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Trace the musical 'Journey' of guitarist Neal Schon

A musical prodigy — he played guitar with Santana when he was still a teen — Neal Schon has been active in the music industry for more than 70 percent of his life.

By Peter Lindblad

Bored to death of school, its stifling atmosphere of conformity and its rigid adherence to rules, a teenage Neal Schon had little use for traditional education.

Already displaying the kind of precocious mastery of guitar that must have made his contemporaries green with envy, the six-string savant had tuned in and was turned on to R&B, blues and soul music in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He dropped out, like so many of his peers.

(Santana or Slowhand? That's the choice Neal Schon had to make)

Left to his own devices, there was, however, the not-so-insignificant matter of making a living that weighed on Schon’s mind. Fortunately for him, he lived in that citadel of psychedelia known as the Bay Area, home to Santana and other sonic explorers whose sense of adventure and bent for musical experimentation matched Schon’s own ambitions. And at the tender age of 15, while still barely attending Aragon High School in San Mateo, Schon fell in with members of the Santana band, his truancy leading to consciousness-expanding studio jam sessions with the genre-blending, multi-cultural coterie and eventually, an invitation to join their caravan of rock and roll gypsies.

Journey publicity photo

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Neal Schon (second from right) had the world on a six-string, along with his fellow Journey bandmates. Publicity photo/Columbia Records.

“Santana was like a big pot of Cajun stew … you know, in New Orleans,” explains Schon. “You stick that in and you stick that in, and you stick anything in it, and it becomes very spicy and tasty. And I really did enjoy that about playing with the band and Carlos and Gregg [Rolie] and everybody. It was just a mind-opening musical experience for me to go through that, because before playing in Santana, I was really just more of a blues and R&B guy. I really loved, like, R&B, funk and blues, and that’s what I listened to. I did listen to some jazz, but really what I was playing at that time was kind of fiery rock and blues. So, it was a great experience for me, and a knowledgeable one.”

(Trace the musical 'Journey' of guitarist Neal Schon)

It was also a brief one, as Schon stuck around long enough to record the chart-topping “Santana III” album, the final salvo for the Woodstock-era lineup, and its confounding 1972 follow-up, the jazzy “Caravanserai,” before leaving amid a flurry of personnel changes and various substance abuse issues. A year later, Schon and another Santana castoff, keyboardist Gregg Rolie, resurfaced with a new band that, initially at least, seemed almost like the second coming of the group they’d only recently abandoned. It was supposed to be this freewheeling fusion of different styles, with the emphasis on instrumental jams and vocals being an afterthought.

“Gregg and I did like the rock aspect of what we did on the first Santana record,” says Schon. “I was always a fan of everything that came out of England in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and so I wanted to do something that was a bit progressive like that. It was a bit more English sounding.”

That’s what Schon had in mind when Journey was originally conceived. Somewhere along the way, however, Journey became something altogether different.

In the Beginning

Frumius Bandersnatch poster

Before Journey was a gleam in Neal Schon's eye, there was a little band called Frumius Bandersnatch (named for a character in the Lewis Carroll poem "Jabberwocky." But the band was around long enough to be part of the early psychedelic movement, as preserved on this Stanley Mouse designed concert poster from 1967, which featured Charlatans as the headliners. This VG+ condition poster sold for $298.75 including buyer's premium via Heritage Auction Galleries.

Before Journey was even a gleam in Schon’s eye, however, something called Frumious Bandersnatch was whipping up psychedelic-rock stews between 1967 and 1969 for a San Francisco underground that wanted to trip out in the most ecstatic manner possible.

Actually formed in nearby Contra Costa County, the band took its name from a character in the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky.” Like Santana, Frumious Bandersnatch could never maintain a stable membership, and unsurprisingly, the band faded to black. Ross Valory and George Tickner landed on their feet, joining with Schon and Rolie in 1973 — the year of Journey’s first public appearance at the Winterland Ballroom on New Year’s Eve — to try something a little different.

