THIS HERE German auditorium is a far from ideal rock and roll venue. Clean, ultra-modern, moulded to acoustic perfection and resembling some kind of gigantic inner ear. It feels like I'm in London's Royal festival Hall attending a piano recital rather than in Hamburg for a concert by the multi-platinum American act, Journey.
Cigarettes and booze verboten, the clean-cut, corduroy-clad Deutsch sit and wait patiently for the band to arrive. Propping up a wall behind the mixing desk, I'm having to look down on the stage which, as Heavy Publicist Joe O'Neil points out, is something of a bummer: your should always stare up at a band, he says, if you don't then the whole larger-than-life image is destroyed. I'll remember that next time I'm perched high up in the rafters of Wembley Arena, wondering why I'm not getting off.
But whatever, the burning question tonight is: can Journey manage to break through the deodorised surroundings and dampen the Aryan armpits with a little honest-to-goodness heavy rocking perspiration, or will everything remain calm, collected and squeaky-clean?
Looking about myself, feeling incongruous in my Starz jacket and thinking how much this place reminds me of my old college lecture theatre, I must admit that at the moment, I'd choose to put my money on the latter.
Last time I saw Journey play live was at Holland's Pink Pop Festival back in May 1978. Bubbling with enthusiasm for their then-new Roy Thomas Baker produced 'Infinity' album, I was disappointed when their performance turned out to be a great let-down. "Excessively wimpy", "uninspired" and "half-hearted" I wrote, spraying my typewriter keys with critical venom, ending up with a no-holds-barred attack on drummer Aynsley Dunbar's solo, saying that "it made the bumbling efforts of the roadies trying to hang a flashing 'Thin Lizzy' logo from the scaffolding on an adjacent stage seem like compulsive entertainment at the time."
DESPITE ALL that, 'Infinity' still ended up at number seven in my top 20 albums of last year listing and Journey received an honourable mention in my "Picked to Click in '79" predictions. Which only goes to prove that ill-humour is most definitely tempered with the passing of time. (or else that you've got a Godawful memory Ed.).
Journey's three albums prior to 'Infinity'; 'Journey', 'Look Into The Future' and 'Next' largely passed me by because of their lack of top 40 chart commerciality. Formed by two ex-Santana men, guitarist Neal Schon and keyboard player Gregg Rolie (they quit the band after the 'Caravanserai' LP), Journey originally "updated the psychedelic openness of the last Sixties Beatles, Dead and Airplane with their own brand of space music."
Not surprisingly, pursuing this particular musical direction didn't exactly pay off with a plethora of platinum platters and so, come the fourth long-player, the band remade, remodelled, came back down to earth and unashamedly did a Foreigner. And whatever you might thing of the calculation behind that move, there's no doubt that it paid off in spades: ten straight-ahead, cunningly constructed and infernally memorable songs (boosted by the arrival of one Steve Perry and his crystal clear vocal work) were assembled in a titanic multi-tracked RTB package and suddenly the dollars started pouring in. 'Infinity' sold a million copies and for the first time in their lives the Journeymen became successful.
And now, with a fifth album, 'Evolution' under their belts and soon to be released, the band are looking to repeat their Stateside success in the rest of the world.
Returning one last time to last year's Pink Pop feature, I remember that I did add one positive note to the largely negative proceedings by saying that, given you're hardly likely to witness bands in the best of lights at outdoor events, "perhaps I should give Journey the benefit of the doubt and look forward to seeing them play in a more congenial venue some time".
All well and good. But I didn't mean for it to be this congenial.
BACK IN the stultifyingly sterile Hamburg hall the lights dim, and to the pre-recorded pomp rocking strains of "Majestic", the short instrumental track that opens the new 'Evolution' LP, Journey strut onto the stage. And as soon as Neal Schon begins to pump out the chopping intro to "La Do Da" and the three part harmonies soar up and around it becomes obvious that I've bet on a loser and that, no, the Germans' day-long freshness won't hold out for the course.
A sustained guitar note and "La Do Da" swiftly segues into a glossy, polished rendition of an old number, "Next", followed swiftly by "Feeling That Way" and "Anytime", the full, powerful, grandiose album sound enjoying some immaculate onstage reproduction.
Exuding cool confidence, Journey follow the set through with archetypal unflustered American professionalism. Frizzy-haired, moustachioed, flared-trousered, Randy California look-alike Schon is something of a virtuoso (and he really gets to prove in on the frantic free-form jazz-rock workout "Kahoutec", another of the few old tunes the band scatter around the set) and together with a crotch-area bulge that makes the Freddie Mercury hosepipe look like a drinking straw he looks the part of the guitar hero to the hilt.
Steve Perry meanwhile, long black haired and dark skinned, has a friendlier, less intense (slightly effete?) stage presence and a high, clear voice, of almost choir boy quality. Comparable to the 'chords of Lou Gramm of Foreigner, Steve Walsh of Kansas and somehow even Ann Wilson of Heart, Perry's vocals are pure, spine tingling perfection. You won't get lots of raucous shouting here, mate.
Blond bass player Ross Valory is a little anonymous (O'Neil describes him as "Definitely oops! Wrong planet," What can he mean?) as is new drummer Steve Smith (replacing Aynsley 'Warning' Dunbar: we'll learn why and how come a little later) although it's very difficult to be anything but when you're sitting shrouded in cymbals atop a towering riser. Tall, handsome keyboard player Gregg Rolie sometimes takes the lead vocals and occasionally falls over (but at least he's man enough to admit his mistake and say, "I slipped, didn't I?" rather than pretend it didn't happen) and poses with a good deal of panache.
