Power-ballad kings Journey at Rogers
California rockers won’t stop believin’ in their timeless, crowd-pleasing hits
After playing with various musicians, Bay Area guitarist Neal Schon formed Journey in 1973. The band soon became a staple on FM rock radio, a status that culminated with the nine-times-platinum success of the 1981 album Escape (Don’t Stop Believin’, Open Arms, Who’s Crying Now). Forty-three years after releasing its first album, Journey is on a 60-city arena tour with British hard-rockers Def Leppard. We talked to Schon about the origins of the power ballad, weathering grunge, and licensing his music.
Journey is known primarily as a power-ballad band. What are the origins of the genre?
There were a few things, but not a whole lot. I think we kind of invented what we did — it was a soaring ballad, really gutsy, not wimpy — songs like Still They Ride and Mother, Father. I always loved this one song by (’70s Long Island band) Mountain, Theme for an Imaginary Western. I heard it on Woodstock (it appeared on the Woodstock 2 album) and I was just captivated by the power in Leslie West’s singing guitar, the vibrato. They were throwing it down. I always loved that song and the concept of heavy, powerful, slow guitar.
The advent of grunge sidelined a lot of music that had been popular in the ’80s. How did that affect you?
Uhm … It was a strange period for music. It took me awhile to warm up to it. I understood what it was about after I listened more. It was about a lot of pain and anger. When the first Pearl Jam record came out, I was in the studio finishing the first Hardline record. (Hardline was a hard-rock band formed in 1991, their debut Double Eclipse was released in 1992.) A (talent scout) friend brought it in and played me a track and it sounded phenomenal. I thought our record sounded very good, too, at that point. The record company was really excited about our record. And then, that era of music came in and took over, and anything that sounded remotely like pop-rock or even heavier rock was just sidelined. I think, if anything, that record (Hardline’s Double Eclipse) suffered.
Journey never really suffered, even when we weren’t together. We put something so uniquely special together. Even though we didn’t play the world like we should’ve, I felt, it was embedded in rock and never went away. Everybody knows that Don’t Stop Believin’ is way up there, if not the most downloaded song, but I didn’t know until I looked at the statistics that Any Way You Want (from 1980’s Departure album) is right behind it. And the song Lights (off 1978’s Infinity) that I wrote with (former Journey vocalist) Steve Perry has become the anthem. When we play that song, wherever we play is lit up. Everybody in the place sings it. You can barely hear the band. That is the bona fide hit in this day and age, even though it just made it into the Top 40 when it first came out.
The use of Don’t Stop Believin’ at the end of the final episode of The Sopranos is one of the best-known instances of music placement. What is your philosophy on licensing your songs?
We’ve always been particular about stuff. We’ve agreed all the way across-the-board about not doing things like fast-food commercials, tacky stuff — stuff that we’d hear later and go, “Man, I wish we didn’t do that.” And there was a lot of money that was offered.
What can you say about your tour-mates, Def Leppard?
They’re really great guys, they’re nice guys to tour with. They’re top-notch as far as putting on a great show and giving people their money’s worth. They sound very good — a little too loud for me. I walked (into the arena) one night during their set, and I took a dB meter, and stood somewhere around the middle, and it started at a 111 and went to 122. Our music doesn’t sound good that loud. We sound better in a symphonic type of way.
Guitarist Neal Schon formed the rock band Journey in 1973 and helped put the power ballad on the musical map.