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If you look strictly at the statistics, it makes perfect sense that Journey are finally entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Between 1978, when their third album Infinity scored big with the singles “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lights,” and 1996, when they issued the comeback effort Trial by Fire (after vocalist Steve Perry’s eight-year hiatus), the Bay Area rock titans’ racked up 10 platinum or multiplatinum albums and sold 75 million records worldwide.
Yet in 2000, when Journey first became eligible to for Rock Hall induction — 25 years having passed since the release of their self-titled debut — no one put the band’s name on the ballot. And Journey were passed over again and again by Hall of Fame voters for the next 15 years. Sure, the band’s classic songs may have formed the soundtrack of countless ’80s teenagers’ lives, but rock critics and the music intelligentsia just didn’t think it was “cool” to put Journey on a pedestal. And so, it took until 2017 for the band to finally be recognized as Hall of Fame-worthy.
“Twenty years ago, I was expecting, maybe, to get in because I thought we had the credentials,” guitarist Neal Schon tells Yahoo Music. “But it didn’t happen, so after a while I kind of forgot about it. I didn’t know why we wouldn’t be in. I thought we definitely had enough fans and we had sold many, many records, and our music has stood the test of time. It’s pretty much embedded in stone that we are classic rock. But I figured this is not gonna make or break my career, so there’s no reason to go nuts over it.”
Schon says he was pleased back in October 2016 when he found out that Journey had been nominated for the Rock Hall along with 18 other acts, but he didn’t really think they’d make the final cut. After all, they had been overlooked so many times before — not just by the Hall, but by so many other award ceremonies. (Journey weren’t up for a Grammy until 1997, way after their commercial peak, and their nominated song, the string-saturated tearjerker “When You Love a Woman,” lost to the Beatles’ posthumous “Free as a Bird.”) Then, this past December, it was announced that Journey would be inducted for 2017, along with Yes, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur, Joan Baez, and Electric Light Orchestra.
The ceremony, taking place this Friday, April 7, will reunite Schon and bassist Ross Valory with Journey’s co-founders — keyboardist Gregg Rollie, with whom Schon played in the Santana band from 1971-72 and in Journey from 1973-1980, and drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who left Journey in 1978. And while Perry, who quit Journey for the second time in 1998, will attend the Hall of Fame festivities, it’s unclear if he’ll perform with the band. Perry has turned down all interview requests, and Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain recently told the Dayton Daily News, “As far as we know, he’s just going to accept the award and then skedaddle. That’s all I know, unless something changes.”
“We probably won’t find out until he gets there,” Schon tells Yahoo Music. “But since he did go onstage last year in a few different markets with [indie-rock band] the Eels and sang some of our stuff, I’m like, ‘Well, why wouldn’t he do that with us?’ Everybody’s celebrating our legacy that he and I and Jonathan and Ross and [drummer] Steve Smith and Rollie and everybody contributed to. So I’m hoping he’ll sing with us. The door has always been open for him to do that.”
During a lengthy interview, Schon talks about the significance of being nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the politics of the organization, the evolution of Journey, their band members’ unusual relationship with Perry, and how they resurrected the band with their current vocalist Arnel Pineda, whom Schon discovered on YouTube in 2008.
YAHOO MUSIC: Did you get in touch with Steve Perry right after you were nominated?
NEAL SCHON: We had a band meeting on the telephone. We were all on a conference call. And Lee Phillips, his attorney, was on the phone. I said, “Lee, please congratulate Steve for me. I don’t have his number. Can I have his number?” He kind of laughed at me. He didn’t give it to me. So I said, “I’m gonna write you and give you my number.” That’s how I initially got in touch with Steve before — it was through an email to Lee, and then Lee sent it to Steve. And Steve finally decided to get back to me. But then it just stopped. And I said, “OK, that’s all right.” At least I got to a somewhat good place, knowing that I could have some peace and say, “We’ve really done some amazing things together. We’ve made timeless music. And I appreciate you. And there’s lots of love from everyone.”
Did it bother you that your fans have been so supportive, yet critics were always fairly negative?
In the late ‘70s and ’80s, when we were having mega-success and playing stadiums, we wondered why we were getting so snubbed, because we felt like we were one of the more musical bands that covered so many different areas. We weren’t pigeonholed into just a ballad band or just a rock band. If you look at an album like Escape, we have a song on it that goes over very big live, “Dead or Alive,” that’s almost semi-punk. And then you got “Open Arms.” They’re two broad sides of the spectrum. I think a lot of critics didn’t know how to quite pick on us in any other way, other than to say they didn’t like us because we had too many flavors. To me, flavors in a band are really good. It shows you’re not stuck in a box and can only create one kind of sound.
Your guitar playing gave the band a certain bite than a lot of other mainstream rock bands lacked. Did you go into the band with the objective of injecting this razor-edged sound into mainstream music?
