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.”