Helping to form this new alliance was former Santana manager Herbie Herbert, who also happened to guide Frumious Bandersnatch during its heyday. None other than The Tubes’ Prairie Prince was brought on to man the drums, and the Golden Gate Rhythm Section was born. At first, the group intended to be nothing more than a support band for more established San Francisco artists.

It soon became clear to everyone that the band name had to go. Having quickly dispatched the idea of being a backup group, a radio contest was held to come up with a new moniker, but it yielded nothing promising. Then, roadie John Villanueva came up with one that perfectly captured what the band was all about: Journey.

As far as putting out records goes, the journey began with 1975’s eponymous debut, followed by 1976’s “Looking into the Future” (which was complicated from the get-go by Tickner’s untimely departure) and 1977’s “Next.”

Although all three albums were commercial flops, drummer Steve Smith has fond memories of the work the band did. In fact, his collaboration with Schon on the guitarist’s new instrumental solo album, “The Calling” (Frontiers Records), proves that the two still bring out the best in one another, just as they did when Journey went for broke in live settings on extended, vigorous jams back in the day.

“When playing with Neal in Journey, the most rewarding times were when we would stretch out onstage and jam at the end of some of our songs,” says Smith. “For instance, we could really raise the energy to great heights on ‘Lovin’ You is Easy,’ ‘Stone in Love,’ ‘Mother, Father’ or some of the older material like ‘Kohoutek.’ There really were no difficult times with Neal. We got along well, enjoyed playing together, and it’s still the same 30 years later.”

Schon wasn’t particularly keen on writing music with vocals in mind back then; he has always experienced some level of discomfort when doing so. So the lack of lyrics might explain why he was able to record “The Calling” in a matter of days.

“Someone asked me, ‘Is it harder for you to do this instrumental thing than the thing with the vocalist? And I go, ‘Actually, no. It was harder to learn how to write for vocalists than doing the instrumental thing, because that’s where I came from,’ with the roots of that in Santana, and even actually the early Journey records,” says Schon. “There was just ‘Journey,’ ‘Look into the Future’ and ‘Next,’ where, with a lot of those, Gregg was singing lead vocals, and I sang a bit on ‘Next,’ but on the first record, it’s a lot of instrumental music, with just a little bit of vocals.”

At the same time, though, Journey was a good draw on the concert circuit, with fans clamoring for those extended, long-form meltdowns that showcased the band’s impressive chops.

“We had built this cult audience in quite a few places, because we had toured extensively for three years, and very hard,” recalls Schon. “I would say nine months out of every year we toured. And we had built quite a following being one of the original jam bands in San Francisco. You know, people really enjoyed seeing us live. We weren’t selling any records, but we were selling lots of tickets.”

The horns of this particular dilemma were particularly sharp, and the members of Journey knew something had to be done to drive album sales. Initially, the thought was that Schon, Valory and Aynsley Dunbar, the drummer who replaced Prince when he returned to The Tubes, would develop their backing harmonies to work in concert with Rolie, who almost by default had become the band’s lead singer.

The fruits of their labor appeared on “Next,” which failed just as miserably as the two LPs that came before it.

Journey publicity photo

The combination of Steve Perry's vocals and Neal Schon's guitar work — not to mention the cutting edge hairstyles and fashion — gave Journey a one-two punch that helped the band rise to the top in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Publicity photo

To ‘Infinity’ and Beyond

At the behest of Columbia Records, Journey made some changes. The first order of business: Tightening the nuts on those sprawling jams and adding pop structure to the band’s songs. Hiring a frontman was next on the agenda.

After recruiting Robert Fleischman, Journey decided to road-test their new singer, and even though he pitched in with Schon to help pen the much beloved “Wheel in the Sky,” still a staple of classic-rock radio, his presence was greeted with indifference by fans.

