JOURNEY'S ROAD manager, a rather large man with a shaved head the kind of guy you wouldn't want to throw into a bad mood doesn't mince his words. "These are some assholes from the press," he says, only half-joking when introducing the writer and photographer to the band members backstage at the Nassau Coliseum in Long Island. "They're going to write another lousy story about you guys." A bit later on, the road manager takes the writer aside. "You're not going to pan these guys, are you?" The question comes out not so much as a threat as a plea from a worried parent. When he is assured that our purpose is not to pass judgement on the group but to profile it, a sigh of relief comes over him. "You know," he says, "these guys have taken a lot of shit from critics, but they're really nice guys."
It becomes apparent from his soft concerned tone that the tough-as-nails attitude the road manager initially expressed while introducing everybody was by no means the man's true personality. He just seems to feel genuinely bad that Journey by anyone's standards one of the hardest-working rock groups in the business has been the brunt of so much abuse by rock critics, especially since the group became a major success in the last few years.
During the course of the interview with singer Steve Perry and drummer Steve Smith, the two newest members of Journey, the same topic arises. Perry is as frank as his group's road manager when addressing the subject. "I must tell you," he says, commenting on some negative reviews the band has received, "that we don't do this (interviews) anymore, as a rule. The Columbia (Records) publicist called and said that she thought we should do this. But lately we've stayed away from it because people aren't nice to us, in a malicious way. So what's the point? If someone has something to say, he should say it in a constructive way. Start off by saying that personally I hate the group, but everyone who saw the show tonight thought it was great. But to act like a spokesman for all of the people is ridiculous and egotistical. It makes what (critics) think a rock and roll person's ego is look like peanuts."
The subject came up when Perry was asked to comment on a charge in one major rock publication that his lyrics are too simplistic. The California-born singer, sporting unstylishly long, straight black hair shrugs. "That's amazing," he replies, a hint of annoyance registering on his face. "Well, since I don't want to write about nuclear plants, and since I don't give a damn about napalm - even though I don't want to see anything weird happen to the world - I would rather give people simple things to think and hear about, and take them away from everything that is bothering them.
"Music is a release," Perry explains, "and it's more important how you say it than what you say. That's the kind of singer I am and the kind I respected when I was a kid.
"I'm not about to sit down and write some protest songs. I'd like to ask the critic just what the hell he wants. Then, after he tells me, I'll say well thanks, bye."
Perry walks over to a long table in the dressing room on which raw vegetables, cold cuts and other assorted nutritious food no junk food in sight is laid out. He grabs a bottle of Perrier and returns to the couch he'd been sitting on. "I don't give a damn what (critics) want," he begins, picking up from where he left off, "I just know that the people like what we're doing now and if one critic says we have simplistic lyrics, well ." His voice trails off, the Perry becomes lively again. "That same critic will write that he loves new wave, and all that is bite my nose and tear off my ear! I don't know."
Neither Perry nor Smith offers any theories as to why Journey has taken such a lashing lately, but one possibility is the almost sudden change in musical direction that began when Perry joined the group in 1978 for its fourth album, Infinity. Up until then, Journey, founded in 1973 by ex-Santana members Neal Schon (guitar) and Gregg Rolie (keyboards), former Steve Miller Band bassist Ross Valory and Tubes drummer Prairie Prince (quickly replaced by Aynsley Dunbar), was primarily considered a heavy-metal / progressive rock act concentrating on instrumental virtuosity. The band attracted a sizeable cult following, but was not one of Columbia's top-selling acts by any means.
WITH THE addition of Perry, the group's sound shifted towards a more mainstream rock sound, and both FM and AM airplay skyrocketed. Infinity was the first Journey album to go not only gold but platinum, and the band became a big-league, headlining attraction in many parts of the country.
Following Infinity, drummer Dunbar was asked to leave the group due to the usual musical and personal differences (he now drums for Jefferson Starship), and Smith came aboard, in time for the next platinum LP, Evolution. Journey had clearly established itself in the marketplace, and the group's first top 20 single, Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin' furthered its reputation in other parts of the U.S. and abroad.
Journey was not entirely pleased with the production work of Roy Thomas Baker, however, so it asked Geoffrey Workman, who had served as engineer on the two platinum LPs, to try his hand at producer for the band's most recent album, Departure. And the title is an appropriate one, as the sixth Journey album (not counting the compilation In The Beginning) features a rawer sound than the two previous albums.
Perry explains the differences between recording with Baker at the help and recording with Workman. "Before, we made albums like people make movies you go in and cut a basic track and then the singer comes in and sings his part. In movies, you shoot a scene and then you come back in and do voice-overs. For Departure, I sang live vocals while they were cutting basics, and I ended up keeping 90% of them. There are hardly any overdubs on this album. There was one song on Evolution where I did 32 vocal tracks! For this one, I decided to beef up what was already there, rather than make it something it ain't."
