[Written for the Stylus feature “The Diamond,” published 4/24/07. Seems fitting to republish this on Steve Perry’s 68th (!) birthday.]
The Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. “The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions,” Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists’ careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?
It may be hard to believe in this fragmented world of music we (now) live in, but there was a time when a) there weren’t 19 different radio formats, and b) in a large swath of the U.S., the dominant one was AOR: Album-Oriented Rock. I grew up there, in the Rust Belt (and also in its companion, the Corn Belt), during AOR’s prime, the early ’80s. My [then-]partner, a native Los Angeleno, is often stunned when I find myself singing along with a verse of, say, a Survivor song caught from a passing car or in a chain store; he’ll ask me, completely incredulous, “How do you know that song?”
“Um, because it was a top 20 single,” I reply.
“Really?! Not out here it wasn’t.”
Well, of course it wasn’t, because a) he grew up listening to the nation’s heritage modern-rocker (then more a new-waver), the world-famous KROQ, and b) the top 40 stations in Los Angeles were a lot poppier—by which I mean, a lot less rock—than the ones available to my teenaged self. Not only was AOR king in the Midwest of the (especially early) ’80s, but the top 40 stations were often much more rock-spiked, as well; stations such as Chicago’s 50,000-watt blowtorch WLS-AM were doing a kind of rock/top 40 hybrid years before the likes of Pirate Radio in L.A. and Dallas/Fort Worth’s Eagle (KEGL) did so at decade’s end.
Survivor’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. I know far more of the REO Speedwagon songbook (such as it is) than can possibly be considered healthy (see also: Loverboy and Billy Squier, Dizzee Rascal’s good taste in sampling “The Big Beat” notwithstanding). Foreigner were Gods to many of my Midwestern peers. Rumor has it there’s a small, locked cabinet in the back of my brain familiar with selections from the Night Ranger catalog. (More than just “Sister Christian,” I mean: “Sentimental Street,” anyone?) Asia, Styx, .38 Special: this is what my early-teenage diet of Culture Club, Duran Duran, and Prince was spiced, liberally, with. But none of ’em were bigger than Journey.
Yes, Journey was big all over the U.S. for the first two-thirds of the ’80s, but understand that by the time the San Francisco quintet first tasted Billboard top 10 pop success (with “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Who’s Crying Now,” from their justifiably monstrous 1981 #1 album Escape), songs of theirs such as “Lights” (which peaked nationally at #68 in ’78) had already been Midwestern prom mainstays for nigh on three years. They may have been from the Bay Area, but Journey’s true home was the Midwest. It’s through that prism that I hear their 1988 Greatest Hits, an album that as of 2006 has been RIAA-certified as having sold an astounding 14 million U.S. copies.
Obviously, the key to much of Journey’s appeal is the golden throat of Steve Perry. Far more than a Springsteen or a Mellencamp, Perry’s voice is truly that of the Everyman: pleading, needful, strong, and a writer of poetry that, while occasionally awkward, just gets the core of humanness (and, more to the point, adolescence). How much more universal can lyrics get than these?
It’s been a mystery, and still they try to see
Why somethin’ good can hurt so bad
Caught on a one-way street, the taste of bittersweet
Love will survive somehow, some way
Those are from 1981’s “Who’s Crying Now,” and a prime example of Journey’s appeal; if you get it, you get it. Mock these as cliché if you must, but Perry’s lyrics nonetheless nail the core of a part of us all—they’re simultaneously surface and deep, and legions upon legions of ’80s kids felt it.
Perry certainly wasn’t the only crucial factor in Journey’s success. Neal Schon, the only member of the band present for their entire run from 1974-1987, is a superb meat’n’potatoes guitarist, capable of both sturdy rhythm licks and searing solos, while Jonathan Cain was on board as Journey’s keyboardist for Escape–Frontiers–Raised on Radio, and anyone who’s ever heard “Separate Ways” is aware of his prowess (plus, he rocked the keytar in concert at least a year before Eddie Van Halen did the same). (Honestly, all Journey’s drummer and bassist have ever needed to do is keep the beat, and they’ve had a number of capable players do just that.)
During the grim, early part of the ’80s, with unemployment high and the world changing in hard-to-grasp ways (computers?), many people in the Rust Belt wanted—nay, needed—music that both reassured them and understood who they essentially were. More than the Midwest’s own REO and Styx, more than the Southern-fried .38 Special, more than the Anglo-American Foreigner (who came close, mind you, most notably with 4’s glorious one-two punch of “Urgent” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You”), Journey were all things to lots of people. They unwittingly caught a moment in time and preserved it for millions of fans, now in their 30s and older. I seriously doubt that many of today’s teenagers are keeping Greatest Hits in print, but would place my own money on the bet that this album will likely never leave print; not only will legions of adults keep wearing out their copies and needing new ones, but I expect Journey to come back into vogue eventually—truths as universal as those they presented never die. And they never stop runnin’—or believin’…