Graded on a Curve: Journey, Infinity

I have always keep Journey at arm’s length, out of fear they might be catching. I lived through their glory years, when the wheel in the sky kept on turning and the lights went down in the city, and I hated Journey the way a bull elephant must hate, well, everybody. I hated them to the extent that had a passenger in my car suggested not changing the dial when a Journey song came on the radio, I would have reached over his person, opened his car door, and pushed him out. In a 65 mph zone. Journey was an MOR nightmare, a journey to the end of the blight, and they gave me the heebie-jeebies with their signature stacked vocals, songs that were impossible to get out of your head no matter what you did to dislodge them, and last but not least Steve Perry’s super-polished tenor, which just flat out irked.

But over the years my attitude towards Journey has softened. I still like to make fun of them, but call it nostalgia or the imp of the perverse, I no longer turn them off when they come on the radio. I sing along. It’s as if at some point in my past the band ran a musical train on me, turning me into one of those pussy Journey lovers I loathed. The part of me that still despises them is disgusted by the part of me that is singing along, but is helpless to do anything about it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still no fan, but I have discovered that at their best Journey have an impressive skill at pop songcraft.

Journey was founded in San Francisco in 1973, and was made up of former members of Santana and Frumious Bandersnatch, a band best known for being completely unknown. Their first three albums, which did not include Perry, varied from jazz fusion to hard rock, the latter being most prominent on 1977’s excellent Next, which included a couple of great headbangers in “Hustler” and the instrumental “Nickel and Dime.” But they failed to break through to pop success, and on LP no. 4 (1978’s Infinity) Journey made several momentous changes; first they brought in Perry of the golden tonsils to handle lead vocals, and second they abandoned hard rock for a more commercial pop sound.

Journey is one of those bands that try on new band members the way a really picky guy tries on neckties, but on Infinity they consisted of Perry on vocals, Neal Schon on guitars and vocals, Greg Rolie on keyboards on co-lead vocals, Ross Valory on bass and vocals, and the ubiquitous Aynsley Dunbar on drums. Journey’s new sound was met by general approbation by everyone but cranks like me, and Infinity marked the first signpost on the band’s relentless march to superstardom. Infinity was the pivot on which Journey’s career turned, and while I prefer the Journey with balls that recorded Next, there’s no doubt they made the right choice. Slick, super-polished, and without the metal trappings, Journey Mark II straddled those double yellow lines that mark the middle of the road, and Steve Perry was the band’s insurance policy should they run into REO Speedwagon—which made a similar deal with the devil—coming from the opposite direction.

Anyway, onward to Infinity! It opens with “Lights,” which anybody who hasn’t spent the past decades as a desert prophet living in a cave has heard a million times. A mid-tempo tune about wanting to be back in San Francisco, it’s a nice piece of songwriting that highlights Perry’s instantly identifiable vocals and lots of stacked backing vocals, to say nothing of a truly kick-ass guitar solo by Schon. I love the way Perry sings, “Ci-tay,”and have written Mirriam-Webster (without success, unfortunately) to officially change the way the word is pronounced. Next up is the highly contagious musical superflu that is “Feeling That Way,” which opens with some very Elton John piano before kicking into gear. The choruses are nice, and Perry kicks it up a notch vocally before Schon, a very good guitarist, tosses off another excellent solo. And after that it’s just Perry wailing away while the band repeats “Feeling That Way.” And what I want to say but hate to say (because it will cost me the tiny amount of critcal cred I possess) is that the goddamned song is catchy as hell.

“Anytime” opens with some group vocals and Schon’s cool guitar riff, and features a catchy chorus as well as yet another frantic guitar solo by Schon. I have tried and tried to obliterate that chorus (“Ooh Ooh, anytime that you want me/Ooh Ooh anytime that you need me”) but it has lodged itself in my brain the way a Candiru fish lodges itself in the urethra of an unlucky swimmer. And the long fade is cool to the extent that I found myself singing along to it yesterday, a sinister sign that I may have crossed that invisible line that separates Journey camp followers from the sane. The unfortunately titled “La Do Da” is a rave-up by Journey standards, which is to say the song has real propulsion and Schon’s guitar work is lean and mean. Unfortunately the song is too polished by far, as slick as an egg and just as mean, and I can only wonder how much better sounding it would be had the Journey that produced Next recorded it. As for “Patiently” it’s a ballad with a high treacle quotient, and I simply can’t listen to it, what with its delicate piano work and Perry’s “I’m so deep” vocals. It does pick up long enough for Schon to play another Wunderbar guitar, but if there’s a truly unlistenable song on Infinity it’s this one.

