By Peter Lindblad
Journey’s future was uncertain in 1987. Four years had passed since “Frontiers” had voyaged up the charts like a power ballad-fueled space shuttle zooming toward the heavens. And yet, there were no signs Journey was ready for a re-launch.
The interminable grind of touring arenas and stadiums — including a headlining gig for the ages in front of 80,000 people at JFK Stadium on June 4, 1983 — had perhaps broken Journey once and for all.
“We never really broke up, but at that point, Steven [Perry] just said, ‘I need time off, and I really don’t know when I’ll be back,’ and it just seemed like it was never going to happen,” Journey guitarist Neal Schon recalls. “And so, I just started saying, ‘I can’t sit around forever.’ It’d been, like, three years or something, and I wanted to get busy and do something.”
Taking a new protégé under his wing lit a fire under Schon, and they were chomping at the bit to get at it. While working with Abraxas Pool, Schon had taken notice of Deen Castronovo, Journey’s current drummer, pounding away in a rehearsal space next to his, and Schon decided to take him on as a partner.
Schon wasn’t the only Journey member who was ready to move on. Unbeknownst to him, keyboardist Jonathan Cain had something cooking in Los Angeles, and he wanted Schon to be a part of it. Soon, Bad English was born.
“So I was going to do something with Deen and then, interestingly enough, Jonathan Cain calls me the next day and he says, ‘Hey, I’m down in L.A., with Ricky Phillips and John Waite [Cain’s former bandmates in The Babys], and we’re putting a band together. We want to know if you want to come down and check it out,’” says Schon.
His interest piqued, Schon made the trip to L.A. with Castronovo to see if the project was a good fit for them.
“We plugged in, and we went into rehearsal, and sparks flew,” says Schon. “And before we knew it, we were in the studio recording the first record, with Richie Zito [The Cult, Cheap Trick, Heart] producing.”
Nothing was lost in translation when Bad English’s eponymous first album debuted in 1989, as the record went platinum in the U.S., peaking at No. 21 on the charts.
“It was a fun record to get through, and relatively painless, and it was a good time,” says Schon.
Despite its success — three hit singles, including a No. 1 smash in the Diane Warren-penned “When I See You Smile” — Bad English actually planted the seeds of the band’s destruction.
“By the time the second record came around, John Waite and I were becoming really good friends and we were hanging out a lot,” said Schon. “We were all talking about directions for the second record. And I preferred the stuff on the record that was a little heavier, bluesy, that had a little R&B funkiness to it — ‘Rockin’ Horse,’ stuff like that. To me, it was a little heavier than The Faces, but that kind of vein, a party kind of vibe, with a little more edge than The Faces, but that kind of vibe. And I said, ‘That’s where we belong.’”
Waite had other ideas for 1991’s “Backlash.” Sessions for it were fraught with tension.
“All of a sudden, John wanted to do nothing but Diane Warren songs,” relates Schon. “It was exactly the opposite of where we had talked about going.”
Things came to a head one day, and just like that, Bad English was no more.
“Actually, while we were in Vancouver, mixing the second Bad English record ‘Backlash,’ we had a falling out, John and I,” Schon remembers. “And I just quit, just moved on. I went to the back of the studio … it was funny, Mike Reno from Loverboy was back there doing a solo record, while they were mixing our record, after we had just broken up in the front, and Mike goes, ‘Why don’t you play on my record?’ And so I walked back there and started playing on his record (laughs).”
Far and away the most popular of the myriad of side projects Schon’s been involved with over the years, Bad English gets lumped in with Schon collaborations with the likes of keyboardist Jan Hammer [1981’s “Untold Passion” and 1982’s “Here to Stay”], Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers, Hardline, Abraxas Pool and Soul SirkUS — with singer Jeff Scott Soto — to name but a few.
However, there was another Schon-related project in particular that caused ears to perk up in 1983, and Sammy Hagar was just one of the big names attached to it. The two friends used to get together to jam whenever Hagar had solo shows in San Francisco.
“We always seemed to jam on ‘Rock Candy,’ the Montrose song — God bless Ronnie [Montrose],” says Schon.
Anxious to work together, there came a time in 1983 when the stars aligned and both of their schedules cleared. They had to move fast, though, if they wanted to get an album out.
“I had a month off, and he had a month off from his tour schedule, so I said, ‘Why don’t we do something? We’re always playing; we dig working with each other. I think we could do something really cool and interesting, and a bit progressive and not so generic — just free up the reins a little bit and get creative,’” says Schon.
Outside of Journey, Schon often indulged in adventurous sonic experimentation. And he had someone in mind to play bass, who “… was really funky, and a cool guy from New York, had a really cool attitude.” It was Kenny Aaronson, a sideman for Billy Squier. With Aaronson on board, there was one more seat to fill; Schon suggested someone from his past, former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve.
“I loved Michael Shrieve, which Sammy didn’t get,” says Schon. “You know, I don’t know if he gets it to this day (laughs), but you go back and listen to the record, and I like Michael Shrieve, because he was more from the jazz side. Sammy was used to really heavy rock drummers, and I wanted, from a jazz guy, kind of like what Jimi Hendrix had with Mitch Mitchell. You know, Mitch Mitchell was a jazz guy. I love what Michael did on the record.”
Hastily thrown together, Hagar, Schon, Aaronson and Schrieve put out one record, 1983’s vigorous rock workout “Through the Fire.”
Recorded live from a series of shows at the Warfield Theater in November of that year, with the crowd noise edited out, the album is probably remembered best for a smoky version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” that wafted all the way to No. 94 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
“We only recorded four shows,” says Schon. “We played three or four shows — I can’t remember — that was it. We did the best nights, everything was live, and then we went in and did minimal overdubs on the live recording, sometimes putting a rhythm guitar where there was no rhythm guitar, where I was playing lead. But, pretty much everything was live. Yeah, that was it.
“Sammy and I wrote the stuff, I believe, in two weeks, and then we rehearsed with everybody. We learned it, and the next week … there were like 20 songs, I believe, like in a week. And some of them were complex arrangements, so it was a lot to remember for everybody, because they weren’t there for the whole writing process. And then we just went and recorded — the fourth week, we went and played, and that was that. And then he went back on tour, and I went back on tour with Journey.”
Just like Schon always has.