They are one of the biggest rock bands of all time, and their most famous song is the best-selling digital track from the 20th century. But for Journey, global stardom might never have happened if not for a hard-hitting ultimatum from their record company back in 1977. As the band’s original drummer Aynsley Dunbar recalled: “We were told: ‘Get a singer, get some hit songs or you’re off the label.’”
At that time, the San Francisco-based band had made three albums for Columbia Records, and all three had stiffed. Guitarist Neal Schon and vocalist/keyboard player Gregg Rolie had previously played in Santana, but Journey’s early music, mixing Santana-style jazz fusion and progressive rock, was a hard sell, and Rolie’s voice wasn’t the strongest.
Everything changed when Steve Perry joined the band after they’d tried out another singer, Robert Fleischman. With a richly expressive voice, Perry could hit high notes that other singers could only dream of. His first album with the band, 1978’s Infinity, reinvented Journey as a mainstream rock act. The album promptly went platinum, and from there, the only way was up.
In the 80s, Journey became one of the biggest bands in America, with the Holy Trinity of AOR albums: Escape, Frontiers and Raised On Radio. Perry also had a huge hit in 1984 with his first solo album, Street Talk. But the pressures of fame led Perry to quit the band in 1987, leaving Journey on hiatus until his return in 1995. And when he quit again two years later, he was gone for good.
How to replace the irreplaceable? Journey survived by finding the best Steve Perry impersonators on the planet. They made two albums in the early 2000s with Steve Augeri, formerly the singer in cult AOR band Tall Stories. And in 2007, when Journey’s classic hit Don’t Stop Believin’ was featured in The Sopranos - making the song more famous than ever before, and putting the band’s name back in the spotlight - they unveiled a new singer who had been discovered via YouTube.
Filipino Arnel Pineda’s performance of Journey songs in covers band The Zoo was enough to secure him his dream job. He sounds uncannily like Steve Perry, and has now made three albums with Journey, including Freedom, released in 2022.
Perry, meanwhile, had withdrawn from public view for many years after leaving the band. But in 2018 he made a comeback with a solo album Traces, his first full-length recording since Journey’s Trial By Fire back in 1996. And if something had been lost over time - the power he’d had in his youth - it was still, unmistakably, the voice that made Journey the greatest AOR band of them all…
18. Journey: Look Into The Future (Columbia, 1976)
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In the credits to Journey’s 1979 album Evolution, the band stated, gratefully: “Columbia Records stands alone in the field of developing new artists.” The company’s ‘tough love’ approach certainly worked for Journey, who couldn’t buy a hit record until Columbia ordered them to find a proper singer and write some tunes.
Tellingly, the catchiest number on Look Into The Future, the band’s second album, is a cover of The Beatles’ It’s All Too Much. The other tracks run like a loose jam session, veering from prog to psychedelia, jazz to heavy rock. Despite the album’s title, the sound is stuck in the 60s.
17. Journey: Eclipse (Frontiers, 2011)
Journey got off to a strong start with Arnel Pineda on 2008’s million-selling Revelation, but the follow-up was an outright flop. Eclipse was by design a heavy, guitar-focused album. As keyboard player Jonathan Cain said: “If people want to hear ballads, they can certainly find them on other records.”
But aside from the opening track, the mighty anthem City Of Hope, there is nothing on this album with the melodic power of a classic Journey banger like Separate Ways (Worlds Apart). It’s all so much hot air. And if this album’s ballads slipped Cain’s mind, it’s hardly surprising.
16. Journey: Journey (Columbia, 1975)
“A strong beginning” said Rolling Stone magazine of Journey’s debut album. It certainly sounded as if some strong stuff was being smoked when they recorded it. With two former members of Santana in Neal Schon and Gregg Rolie, and an accomplished drummer, Englishman Aynsley Dunbar, who had played for John Mayall, Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa, this was a new band with an impressive pedigree.
Their musicianship dazzled on the instrumentals Kohoutek and Topaz, the latter written by rhythm guitarist George Tickner, who left the group after this album. But all that jazz-rock fusion showboating wears thin over 35 minutes.
15. Journey: Next (Columbia, 1977)
The band’s third album was the last before Steve Perry joined, and in its opening track from there was a hint of what was to come. Spaceman was a simple ballad, although Perry would never have sung, as Gregg Rolie did, “I’m a cosmopolitan, right-handed wingless man.”
