Sun Spin: Journey

On A Very Phish-y Weekend Around JamBase
We Revisit A Distinct But Oft-Forgotten Ancestor To The Jam Scene

While the name Journey has become synonymous with The Sopranos finale, Will Ferrell movie gags and full-tilt mainstream pandering like "Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin'" and "Open Arms," in the band's initial years they were a full-blooded quartet with a strong jazz-fusion streak wedded to hard rock bravado, open-ended compositions and simply ridiculous technical chops. Journey's opening trio of albums, released between 1975-1977, offer a prototypical blueprint for what's come to be known as "jamband music," each carrying echoes picked up by the likes of Phish, Umphrey's McGee, The Disco Biscuits and endless others. Though their massive commercial success has completely overshadowed their early intentions, the fact remains that Journey got to a significant piece of the jam puzzle more than a decade before its febrile beginnings with H.O.R.D.E., the Wetlands Preserve and a certain Vermont combo.

Formed around two Santana alumni, Neal Schon (guitar, lead vocals) and Gregg Rolie (keys, lead vocals), Journey started as sort of a Return To Forever with vocals, proggy as can be but possessed of a weird imagination full of post-60s philosophizing, nutty time signatures, unexpected changes and a weakness for the emerging heaviness of groups like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. Rounded out by Ross Valory (bass, backing vocals) and Aynsley Dunbar (drums, backing vocals), the group only occasionally set their sights on radio play early on, preferring instead to explore what just four guys with a lots of talent and forward drive could do to rock's changing character in the freedom embracing 1970s. The original lineup of Journey hit their mark best with their third long-player, Next. Released in February of 1977, the album coalesced their overtly jazzy, instrumental heavy debut and the more mainstreamed 1976 follow-up, Look into the Future, and showed off stronger individual and harmony vocals (everyone had been taking voice lessons), more focused soloing and a songwriting sense that played rough and sweet without much thought about what radio programmers or anyone else might think.

After the somewhat drippy yet nicely stoned opener, "Spaceman" (subtitled "Song for hang-gliders"), there's the broad spaces of "People" dropping into "I Would Find You," a pairing that reeks of possibilities while moving through shifting tempos and moods. It's not a big stretch to imagine Phish creating these tunes, each a great platform for live expansion, which Journey surely did in those days. Side One is rounded out by Rolie's wet-eyed, sincere positivity anthem "Here We Are," which rides warm analog synths and a Revolver-era Beatles vibe while offering sentiments like, "Let yourself go by/ You can touch the sky/ If you try." In print it comes across as hokum but in execution, especially beefed up by Schon's truly tasty playing, it's genuinely uplifting.

Things really get rolling good on the second side, where the band's thicker, rockier characteristics hang out. Kicking off with "Hustler," a Rolie-Dunbar joint that compares well with the Zep of Presence, there's a headlong rush and heady feel to second half of Next. The power and intricacy of Dunbar's drumming throughout these four cuts is unbelievably stellar, showing off his pre-Journey pedigree with Frank Zappa, John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers, David Bowie and Lou Reed. And Valory's super dense, quick fingered bass keeps in step beautifully, the rhythm team providing a very sturdy platform for Schon and Rolie to spin out spiky, eloquent, hugely melodic jewels like the title cut, the pretty, swervy instrumental "Nickel And Dime" and crushing closer "Karma," which smacks of Umph's semi-metallic tang in a huge way.

Despite some critical inroads, Next failed to improve Journey's lagging album sales and by the end of 1977 they'd recruited a "proper lead singer" in Steve Perry and their subsequent release, 1978's Infinity, made them a Top 20 act and produced airwave staples "Lights" and "Wheel In The Sky." Dunbar left soon afterwards, with Rolie following a few albums later, and the group's course continued inexorably towards their '80s stadium apex and continued worldwide commercial success that still has them filling amphitheatres on package tours with the likes of Def Leppard, Heart and Cheap Trick. But, there is the lingering question mark about what might have been if they'd continued on the road laid out by Next. Luckily, the asphalt they put down was eventually traveled on by a number of young bands interested in stretching rock's boundaries.

Here's the audio of a blistering performance of "Karma" at the Tower Theatre in Philly on March 24, 1978.

[Published on: 8/9/09]

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