A lengthy, entertaining set drawing mainly on material from the 'Infinity' and 'Evolution' albums: "When You're Alone It Ain't Easy", "Too Late", the aforementioned "Kahoutec" (which, with its fast and furious Billy Cobham / Tommy Bolin 'Spectrum' comes as a bit of a jolt after all the AOR material), "Winds Of March", "Do You recall", "Just The Same Way, "Can Do", "Loving You Is Easy," the set ending with "Wheel In The Sky" and the encores comprising "She Makes Me", "Patiently" and "Open The Door".
Hugely enjoyable to these ears (and this despite having a German breathing garlic into one of them for the duration of the evening) but maybe, just maybe, a little too refined, sentimental (example of lyrics: 'You touched me with your eyes / Soft as an evening breeze / You held me in your arms / As the wind rushed through the trees') and, well, ballsless for braindamaged Britons? We shall see.
LATER THAT night Journey commandeer the bar of the Crest Hotel for some heavy drinking and I in turn seize upon band members Schon and Perry for the inevitable interview.
First off I express mild surprise to find Roy Thomas Baker once again at the help for the new 'Evolution' album. Last time I talked to the band they seemed dissatisfied and doubtful that they would be using him again.
"Well, we had thought about it," drawls Schon, "but when it came down to it we decided that yes, we really wanted to work with Roy and especially Geoffrey Workman (first engineer on the 'Infinity' album) again. In fact, Geoffrey was a real contributing factor to the quality of 'Infinity' and he was the main reason we wanted to work with Roy once again, because he was around."
Like 'Infinity', 'Evolution' is a flowing, full-sounding, immaculately constructed album. How many of the recording ideas are Roy's and how many are yours?
"Well, I'll tell you," replies Perry, "This is the honest-to-God truth, Roy was out driving in his Rolls Royce or doing shopping half the time we were recording 'Evolution'. It's really just produced by us and Geoffrey Workman."
"Admittedly Roy had a lot to do with the sound of 'Infinity'," adds Schon, "but if you listen to both of them I bet you'll prefer the new one. You know, 'Infinity' had layer after layer of sound, hundreds of overdubbed guitars . There's less of that on 'Evolution' and I prefer it."
Yeah, but although there may be differences between your two most recent albums, there's no way they can be as radical as those between 'Infinity' and its predecessor 'Next', when you suddenly turned away from 'space rock' and headed wholeheartedly into 'Foreigner rock'.
"We wanted to be successful," bleats Schon, "we wanted to compete and we took the steps that we thought were right to do so. If they're the wrong ones, we'll find out soon enough. We're not copping out, we're just trying to make some money. Otherwise you can't live."
Delving into the backgrounds of the two members reveals that Perry, despite his thick black hair and swarthy looks is of Portuguese and not Red Indian descent. He was in a band called The Alien Project prior to joining Journey: "Just as we were about to sign to Columbia Records our bass player was killed in a car crash. It was very unfortunate," he says matter-of-factly. "However the record company said they liked what I was doing and told me that Journey were looking for a new vocalist and might be interested in me. From then on things happened very quickly I sent a tape to the band, hung out with them for a while and the next thing I knew I was in the studio recording 'Infinity'."
Schon meanwhile, although only 25 years old has been playing in major bands for over ten years. In his early teens he used to follow Santana around the States and eventually, Carlos Santana took him under his wing and allowed him to play onstage with the band on several occasions. Santana didn't really recognise his potential until, at the age of 15, Eric Clapton asked Schon to join his band. Santana came in with a counter-bid and, much as he idolised old EC, Schon decided to stay with the Latin-rockers.
After he quit Santana, Schon spend some time with Graham Central Station before leaving them and attempting to set up a power trio. "I had the bass player and drummer and lots of good material," Schon reveals, "but I couldn't find a vocalist. Soon after that idea petered out Herbie (Herbert, Journey's manager) and I got together and Journey began to take shape."
AND WHILE we're on the subject of past history, where did your new drummer Steve Smith come from?
"Steve was on the American 'Infinity' tour with us last year, he was in Ronnie Montrose's group, the support band. He'd been friends with us for a long time and when Aynsley left for Jefferson Starship he was the natural replacement."
What's the story behind Dunbar's leaving the band? Was the split fairly amicable?
"Well what really happened was that we had different ideas about where to go and what to do," says Perry, "and in the end it got a little difficult to work with him so we asked him to quit. He's with Starship now and he loves that band so he's better off without us and we feel that we're better off without him."
What didn't he like about Journey's music?
"Awww," moans Schon, "he said that it was too simple, not adventurous enough you know, that sort of thing."
That's funny because when I interviewed him last year he said how much he was enjoying playing economically. (Exact quote: "As far as I'm concerned simplicity is the name of the game. If Mick Fleetwood can do it, so can I.")
"Ha!" snorts Perry. "He's done interviews recently in which he's said that we were boring the shit out of him, saying that we wanted to simplify things but that he wasn't into it. And only last year he told you he was into playing economically .? Well that just about says it all, doesn't it? We're much happier now that Steve Smith's with us, we feel less like a collection of individuals and more like a band."
Journey's British tour starts this Wednesday in Manchester and I wondered how the band saw themselves faring in the UK market.
"We're going to try like hell," says Schon emphatically, "we've got the States and now we want the world. I don't think that's too much to ask for. All we're asking for is a chance to be heard and if the people dig it which we feel they're going to then it'll happen. All we need is a chance.
"I think if the people are open-minded they're going to enjoy us because I think we sound different to any other band that's out right now."
"And it's good different," says Perry. Then lapsing into some Ted Nugentese: "So many people sound the same right now. Sit back, listen and I think you'll realise that we are the most different sounding band, you cannot compare us to anyone. And by staying individual-sounding, we're taking a big chance. We're trying to make our own statement, we're not walking into anyone else's shoes.
"So we've really got our balls on the line."
Sounds, March 24, 1979