Perry denies that Departure, or either of the other albums he recorded with the group, are deliberate attempts to attract a large sales. In fact, he notes that Departure is so named because it marks a departure from the group's previous attitude towards recording. This time it went for a more natural feel a rawer sound as opposed to one that is tailor-made for radio. "For one," he says, "I don't know what a commercial sound is. If someone can define the word, I'll talk about it. If it means like being like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, then I'm flattered because those people are commercial, too. We aren't the 1910 Fruitgum Company," he stresses, referring to a studio group that had a string of "bubblegum" hits in the '60s. "A lot of people use that word (commercial) in that context. But we're just musicians who, luckily, ended up signing a contract.
ADDS SMITH: "What we happen to do, a lot of people like. And a lot of times, that's more coincidence than anything."
"It's ironic," adds Perry, "A lot of people love a band when it's not successful. Then when it's successful they figure you've sold out." He shrugs, and continues. "It's almost like the consciousness of the early '60s - anti-establishment music. I'm just a singer and I just want to sing. I convey my emotion to people and I'm not ripping them off."
Perry recalls, however, that when he first joined Journey, there were a number of fans who didn't exactly appreciate his singing. "I had some problems when I first joined," he notes. "There was the band, with three albums and a lot of road touring behind it. And all of the sudden there was this singer up there with the range of a soprano. They were going 'What the hell is this?' There were some die-hard Journey fans, but not enough of them to be worried about. Still," he adds, "there were enough of them to cause me pain. They'd look at me funny and throw things at me."
Smith says he didn't have as much trouble when he replaced Dunbar in the drummer's seat. "The biggest problem I've had," he jokes, "is people asking me how it feels to fill Aynsley's shoes."
As for problems within the band (the disputes between Dunbar and the group border on legendary, and wound up in court), both Perry and Smith deny there is any abnormal amount of friction within the band. "We've got it under control," Smith says, "I mean, there's ego problems in the world, there's always people problems. If Iran would talk to us, we'd get our people back. But they don't want to talk to us." The members of Journey, unlike Iran and the U.S., do talk to each other, however, and one of the reasons the band has managed to survive excruciatingly long tours is that the members are compatible and share similar goals.
"It's a lot of hard work being on the road as much as this band is," says Perry. "It can make you very crazy." But, he agrees, one of the main reasons the band is so popular now is because it spent years touring almost constantly, reaching as many people as possible.
FOR SOME reason, the band is still not as popular in the northeast as it is in the west and in the Midwest. Admittedly, Journey has not played in the northeast as often as it has in the other areas, but Perry and Smith are confident that the group is on the verge of breaking in the area. Although the Nassau Coliseum isn't close to being filled this night, the attending fans are as rabid an audience as any. From the moment the band members emerge through a trap door built into its customised stage (which is completely bare all equipment except the guitars and Smith's drums are off to the sides), the fans are standing. They are singing along with the hits, and listening intently to the skilled musicianship of Schon, Valory, Rolie and Smith, as well as Perry's lead vocals. And the group is popular abroad, perhaps more so than it was aware.
"Once we played in Japan and the audience was real reserved," recounts Perry, "So we decided that during the encore we'd jump into the orchestra pit, which was real close to the people. That was a mistake," he says, almost singing the words. His voice takes on a trembling quality. "They broke loose, came running down and it was cra-zeeeeee! The security guy picked me up from behind, turned me sideways and dumped me like a sack of potatoes on the side of the stage. I was pissed then, but then I found out why they had to do that. Gregg had lost his shirt, literally! They ripped it right off him. They get excited over there."
"They are a little bit more suppressed than we are," adds Smith. "So when they get loose, they go really crazy."
Still, the pair aren't too sure that they would give up the life of a touring rock band if they had the choice. "If I had a choice," muses Perry, "I don't know what I'd do."
"You don't have a choice, though," says Smith, interrupting Perry's answer, "so you just do what you do."
"It isn't an if situation," Perry continues, "because otherwise it would've turned out different. It's a funny thing to look back and dream if you hadn't been a musician what you would have been."
Concludes Smith, "If I had my choice I would have been born a millionaire and I'd just lie on the beach."
IF ITS rate of success keeps mushrooming like it has been, Journey may finally find time to take some time off and hit the California beaches. But one gets the impression that the members of the band would maintain a heavy workload even if they were millionaires not so much because they'd have to, but because they know no other way. Journey is a band that needs to keep at it until it's had a chance to prove itself to every available listener even those jaded critics who have given the group such a hard time, and turned its road manager into a pussycat in tiger's clothing this warm summer night.
"This band's biggest critic is itself," says Perry, sipping on his Perrier as Smith gets up to make some carrot juice (no pre-show alcohol swiggers, these guys - Perry says the band needs all of its energy for when it's on stage. "That's why we don't give a damn what anybody writes. We know in our hearts how we've got to live up to our own expectations. And nine times out of ten we don't. It's not that we don't think we didn't play well; it's just that we always think we could've done better." The singer gets up and stretches before heading out for a walk. "We're the ones," he says, "who keep us on our toes."
© Record Review, February 1981, Ashley Communications Inc.