Well, that’s just me. I don’t know if it was an objective, but that’s what I bring to the table. And I think it worked in our favor. A song could be a little light and have these heavy guitars. When Jonathan [Cain] and Steve [Perry] wrote “Separate Ways” while we were on tour, I liked it immediately. I thought, “Wow, this is really soulful.” It sounded like it could be a Four Tops song. But I decided to roughen it up a bit. I put that really stout guitar on it right from the get-go, and it toughened it up and still sounds great to this day. It was an interesting combination. Journey has always been an interesting combination right back from the beginning.
We were just known as the San Francisco jam band on steroids before there were a lot of jam bands. We had a following in San Francisco and quite a few other major cities from just touring. But the music didn’t get played on the radio that much because the songs were long, extended jams. It was something people wanted to experience live, but not necessarily want to sit down and listen to on a record player back then. We’ve traveled from one side to the other, but man, what an amazing ride.
You and Gregg were originally in Santana. What did you learn from playing in that band — either what to do or what not to do?
Wow, they’re two different beasts. I think when we first started they might have been a little closer, but without all the percussion, which completely gives it that sound which Santana owns. But with all the jamming and fusing together of different styles, we certainly did that in Journey in the beginning. When I first came into Santana, I was a gun-slinging blues guitarist with hot chops. And I think after playing with Carlos, his melodic approach to playing rubbed off on me. I can convey a song with just nothing but melody. Live, I like to shred. I like to make it fiery, but melody is still key.
Steve Perry joined journey in late 1977, and his radio-ready vocals helped you achieve an entirely new level of popularity.
It was a really interesting turn for us. Our manager Herbie Herbert actually brought Steve to us and said, “I believe this is the new voice of the band.” And we kind of went, “Really?” We didn’t know if it would work out. And then we were hanging out one day at the hotel and had an acoustic guitar in the room. I had all the chord changes to “Patiently,” which was off the Infinity record. I started playing him all the changes and he just started singing immediately. We had the song there and done within a half-hour. “Lights” was very much the same. He was playing bass and humming me the chorus and some of the verses. And then I put my thing into it and said, “I think a little Jimi-Neal in here would be really cool.” Originally, when he was singing bits and pieces to me it sounded like a straightahead R&B song. It didn’t have the stroll and the shuffle that it ended up with. I have all blues and R&B roots in my playing from the get-go and so does he, and then you mix it with everybody else. Gregg Rollie was there at the time, and he was basically a blues guy, even in Santana. So we were like an R&B blues-based rock band.
When did that change?
When Gregg stepped down [in 1980] and we got Jonathan Cain. Jon brought a whole different flavor to the music. It was great songwriting but it was different, and we put a spin on his stuff. If you heard “Faithfully” when he first brought it in, the lyrics were beautiful and the chord changes were beautiful, but it really didn’t sound like what we ended up with. It sounded like a country song. I brought a lot to the table, Steve definitely did as well. We all did.
The chemistry between Steve and the rest of the band is fantastic on a musical level, but there was a considerable amount of tension over the years. What was responsible for that?
You know, we really didn’t have a lot of friction at all. I mean, there’d be some. One time we were doing a song called “Rubicon” off the Frontiers record, and he’d walk over to the mixing console and turn up the vocals. Then I’d walk over to the mixing console and I’d turn the guitar solo and the theme melody up. It was things like that, but there wasn’t a lot of conflict when we were in the band together. All this drama that people create isn’t very much like the way it is at all. Steve and I have actually communicated in emails going back a couple years ago. They were very friendly, and I always have great things to say about him. He does the same for me.
Ross and drummer Steve Smith left the band due to creative differences around the time of 1986’s Raised on Radio, which was a challenging record for Journey. Did that leave a bad taste in your mouth or cause a last gasp with Steve — who left halfway through the tour, leading to an eight-year hiatus for Journey?
Well, the one thing that was difficult for me was being excluded from a lot of the songwriting at that point. Steve and Jonathan were basically writing a lot as a rhythm machine. They wrote a lot of great stuff on that record, but it was pretty different than your regular Journey record. It’s a great record, it’s just very different. I felt it sounded more like a Steve Perry solo record. It was more R&B-ish and lighter. But it’s funny, the two tracks I co-wrote with them had pretty lengthy guitar solos in them — “Be Good to Yourself,” which was a big radio hit, and it still is. And on “I’ll be Alright Without You,” I did this rolling R&B-ish blues solo in the middle and it kind of kicked the song in the butt a little. The rest of it is a very musical record and it’s fun to listen to, but it’s a lighter one for us.
In 1995 you reunited Journey’s Escape lineup and recorded Trial by Fire. But Steve Perry hurt his hip you were unable to tour. And then he never came back. What really happened?