Before the year was out, Fleischman was gone, the result of disagreements with management — even though he’d joined Journey, he kept his own business people — and his failure to mesh with Journey’s progressive-rock inclinations.

Herbert had a suggestion. He’d been smitten with a demo from a band called Alien Project, featuring a young Steve Perry on vocals. Perry’s arrival brought about a complete transformation, as Journey veered into territory once deemed off limits for the band. Heightening their melodic hard-rock sensibilities, Journey was headed for pop superstardom, with Perry’s well-scrubbed pipes and emotional phrasing steering the ship.

Like Fleischman, Perry initially wasn’t warmly received by fans. Even some members of Journey were a bit apprehensive about this new kid on the block. Schon wasn’t one of them.

“I remember the first night that Steve Perry came onstage with us, and we played a couple of the songs that we had written. The audience was like, ‘I don’t know about that,’” remembers Schon. “It was so different that it really kind of threw them off course, you know. But, immediately when Steve and I got together, I knew that we had chemistry. We sat down, and I sat down with an acoustic guitar, and we were in one room in a hotel and I had these chords for ‘Patiently,’ and he just started singing and writing lyrics. And you know, within, I’d say, 45 minutes we had that song. And then the next one we did together — like in about 40 minutes again — it was ‘Lights.’ And it was just pretty much listening to him sing and me humming a few things, and organizing the chords, the arrangement and adding a few sections; that was that.”

Perry worked at winning over those who doubted him, throwing himself into the writing process for Journey’s next release, “Infinity.” He received a co-writer’s credit on eight of the LP’s 10 songs, and the 1978 release, which flew as high as No. 21 on Billboard’s album charts, gave Journey some much-needed momentum. Roy Thomas Baker, brought aboard by Herbert, may have had something to do with that. His studio wizardry and layering techniques gave songs such as “Lights,” “Wheel in the Sky” and “Feeling that Way” a pop sheen missing from Journey’s previous efforts. Having worked with Queen, Baker was known for stacking harmonies, and he brought that approach to Infinity, having each of Journey’s vocalists sing them in unison. And “Infinity” became Journey’s biggest-selling LP to that point.

With Baker as the band’s secret weapon, Journey looked to make that proverbial hay while the sun was shining so brightly for them. But, before the band moved on to hammer away at 1979’s “Evolution,” Herbert fired Dunbar and replaced him with Berklee-trained jazz drummer Steve Smith, formerly of Ronnie Montrose’s band. Another in a series of masterstrokes, Smith’s hiring helped push Journey to new heights, as “Evolution” soared on the strength of a hit single in “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” that gave the band its first Top 20 smash.

In all, “Evolution” sold 3 million copies in the U.S. alone, and clearly, Journey was on its way. The band’s follow-up, “Departure,” upped the ante considerably, with the album peaking at No. 8 on the charts.

And with all this success came the inevitable excess.

“‘Evolution’ and ‘Departure’? What are my memories? Well, I remember we were in L.A. [at Cherokee Studios for Evolution and Automatt Studios for Departure] recording instead of San Francisco, for one,” says Schon. “We had some late nights, all-night benders (laughs). I remember that. We were partying a lot as a band back then. I remember that the studio we were working in, we came in one morning, and I believe that Woody — Ron Wood — and Keith Richards were in there the night before, and a couple of the guys were still sleeping on the floor. So, it was funny. I met them that way, and the studio was down there, and we waited for them to get up and go out, and then we got our studio time started.”

It was a circus-like atmosphere for Journey in those days, and the eccentricities of the two producers who worked on “Evolution” and “Departure” only added to the insanity.

“I remember we did have a great time with Roy Thomas Baker and Geoff Workman [who produced “Departure”]; they were two characters,” laughs Schon. “I mean, really strong characters, both individuals. You know, Roy was just very flamboyant. He always had this king’s chair, and he wore this king’s crown. You know, it was Monty Python-like, for real (laughs). And Geoff Workman was like a pirate, and you know, he was always smoking a French cigarette and drinking a case of Elephant beer, and then moving on to other stuff later (laughs). It got very colorful in the studio.”