Another significant track was Hustler, as Journey moved towards a more straightforward hard rock sound, with shades of Deep Purple. And as the band’s first phase ended, they delivered the most bizarre song they ever recorded - People, a trippy number with Schon playing spaced-out licks and Rolie singing like John Lennon.
14. Steve Perry: Traces (Fantasy, 2018)
“I know it’s been a long time comin’,” Perry sang in the first line of the opening song, No Erasin’. No shit. The release of Traces came 24 years after his previous solo album, and 22 years since his Journey swan song Trial By Fire.
Perry’s comeback, at the age of 69, was greeted as the AOR equivalent of the Resurrection, and amid such hysteria, Traces proved underwhelming, its blend of soft rock, pop and soul drifting into blandness here and there. But in No Erasin’, the old magic was still there in what may be the last great song he’ll ever sing.
13. Journey: Generations (Sanctuary, 2005)
Singer Steve Augeri’s first album with Journey, 2001’s Arrival, was the best they ever made without Steve Perry. The follow-up, Generations, also had its moments - notably Faith In The Heartland and The Place In Your Heart, both of which were re-recorded with Arnel Pineda on 2008’s Revelation.
But in 2006 Augeri was out of the band. A serious throat infection had damaged his voice, and he was dismissed amid rumours that he had lip-synced on stage. His exit may have been ignominious, but Augeri’s contribution to Journey’s legacy should not be underestimated.
12. Journey: Freedom (BMG, 2022)
On Journey’s first album in more than a decade, only Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain remain from the band’s glory days. What’s more, two key contributors to this album - bassist Randy Jackson and drummer/songwriter/co-producer Narada Michael Walden - have since departed.
But as our own Geoff Barton stated: “Freedom passes the Classic Rock AOR test with flying colours.” The opening song Together We Run is quintessential Journey, and the epic Beautiful As You Are delivers a grand finale. And as Schon told Classic Rock, there is more to come. “As long as I’m here,” he said, “we’re gonna keep creating.”
11. Journey: Revelation (Frontiers, 2008)
Lightning can strike twice. In 2005, Foreigner found in Kelly Hansen a singer whose voice was a close match for that of the great Lou Gramm. And two years later, Journey discovered a young Filipino guy who could sing like Steve Perry.
It was a big ask for Arnel Pineda to make the giant leap from Journey covers band to the real thing, but he performed heroically on the aptly named Revelation - from the triumphant anthem Never Walk Away to the beautiful ballad Turn Down The World Tonight. Revelation became the band’s first million seller without Perry. For Pineda, there was surely no greater vindication.
10. Steve Perry: For The Love Of Strange Medicine (Columbia, 1994)
Perry’s first solo album Street Talk was a huge hit in 1984. Ten years later, his second solo record reached the US top 20 but failed to make much of an impact in a world dominated by alternative rock.
For The Love Of Strange Medicine had some fine songs - the dynamic opening one-to punch of You Better Wait and Young Hearts Forever, and the epic title track. But the ballads were unremarkable, and the album, as a whole, was somewhat overwrought and overproduced. Within two years, Perry’s return to Journey yielded the comeback album Trial By Fire. But the reunion wouldn’t last.
9. Journey: Trial By Fire (Columbia, 1996)
The second coming of Steve Perry ended in disappointment. With the definitive Escape-era line-up reunited, Journey should have delivered a great album. They managed only half that. On opener Message Of Love and the ready-made wedding song When You Love A Woman, Journey achieved something close to peak form.
But the big rock epics, Castles Burning and Can’t Tame The Lion, were all bluster. Trial By Fire hit No.3 in the US, but the band’s comeback tour was aborted after Perry injured his hip in a hiking accident. Tragically, he never sang for Journey again.
8. Journey: Arrival (Columbia, 2001)
They were big shoes to fill, but New Yorker Steve Augeri proved a more than capable replacement for Steve Perry in Journey. With the new singer performing at such a high level, Arrival was the band’s best album since Raised On Radio.
Four tracks came right out of the top drawer: powerful opener Higher Place, one of several songs on the album co-written with Night Ranger’s Jack Blades; Signs Of Life, an anthem for the brokenhearted; and two majestic ballads, All The Way and Loved By You. Augeri had passed the test. And Journey had proved there was life after Steve Perry.