The conflict, if there was any conflict, was because nothing happened with Trial by Fire for two years, and Steve didn’t want to commit to anything because he had some personal issues he had to take care of. But by that time, he had already done his first solo record, which he had a lot of success with, and he was working on the second one. He put together a band, went out on tour, and he had guys emulating us. He played eight to nine of our songs on his solo tour. And on VH1 he was saying, “I don’t think any of us should ever play this material without one another.” If there’s any beef, that is it.
It’s understandable why it would be upsetting to see him play your songs with other people.
Jon and I just looked at each other and said, “Well, he’s doing this. Why can’t we do that?” A lot of people just thought we were crazy and it would never happen. But look at us now? This is Arnel’s ninth year with us, which is the longest any singer has been with us. And he’s holding the torch quite well. I feel that if we weren’t out there playing, we wouldn’t be getting as much attention as we are. Yes, the records are all great. But you have to be out there for people to remember you. If you go away and you don’t play, you go away.
Before Arnel, you worked with vocalist Steve Augeri from 1998 until 2006 and he appeared on your 2001 album Arrival…
I felt like Steve [Augeri] sounded really, really great when we first got him. But he was more of a rock singer and not an R&B guy, which is where Steve Perry came from. So it did change the sound of the band. Tonality-wise, he was there in the beginning, but his voice was not holding up. He gave a good eight years of his life to us and allowed us to move forward at that time period and start playing again, but his voice gave out. At that point I was working with [singer] Jeff [Scott Soto] on another project, Full Circuit, and I said, “Jeff, we either have to replace him really quickly,” otherwise we’d have to pack up and go home from a huge tour we were doing with Def Leppard. I voted to bring Jeff out just to get us through the tour. All the guys just didn’t feel he fit in chemistry-wise. He sounded good, but his voice wasn’t quite high enough for a lot of the songs. And personality-wise, he just didn’t click with all of the other guys. So that’s why I went out searching on YouTube for another singer at the end of that Def Leppard tour.
It’s amazing that you found Arnel on YouTube in a Journey cover band from the Philippines.
He didn’t really do just Journey songs. Look up on the Internet “The Zoo,” and you’re going to see about 40 clips that are all shot from a cell phone in a Hard Rock Café in Manila, which is where I found him online. And it’s not just Journey. He did everybody, man. He did Zeppelin, he did Steven Tyler, he did Sting. And he did them all incredibly well. I’ve never heard anybody able to morph their vocals into so many voices that are all his. The guy’s tremendously talented. He can pretty much sing anything.
Did you feel like you were taking a big chance by bringing Arnel into the lineup? It’s very difficult for a successful band to remain popular with a new singer, especially an unknown.
At that point we had nothing to lose. We didn’t have a vocalist and I said, “This will be like make-it-or-break-it.” There was another guy that was in the running that just did Journey songs. Jonathan was looking at him and I thought he sounded almost exactly like Steve, but that was all he did and I was not into that. I wanted somebody that had a lot of depth that could cover A to Z, and travel to some new places with us. They thought I was crazy. But we flew [Arnel] over here, and after he was over his jetlag he auditioned for three days in a row. Every day he got better, and by the fourth or fifth day we were in Jonathan’s old studio. [Jonathan] and I had written a couple songs that were sitting there. So we decided to put Arnel on them and see how it sounded. So we did it, and after we heard it we looked at each other and went, “Man, there it is. He sounds amazing.” It was a farfetched idea, but I knew in my gut my instinct was correct when I heard him. It just hit me immediately — and I had listened to hundreds and hundreds of singers.
Do you think it’s unfair that Arnel isn’t being inducted into the Hall of Fame along with the rest of you?
The people that are invited are the original band from when Steve joined the band and thereafter… [Arnel] will be there in support. I definitely feel that he deserves a nod from everybody for doing an amazing job. And I think even if you talked to Steve Perry, if he was completely honest with you, he’d say, “Wow, they continued to have amazing success with this guy.” And without him, we couldn’t have done it.
Will Arnell perform with you at the induction ceremony, even if Steve does?
We really don’t know at this point. I’m hoping that they will both take the stage in some shape or form.
What songs will you play at the event?
If Steve Perry wants to sing, I’d like to leave it up to him. If he says he wants to do it, let him pick what he wants. That seems like the logical thing to do. If he’s not gonna sing, we’ll figure out what to do. There are a lot of songs to choose from.
Let’s say Steve Perry does sing with you at the Hall of Fame, and you all have such a great time that he decides he wants to tour again with Journey. What then?
Honestly, I think that’s never gonna happen, and Steve has said that in so many interviews. I really feel like you have to listen to what he’s saying and listen to the last interviews he’s done. It’s not something he’s interested in doing any longer. Frankly, it’s a very difficult gig. He set the standard so high for himself and for anyone. So I think it will never happen. But hopefully it will open the door for him to be comfortable to come onstage and sing as little as he ever wanted to, or just participate in any way he wants.