The Great ‘Escape’

The signs were there, clear as day. Journey was on the verge, with a live album in 1981’s “Captured” — recorded on the “Departure” tour — that had blasted off. All they had to do was not screw it up. And yet, Gregg Rolie wanted no part of it. He left the band, just as he did with Santana, taking his smoky Hammond B-3 organ with him.

“The band had already exploded on tour, and the ‘Captured’ record was exploding and the energy on that record was something you couldn’t deny,” says Schon. “And so, I felt that at any point that whatever we came with, as long as there were good songs, it was going to be big.”

With Rolie gone, Journey worked with another keyboardist in Stevie “Keys” Roseman, who hung around just long enough to record “The Party’s Over (Hopelessly in Love),” the only studio song on “Captured.” Eventually, though, Journey went with Rolie’s recommendation for a permanent replacement, Jonathan Cain, who preferred synthesizers to Rolie’s Hammond B-3 organ and had more refined classical sensibilities than his predecessor.
“When Jon came in, he brought in a whole different thing,” says Schon. “It was like, he’s an accomplished songwriter, and he brings in a ‘Faithfully,’ you know, and then a lot of great elements. And Jon was an accomplished keyboardist, a classical keyboardist like on piano, and Gregg was more of a bluesy guy, someone from a B3/Jimmy Smith school of organ playing, which was a completely different thing. So we went more with Jon, and we came up with stuff like ‘Mother, Father’ … you know, I wrote a lot of the music for that with my dad, and then Jon and Perry would work on melody and lyrics, and there was always more of a classical vein to what we were doing, as opposed to what we were doing with Gregg.”

Pairing the triumphant, hope springs eternal optimism of “Don’t Stop Believin’” with yearning, lovesick ballads such as “Who’s Crying Now” and “Open Arms,” 1981’s “Escape” was a sticky-sweet, pop-rock treat, gushing with coming-of-age romanticism, courtesy of Perry’s pleading vocals and strong, melodic currents of guitars and keyboards. The album went all the way to No. 1, scoring three Top 10 hit singles and a Top 20 in “Still They Ride,” which topped out at No. 19. And there was more, as “Stone in Love,” the title track and the aforementioned “Mother, Father” eventually became classic-rock radio favorites.

“I listen to it now, and it’s a great record, but really, it’s all over the map,” says Schon. “You’ve got a song like ‘Dead or Alive’ on it, which is like really musical punk (laughs). I don’t know what you’d call it. It had tight time changes and drum lines that Steve Smith had to sort out. And then you have ‘Open Arms’ on the other side of the spectrum, and so it was like everything between A and Z and everything in the middle.”

New ‘Frontiers’

Neal Schon publicity photo

A bona-fide musical prodigy — he was playing guitar as a teen with Santana — Nel Schon has been active in the music industry for more than 70 percent of his life. He turned 59 on Feb. 27, 2013. Publicity photo/ABC PR.

As far as the record-buying masses were concerned, “Escape” was everything they’d ever wanted from Journey. Critics, on the other hand, were dismissive and downright hostile to it, with many of them placing it on their lists of the worst albums ever.

Time, however, has been kinder to “Escape” and Journey, with many proclaiming the album a “guilty pleasure” at worst, and at best an unabashed expression of heartbreak and young love, with the fist-pumping anthem “Don’t Stop Believin’” a lesson in perseverance everyone could relate to, including the 2005 Chicago White Sox and the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who both adopted the song as their respected anthems and rode its uplifting message all the way to the World Series.