7. Journey: Departure (Columbia, 1980)
At the dawn of the 80s, Journey still sounded, and looked, somewhat dated. Van Halen’s Women And Children First was released in the same month as Departure – March 1980. But where Van Halen sounded like the future, with the image to match, Journey were stuck in the 70s.
But no matter, a great song will always hit the spot, however old-fashioned the delivery. And there are many on Departure, including the jubilant Any Way You Want It. Departure was aptly titled. With Gregg Rolie set to quit, this was the last hurrah of the old Journey. Within a year the flares were gone and Journey were setting the template for 80s arena rock.
6. Journey: Evolution (Columbia, 1979)
Steve Perry’s pain was Journey’s gain. The band’s first Top 20 single, Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’, was written after the singer saw his girlfriend kissing another guy. Perry described the song as “love justice”, but it was the sweetest kind of revenge; with its slinky blues groove and a killer ‘na-na-na’ coda, the song became a genuine rock standard.
Parent album Evolution was the second of two that Journey recorded with producer Roy Thomas Baker, whose previous clients Queen are echoed in the knowingly titled pomp-rock fanfare Majestic. Also featured here is Daydream, a long-forgotten masterpiece.
5. Journey: Infinity (Columbia, 1978)
Steve Perry was not a unanimous choice as Journey’s new singer. But when Perry presented the bluesy Lights to the band, everyone sensed the possibilities. Tellingly, Lights was chosen as Infinity’s opening track – an introduction to the new Journey – and it remains one of the band’s best-loved songs, as does this album’s Wheel In The Sky.
Under pressure from Columbia Records, who’d done their bit by hiring Queen’s producer Roy Thomas Baker, the refocused Journey delivered their first set of accessible mainstream rock songs. The payoff was instant.
4. Steve Perry: Street Talk (Columbia, 1984)
The dreaded solo album signals the end for many a band. Steve Perry returned to Journey after making Street Talk, but the balance of power had shifted; Perry would remodel Journey’s music on this album’s soul-influenced soft rock.
Perry relished the freedom of a solo project, crafting slick adult pop songs inspired by vintage soul music: I Believe a Motown tribute, Captured By The Moment mourning Sam Cooke and other lost heroes. The single Oh Sherrie hit number three on the US chart, powering Street Talk to platinum status. The album is widely acknowledged as an AOR classic.
3. Journey: Raised On Radio (Columbia, 1986)
With Steve Perry heartbroken by his mother’s terminal illness, and bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith leaving due to “creative differences”, 1985 was Journey’s annus horribilis. But out of turmoil came the last classic Journey album.
After Perry’s solo debut Street Talk went platinum, the singer took control of the group. Neal Schon was sidelined as Perry’s pop and soul influences prevailed. Raised On Radio was recorded three times before Perry was satisfied. But every nickel and dime they spent is audible in the deluxe soft rock of Girl Can’t Help It and I’ll Be Alright Without You.
2. Journey: Frontiers (Columbia, 1983)
After the huge success of 1981’s Escape, Journey hit another home run with Frontiers. The album reached No.2 in the US and included two classic hits: Separate Ways (Worlds Apart), one of the heaviest and most emotive tracks the band have ever recorded, and Faithfully, the greatest power ballad of all time.
Journey never rocked harder than on Frontiers, with Neal Schon really ripping on Edge Of The Blade and Rubicon. The album would have been even better if Ask The Lonely and Only The Young, two brilliant tracks, hadn’t been dropped in favour of Troubled Child and Back Talk the latter a real stinker. (The two discarded songs appeared on the album’s 2006 reissue.)
1. Journey: Escape (Columbia, 1981)
The greatest AOR album of all time, Journey’s first US No.1 made them stadium-filling superstars. And pivotal to its success was their new keyboard player: Jonathan Cain co-wrote every song on Escape. “What changed about Journey,” Cain said, “is that I started writing about the people that cared about the band.”
Don’t Stop Believin’, an evocative tale of ‘streetlight people, living just to find emotion’, became an American classic. Open Arms – rejected by his previous band The Babys – was a monster hit. With nine million copies now sold, Escape is Journey’s definitive statement.