Next up is “Wheel in the Sky,” my favorite Journey song and yours too. (Come on. You know you love it.) It opens with some Renaissance Faire guitar and you’re afraid, but Schon comes in with a guitar that is very 20th Century and you breathe a sigh of relief. Meanwhile Perry throws everything he has into the vocals, Schon plays a nice solo with Perry’ wailing serving as a backdrop, and Perry doesn’t know where he’ll be tomorrow. I’ve loved this song since Killdozer name-checked it in their mega-hit “The Pig Was Cool,” and I like to pretend it’s some deep metaphysical shit when Perry’s only singing about the sun. Anyway, this is the only Journey song from their classic period that I can say I like in an irony-free manner. “Somethin’ to Hide” is a big bad power ballad on which Perry gives his tonsils a real aerobic workout, hitting those high notes the way a kid at a carnival hits the target at a carnival with a baseball, dropping the clown sitting on the collapsible wooden bench inside the cage into the tank of water. I generally hate power ballads and this one’s no different, from its gigantic power chords to the way Perry hangs onto those impossible high notes as the song ends.

“Winds of March” is another wimpy power ballad, and if there’s one thing a band should never do, it’s put wimpy power ballads back to back. Perry’s vocals dominate the song, which explodes at its midpoint to allow Schon to show off his chops and Rolie to play some hot-diggity keyboards. The song then reaches for a crescendo, with Perry singing, “You are my child” before the tune closes, and if I were Perry’s child I would run away from home, just to avoid this tune. Meanwhile, “Can Do” is a bona fide hard rocker, albeit a bit too slick, with a cool chorus with a slightly psychedelic feel and some truly frenetic guitar wank. I would never guess this is a Journey song, in part because it deviates from their usual template and in part because Perry, if it is indeed Perry singing, doesn’t sound like Perry. In general it reminds me of an atavistic throwback to Badfinger or somebody, unlike LP closer “Opened the Door,” yet another frickin’ power ballad with a faint Led Zep Middle Eastern tinge, Perry schmaltzing up the vicinity, and some stacked vocals that are hokey beyond words. About the only thing I do like about the song is the way Schon takes it out with some echoing sub-Jimmy Page guitar bombast, which may sound like an insult but in a song like this you have to dig hard to come up with a compliment.

Journey went on to become super-duper famous, a musical juggernaut, with songs like “Any Way You Want It,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Who’s Crying Now,” and “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’,” to name just a few. Then Perry left the band and as everybody knows was replaced by the Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, whom Schon discovered singing Journey covers on YouTube. Talk about your Filipino success stories! And the band hardly lost a step, continuing to rule the charts post-Perry.

And Journey continues to climb the Billboard charts to this day, proving I don’t know what. That the world will never run short of people who love the unpalatable, and remain loyal to a band that most hipsters would sooner defenestrate than listen to? Or would they? Belle and Sebastian and bands ranging from Petra Haden to Rise Against and Alvin and the Chipmunks have covered “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Matt the Electrician has covered “Faithfully,” and Anthrax has covered “Keep on Runnin’.” And if that’s not enough for you, in 2001 Clem Snide released an entire EP of Journey tunes, and as for Steve Perry, he has joined the Eels on stage on several occasions. All of which could spell Journey Renaissance, and comforts me greatly. I can’t be completely mad, having developed a soft spot for the Band on the Bay, or at least I’m not alone in my madness. That wheel in the sky is a fickle bitch and makes fools of us all, leading us to hate bands we used to love and to love bands we used to hate, and while I’m still a long way from loving Journey I don’t push people out of my car for liking them, unless the song they want to listen to is “Patiently,” in which case out the door they go.


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