The cameras are running and lights illuminate the scene in a Houston hotel room. A knock is heard. A young man, bearing an amazing resemblance to Journey drummer Steve Smith, opens the door to find a hot-looking woman standing there. "Hi! Wanna party?" she coos seductively. "Sure," he says enthusiastically ushering her into the room. Just as they are about to get down to business, she deflates his ego saying, "You mean you're not Steve Perry?"
The actor is, of course, Steve Smith and the party-chick is actually his level-headed steady girlfriend, Susan Guernack. Their spoof on the clichéd groupie scene of rock stardom is merely one of dozens of clever hits that make up a video pastiche tentatively entitled The New Avocado Revue. The project, mostly the brainchild of bassist-turned-director Ross Valory, presents a Journey-fied version of Frank Zappa's 200 Motels with bits on drugs, roadies, payola, rock journalists and a variety of off-the-wall fantasy sequences.
Of course, The New Avocado Revue may never be seen by the world, and become merely an elaborate home movie for the band. That's okay, though, because it's primary purpose is to provide a diversion during those endless days on the road. It's a positive alternative to trashing hotel rooms or heavy narcotic use.
Guitarist Neal Schon explains, "We're crazy, see, but it's not like we are on the border of turning into a maniac scene."
Indeed. The crazy hijinks, like just about everything else about Journey, from songwriting to interviews, is calculated, measured and exists because it is part of a master plan which has transformed Journey from a progressive rock jam band which developed artistic anaemia, into a thriving platinum-selling / crowdpleasing rock & roll band.
Accidents may happen in Elvis Costello's world, but not in Journey's. The group's formation back in 1971 was the idea of Walter "Herbie" Herbert who decided to put together a superstar rhythm section for sessions and gigs in San Francisco called Golden Gate. It quickly became clear that the coalition Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie (both of Santana), Ross Valory (Steve Miller Band), George Tickner (session man) and Aynsley Dunbar (Mothers of Invention, Jeff Beck) was too good to just back other people up. The unit called itself Journey and began playing on their own, soon landing a recording contract with Columbia. They were one of many bands of their ilk to be spawned in the lazy, hazy days of the early '70s. "We toured relentlessly using road cash to keep us going and developed enough of a following that they could count on record sales of about 200,000," recalls Ross Valory.
"Our goals for the group changed about three years ago when we decided we couldn't spend the rest of our lives on the road," said keyboardist Gregg Rolie, who has been in transit from one show to the next for 16 of his 32 years.
Upon the casual suggestion from Herbie, the band almost nonchalantly decided to hire a vocalist and settled on Steve Perry. "We needed radio exposure to sell more records and to do that we needed songs and someone to sing them," said Ross, who had temporarily dropped out of the band after the first LP.
From Perry's arrival, Journey quickly shifted artistic gears and became a band hellbent on developing a mass following. "We were all veterans of the music scene and had the respect of fellow musicians and that's who we were playing for. When we made the change and pulled back from those endless solos into a tighter format, we discovered it was just as tough to restrain yourself and not play a note as it is to play it," said Rolie.
Valory put it succinctly:" We decided to play less and sing more so we wouldn't have to slave for the rest of our lives."
The strategy worked and beginning with Journey's Infinity album produced by singles sultan Roy (Cars / Queen) Baker, the band began getting greater radio airplay and LP sales skyrocketed.
The move, however, was not without its repercussions. "A good portion of the cult we'd attracted didn't like the la-de-dah shit at first," laughs Valory, "but now I think they're coming around."
Another result was the involuntary departure of drum master Aynsley Dunbar last year. (Original member George Tickner left earlier for personal reasons.) "Aynsley was able to play straight ahead and according to format when we were in the studio, but he got bored on the road and was unable to hold himself back in concert. He'd fill up all of the vocal space with drum sounds," explained Valory. "Unfortunately those musical problems became personal ones and it became impossible to remain unified from set to set. The end result was that he was fired. I think we settled fairly with him and obviously he's doing well with Jefferson Starship. The situation doesn't leave a bad taste in our mouth I hope it doesn't in his. We wish him the best."
Dunbar was replaced by Steve Smith, who'd mingled with the band while he was playing with Ronnie Montrose, who opened for Journey during much of their Infinity tour. "Steve is a great team player," opines Herbie, "He understands what our concept is, and likes it."
Smith, 25, says he joined the group because they were all "good musicians technically who could play with emotion and please an audience." He went on to say "In the beginning our wavelengths were not exactly the same, but they were definitely compatible."
The current players of Journey seem to pride themselves on their one-for-all spirit. "Sure, we still have disagreements," says Rolie, "but we work it out like you would with your family."
Valory says that Journey aspires to create a kind of rolling frat-party atmosphere to keep up morale. "This week I might be in charge of the boola-boola with my Avocado Revue and next week it might be somebody else's turn."
There is a kind of rough division of labour in the band according to talent, personality and demeanour. Neal Schon is obsessed with the band. "I am totally glued to what I am doing musically and that has an effect on my personal life [he's getting divorced, among other things]. I'm a workaholic. Totally."
Valory describes himself and Gregg as "the old glue that keeps things together." Both of them have wives, homes and avocations that they seem anxious to retire to when their pile of royalty gold is high enough.
Steve Perry, Journey's stylistic focal point and front man, has a lot of measured enthusiasm for the band and as such is an efficient industry backslapper.
Steve Smith, the new kid in town, is still dazzled by the lights and fortune, yet is frank about swallowing the whole rock star package. "The strange thing for me is that jazz and classical musicians are respected for their technical prowess, but rock stars are known for how many women they can take home or how much drugs they can consume. The funny thing is that even when people see the destructiveness of that way of life, they still aspire to it.
"All rock stars are afraid of not seeming bigger than life," continued Smith frankly, "and that's why they lie and that's why they are exploited and that's why they get screwed up."
By an accountant's reckoning and probably a psychiatrist's as well the men of Journey are not "screwed up." Some members are not above an occasional toke and they hardly sleep with tin cans around the bed, but their camp isn't one of full-blown rock-debauchery.
Over the years Journey has had a number of hurdles to jump. The first one was what they call the "mistaken notion" that the group was just a Santana spin off / riff-off. Then there were the tacky personnel changes and since they changed styles they have been saddled with charges of "selling out" or "going commercial" by critics. When those charges are levelled, the Journey-men have got their rap worked out. "Look, any music that is sold is commercial whether it's Van Cliburn, Ravi Shankar or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," says a feisty Valory. "It's just that we've made it without becoming the darlings of the rock press and the victory is sweet."
Schon on the same subject: "We can still play anything we played in the beginning and there's more to this group than what you hear on plastic. But right now we are trying to keep the people happy who are filling stadiums for us in a sagging economy."
Journey is now firmly established with younger fans as a band in the big leagues with groups like Cheap trick, Van Halen, Styx and - gasp Led Zeppelin in terms of selling concert tickets and albums. Yet all the members seem to be nagged by the fact that accolades from their peers have hardly been overwhelming. They can take solace in the fact that their "plan" has been successful enough for all of them to maintain comfortable lifestyles and buy the better part of a million dollars' worth of equipment from trucks to sophisticated cordless instruments which they tour with.
"At first the record companies were reluctant to sign Journey because they thought we were just another super-group that would hit and run," said Valory. "The hit part was right, the run wasn't."
© Circus, July 22 1980, Circus Enterprises Corporation.