Journey was not just a multi-platinum selling band anymore; it was a pop-culture phenomenon, with the enduring “Don’t Stop Believin’” and other tracks from the band’s back catalog constantly popping up in movies such as “The Wedding Singer” and TV shows like “The Sopranos” and “Glee” over the years. Inevitably, though, the wear and tear of the road, along with clashing egos, caused turmoil within the Journey camp. Somehow, the band made it through 1983’s “Frontiers,” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Just like “Escape,” it burned up the charts, rising to No. 2 before slowing backing its way down and producing the hits “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” “Faithfully” and “Send Her My Love” — and all in spite Schon and Perry trying to sabotage each other.

“‘Frontiers’ was very much like ‘Escape.’ It was a bit more of an experimental record, which I really enjoyed,” says Schon. “We were fighting a bit more at that time period, I think. Like, I’d come in the studio, and I’d turn up the faders on the guitar; I’d want the guitar to be louder. Perry would turn them down. And so it was going both ways (laughs), and then we got into it a lot, and he’d get p***ed and leave the studio, or I’d get p***ed and leave the studio, but it was a great record.”

Cain, again, came to the rescue on ‘Frontiers,’ according to Schon.

“Jonathan brought in ‘Faithfully,’ I believe, at the last minute, you know, when [producers] Mike Stone and Kevin Elson said, ‘We need one ballad here. We’re missing a ballad.’ And what I remember is, Jonathan brought that song in and he goes, ‘Well, I have one.’ And none of us had heard it and so he brought it in, he played it for me on piano and I charted it out in my own chart language (laughs), a road map that I could read. And I remember we kind of just played it through one time, just getting the chord changes and everything down, and then we recorded. And what you hear on the record is what came out after we recorded one time.”

Despite the inner turmoil, Journey completed the “Frontiers” stadium tour. Afterward, the band decided to take a break, which lasted longer than Schon expected. Essentially, Journey had broken up, but the lineup that recorded “Escape” and “Frontiers” would briefly reunite in the mid-1990s, recording the album “Trial by Fire.”

However, in 1997, Perry broke his hip while hiking. Without surgery, Perry couldn’t perform. His delay in going ahead with the procedure forced Journey’s hand, and the band decided it needed another singer.

“We had many, many great times, and those are the ones that I prefer to remember,” says Schon. “And usually, I think that everybody gets full of themselves — and I mean everybody — and so that’s what rips apart people. And in the end, when you look back, and you get away from it and you remember everything, you know, really it’s silly. If you change one individual, everything changes radically. I don’t care if it’s the drummer, bass and definitely the guitar player: It’s going to change radically.”

Others tried to fill the void, but in 2007, Schon found a Perry clone in versatile Filipino vocalist Arnel Pineda. The guitarist explains why Journey decided to go on without Perry.
“When we started regrouping at the point that Steve had gone out on a solo tour,” says Schon, “I figured he had two solo records and he was going to play most of his solo material. But I heard that he was doing eight out of nine Journey songs in his tour, where on a VH1 special, ‘Behind the Music,’ he said [to us], ‘Don’t play those songs; don’t go out and do this material.’ He had already done it. And so, at that point, Jon and I were the other two-thirds of the songwriting, and I said, ‘F**k this.’ I go, ‘You know what? We deserve to be able to go out as much as anybody does.’”

And so, Journey has forged ahead, sans Perry. Providing that shot in the arm Journey needed, Pineda’s versatility defies explanation. By now, the world has seen how Pineda’s vocals bear an uncanny resemblance to Perry’s. But Pineda can sing like just about anybody, from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler to Sting to Robert Plant and even Nat King Cole, Schon says. With Pineda on board, the future looks bright for Journey.

“He’s really amazing, and then ultimately, OK, these are songs that other people have done. But Steven Tyler is not easy to do, Robert Plant is not easy to do. Steve Perry is not easy to do, Sting is not easy to do … These are all top-notch singers,” says Schon. “Nat King Cole is not easy to do. There’s nobody that he actually cannot do. He can do it, you know. And he has very good intuition about what to do, and I feel we’ve made two great records with him, and things are only going to get better there.”