unusable, so the digital master takes its place. And that entire process was applied to the California Gold tapes.
“I've baked brownies before, but I never baked audio tape,” laughs Clifford. “I was really very lucky to have everything that was in there come out playable.” He says that the process had only one mishap, and that he ended up having (and using) a better take of that track, anyway.
Thus preserved and transferred to the digital format, the California Gold multi-track masters were remixed by Clifford and Russell DaShiell, with intention of releasing the finished archival recording. But Clifford prefers not to think of the music as archival. “To me, it’s new,” he insists. “Because it has never been released [until now]. So it’s a new old record!”
Available now via streaming and download, California Gold by Doug “Cosmo” Clifford featuring Bobby Whitlock is available on CD November 11 from Cliffsong Records.
The history of music defines, in many ways, the history of humankind. We know our anthropological ancestors had music because archeologists have found flutes made from the hollow bones of birds, and from bamboo dating back at least ten millennia. Imagine yourself, after eating a bunch of magic mushrooms gathered in a primitive basket, lurching around the fire, banging your club while listening to Play That Funky Music Caveboy. By the 1970's, we traded in our unsophisticated wooden clubs for clubs with sophisticated names like the Crisco Disco, or the more subtle Studio 54.
From the Waltz, to the Polka to the Twist, there has always been music which encouraged a good hearty shake of our groove thing. In the early 1970's, hippie, folk, & psychedelia music was peaking, but weren't really danceable. Around that time disco emerged, and the world of dance has never been the same. In 1972 the O'Jays had a major hit with a song called "Love Train." It was an inspired marriage between funk and a steady four count beat. Eventually songs like "Don't Rock The Boat'' by Hues Corporation, and George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby" came to dominate worldwide music sales charts.
Around that time, a guy named Harry Wayne Casey was toiling away sweeping floors and unpacking boxes as a record store clerk. He'd struck up a friendship with some of the distributors delivering those records to the store and was invited to the TK Record Studio.
There he began by sweeping floors, and packing boxes for shipment. Soon he met recording engineer and bassist Richard Finch, and it became immediately evident to Finch that Casey was a gifted song writer meant for more than tidying up. After the Florida native penned, and produced, Rock Your Baby, Casey was ready to make his own records.
In 1974 Casey's group, called K.C. and the Sunshine Band released an album called Do It Good. Because it hadn't caught on in America, but had in Europe, the band crossed the ocean, and unsurprisingly the tour was a huge success. On its heels, TK re-released Do It Good and began aggressively promoting it in the US where it finally garnered some well-deserved attention and strong reviews. The sales still lagged a bit, but the word of mouth, and their local popularity in Miami began focusing national attention on both the band, its leader, and the newest dancing fad.
In 1975, the disco craze took off like a rocket ship powered by synthesizers, horns, a lively bass, and its danceable four on the floor drum beat. The music itself often featured Latin, soul, & funk influences, but all of it came in a neon bright package. That's when disco music caught on in the US in a big way. Seemingly overnight, clubs sprung up all over the country trying to cash in on the latest musical fad. Disco seemed to gain in popularity everyday, and KC and the Sunshine band was the vanguard.
Folks began showing up to the clubs in leisure suits, slinky dresses, experimental hair cuts, and big gold jewelry. They were fueled by sex, cocaine, alcohol, and even the same magic mushrooms gathered by our cave painting forebears. The culture which formed around disco music was revolutionary in many ways. Birth control had only recently become ubiquitous, and it gave everyone liberty to participate in recreational sex with an abandon that had never existed in human history. Drugs were easy to come by and were cheap and there was little if any stigma attached to using them for fun. The dance craze appealed to nearly everyone, and the clubs were practically bursting with twenty something's looking for fun on Saturday nights.
KC & The Sunshine Band quickly became one of the biggest disco era bands. They boasted charttopping success with songs like the hard rocking "Get Down Tonight," the instructive "That's The Way I Like It," & the inviting "Shake Your Booty," as well as somewhat softer, yet still danceable love songs like "Keep It Comin' Love." Indeed, KC & The Sunshine Band were so popular they accomplished a feat which was only done once before. Like the Beatles, they scored four #1 hits within a one-year period. Their first four albums, selling more than a million copies apiece, were certified platinum, or multi-platinum. While it might be hard to believe today, in the mid 1970's KC was about as big as a band could get.
As the end of the 70's decade drew near, disco, as a cultural phenomenon, suffered a disheartening backlash. In 1979's "Disco Demolition" fan promotion, headline-hunting radio shock jocks Steve Dahl and Gary Meier, for reasons unknown, literally blew up a box of dance records.
The promotion was an epic disaster. In between games of a baseball double header at Chicago's Comiskey Field, a big box of disco records was brought out to center field where it was subsequently detonated. The explosion was heard for miles around, and it left a moon sized crater on the field. It is estimated that as many as fifteen thousand people had sneaked into the already sold out stadium, and even before the pointless pyrotechnics, the crowd had doused the field with beer and firecrackers. After the blast, it is estimated 20,000 crazed morons stormed the field and pretty much stole or destroyed anything that wasn't nailed down or painted over. In the aftermath, it was reported that as many as fifty people suffered injuries. It is little wonder the promotion is still seen as one of the worst planned and most disastrous events in baseball & music history. After that, despite still being loved by millions, disco music lost its spot in radio music rotation, and with the mainstream record buying public. Nightclubs, and dance bands everywhere found themselves bankrupt, and out of work practically overnight.
If that was disco's low point, then its high point was probably the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. The movie itself was not a masterpiece, but it became popular by the charismatic dancing of John Travolta in a white leisure suit. The breathtaking soundtrack of the movie sold more than fifteen million records and is, to this very day, still the highest selling soundtrack of all time. It spawned huge hit songs like "Staying Alive '' by the Bee Gees and "If I Can't Have You" by Yvonne Elliman. The last song on side three of the double record set is "Boogie Shoes" by KC & The Sunshine Band.
The song broke on Saturday Night Fever and then showed up time and again in the media. It has been featured in at least six movies and several TV shows as well as commercials. Shapely, sexy, former inmate #77806-112, Felicity Huffman, danced to the song on two different TV shows.
The first time was on a desk shaking her booty quite fetchingly on the show Sports Night, and the second time she provocatively shimmied her groove thing on a bar in a scene from Desperate Housewives. Interestingly, KC's use of the word "booty" caused dictionaries all over the world to amend the definition of the word from the stolen gains of pirates to include its use as a description for the human buttocks.
Boogie Shoes is definitely a forgotten classic that has transcended disco, and still sounds as fresh today as it did during its heyday.
In 2009, KC and The Sunshine Band were invited to perform on the mega-hit TV show American Idol. That performance reintroduced them to a national audience who were craving something both new and nostalgic. Disco didn't die on that baseball field nearly 45 years ago. It still exists today, and it's one of the greatest forms of dance music ever sprung from the creative mind of the ancestors of the cavemen.