Thursday, May 30, 2013

Journey To The Center Of Steve Perry's Voice

When I first started volunteering at my college radio station, KDVS, there was a DJ there named Ash. While Ash was only three or four years older than I was, when you're 19, three or four years can seem like a lot. Ash had a show in which he played '60s soul and funk music. He used to say that almost all singers who weren't black were crap. Ash was white. He did have a few treasured exceptions, though, such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Elton John, Roxy Music, and Supertramp. The exception of which he was the proudest, however, was Journey. "Steve Perry is the greatest singer of all time," Ash used to say. "I could listen to Steve Perry any day, any time, anywhere." Ash had a way of blurring his genuine enthusiasm for artists with comical exaggeration. It was hard to tell when he was serious.

KDVS had a rule against playing "commercial, mainstream" music. The station received funding partially because it had pledged to play music that would not be played on other radio stations. This rule didn't seem to be strictly enforced, and I flaunted it frequently, but there was some music I definitely avoided putting on the air. Ash once told me a story about his attempt to play Journey on his show: "It was about two in the morning. I figured no one was really paying attention. I finally decided to do it. I put Journey on the turntable. The glorious sound of Steve Perry was blasting through the Central Valley airwaves. Suddenly, the station manager comes barging through the door, he breaks the lock, he's yelling 'Take it off! Take it off the air!' I grab a pipe, I'm ready to do everything in my power to keep Journey on the air. He smashes the glass with his fist, he reaches across the DJ console, and he rips the needle right off the record." I never found out if Ash's telling of this story was particularly accurate.

All of this is just a roundabout way of saying that Journey is the kind of band that people either love or hate. Oddly enough, I'm somewhat indifferent. I've never really been too big on "Don't Stop Believing," "Any Way You Want It," "Who's Crying Now," or "Faithfully." But when I like a Journey song, then God damn.

Journey were, according to AMG, a really bad progressive rock band languishing in obscurity, until they brought in a lead singer who promised to change their fortunes.

With Steve Perry at the mic, Infinity became a word-of-mouth hit. For instance, while "Lights" only peaked at #68 on its initial release, surely every man, woman, and child can sing the words from memory after decades of heavy radio play.

Although its slick corporate sound was the antithesis of punk, I think "Lights" makes a convincing argument in favor of studio craft. "Lights" doesn't make me think of "slick" so much as it makes me think of "crisp." The song is like a well-oiled machine, inexorably working its way through the speakers. Everything sounds so precise, so meticulous. The drums sound so crunchy. The bass sounds so full. The ensemble vocals, tweaked with a strange, robotic sheen, are like a fortress of smooth. Everything just glistens.

But gliding over this AOR beast is the precise, meticulous tenor of one Steve Perry. In his hands, every word becomes a poem, every syllable becomes a fairy tale. It's not "city," it's "ci-tay." It's not "I want to be there in my city," it's "Ooh I wanna be they-ay-uh-ayyy, in mah ci-tay." As he sings of longing for his hometown, I can't help but feel as though I'm driving over the Bay Bridge at 6:00 AM, just heading back from a cross-country road trip, and I'm coming out of that tunnel on Treasure Island, and the pride swells in my chest, and a solitary tear of appreciation is running down my cheek. Yes, Steve, "Whoa, oh, oh-oh-oh" indeed.

"But Little Earl," you say, " 'Lights' came out in 1978." Yes, I know. So why am I talking about it in my series on '80s power ballads? Because it's awesome, that's why. And because it sounds so '80s. Infinity did take a couple of years to become popular, after all. And "Lights" so perfectly established the '80s power ballad formula - a formula quickly exploited by the very same band.

It turns out, however, that not everyone in the group openly embraced "Open Arms":
Journey's guitarist Neal Schon reportedly disliked the song because "it was so far removed from anything [Journey] had ever attempted to record before". (drummer Steve Smith recalls that Schon noted that it "sounds kinda Mary Poppins"). Added to which the other members of the band were against the idea of performing ballads ... In the Journey episode of VH1's Behind the Music, Perry recalls the recording sessions for the song becoming an ordeal; Schon taunted Perry and Cain in the studio. But when the band performed it in concert for the first time during their Escape Tour in the fall of 1981, the audience was thunderstruck, much to Schon's disbelief. After two encores, the band left the stage and Schon suddenly said, "Man, that song really kicked ass!" Perry recalled being incensed at Schon's hypocrisy. "I looked at him, and I wanted to kill him," he later said.
And if there's anyone you don't want to fuck with, it's Steve Perry. Not that he needed those other guys anyway. Hell, the rest of Journey hardly even bothered to sing any backing vocals. Just give us the Perry, and stay out of the way.

I don't actually have too much to say about "Open Arms," but let's face it, the song speaks for itself. Any attempts at lyrical abstraction are cast aside; this is fireplace music right here. If the verses are like the slow, sensual slipping off of a dress, the chorus is the brutal penetration. Steve Perry is like a giant penis ... for your ears. Isn't that right, Ash?


Herr Zrbo said...

Eagerly anticipating the inevitable "Oh Sherrie" post.

Little Earl said...

Ah, Zrbo, you know me too well.

Anonymous said...

Come on, post something live like Mother, Father to really drive it home.