Journey never stopped 'Believin"

It's not just 'Sopranos' boosting underrated act

Critical Eye

June 17, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

BY NOW, IT'S A CLICHE TO LAMBASTE THE music of Journey, the '80s pop-rock quintet best known for its soaring, florid power balladry. Though immensely popular, selling more than 75 million albums worldwide during its heyday, the San Francisco band never garnered much critical respect.

The 1983 Rolling Stone Record Guide said Journey's music is "utter triviality," reeking of "exploitative cynicism." The sentiment didn't change with the passage of time: The 2004 edition called the group the "perfect karaoke act."

But maybe it's time for a reevaluation. More than two decades after the band's reign over Top 40 radio (surely you remember the hits: "Wheel in the Sky," "Faithfully," "Open Arms"), Journey is hot again.

Well, sort of.

The past two years have seen a steady resurgence of the band's music. A few months back, Sony-BMG's Legacy division reissued crisply re-mastered versions of the band's eight hit albums on Columbia Records, plus the 1988 greatest hits collection, all with bonus tracks. The company also rereleased a revamped edition of lead singer Steve Perry's 1984 solo debut, Street Talk, and a retrospective on the soulful Portuguese-American vocalist.

But it is "Don't Stop Believin'," Journey's 1981 Top 10 hit, that has taken on a new life in today's cynical pop culture. In the past two years, the drivingly optimistic number has been heard on popular TV shows such as Laguna Beach and Family Guy. The Chicago White Sox adopted the hit as a rallying cry toward the 2005 World Series. And last Sunday, the song's "on and on and on and on" refrain closed the much-debated final episode of The Sopranos.

The week after the tune's prominent placement on the popular HBO drama, "Don't Stop Believin'" became the top-selling rock song on iTunes.

Of all the pop-rock bands of the Reagan era that climbed the charts with surging power ballads (Foreigner, Asia and Survivor come to mind), Journey's style remains the most enduring. Something about the band's overly sentimental (and, yes, sometimes cheesy) take on the ambiguities of love and life still strikes a chord.

"They're practically the inventors of the power ballad, the pioneers of soft rock," says music industry veteran Steve Augello, who has remixed singles for Pink, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce. "They've also been responsible for making commercial music good. ... You can find traces of them on radio hits throughout the '80s, '90s and today."

Recalling teen years

Now that folks in their 30s are among the taste makers at most media companies these days, the sudden Journey resurgence could be a nostalgic reflection on their teen years.

"For many people, Journey brings back memories not only of their youth, but what the band represented at the time," says Laura Faeth, author of I Found All the Parts: Healing the Soul Through Rock 'n' Roll, slated for fall publication by Wyatt-MacKenzie. "Their resurgence, or possible resurgence, could be due to the amount of people that were casual fans now remembering why they liked Journey in the first place: rockin' songs ... and unique vocals."

At the beginning of the group's pop ascent in the early '80s, the members of Journey did something self-serious rock critics generally despise: Perry, Jonathan Cain, Ross Valory, Neal Schon and Steve Smith smoothed out the edges of their sound and made the music accessible to the masses. Because the structure of Journey's hit songs was often precise, it gave the impression that there was no inspiration in the music -- that it was all a predictable, soulless formula shamelessly concocted by musicians with real credentials. (Guitarist Schon and founding member, keyboardist and original lead singer Gregg Rolie, had played in Santana; bassist Valory used to be in Steve Miller's band; and Perry is, hands down, one of pop-rock's most distinctive and powerful vocalists).

Catchy favorites

Whether it was all a slick way for the band to get on the radio doesn't really matter. Around the time Journey blew up, pop radio already was becoming slicker and more restricted. The guys were playing the game, but they produced memorable songs nonetheless.

The material boasted catchy choruses that immediately took up residency in your head and drove millions to record shops in the 1980s. And more than 20 years later, the songs of Journey, with their oh-so-'80s synth keyboard lines (check the opening of 1983's "Separate Ways"), continue to find new fans.

"Sober or not, I hear 'Don't Stop Believin" in just about every bar in Federal Hill, Canton, everywhere," says Chris McMurry, an account manager at MGH, an advertising and public relations agency in Owings Mills. The company recently conducted an office poll, asking 80 employees (mostly twentysomething women) to name their favorite song. "Don't Stop Believin'" surprisingly topped the list of more than 40 tunes.

"There's a message there that can be applied to anything," says McMurry, who was born in 1981, the year the song became a smash. "In the bars, you see everybody singing along. I associate it with good times."

He pauses a beat before adding, "And good-looking girls."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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