When people expound on the legacy of Nirvana, one of the things they’ll invariably mention is that the band helped kill hair-metal, putting an end to a sexist, silly musical style. But that wasn’t the only popular strain of rock music Kurt Cobain was against. There’s a famous origin story of sorts in which a 17-year-old Cobain sells a bunch of his records to afford a ticket to a Black Flag concert, pledging allegiance to punk from there on. (“It was really great,” he’d later enthuse about the show. “I was instantly converted.”) The albums he parted with? Stuff from Foreigner and Journey, the soulless corporate rock that had defined the late 1970s and early 1980s. In one symbolic gesture, Cobain shed that side of his musical personality and adopted a new, cooler one.
Journey have sold millions of records. Their 1988 best-of Greatest Hits is 15-times platinum. Their 1981 bestseller Escape is 10-times platinum. They had six singles hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts — one of which, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” enjoyed a robust second life after being the soundtrack to the final scene of the final episode of The Sopranos. (The song has been streamed over a billion times on Spotify.) Journey have a new album out now, Freedom, and they’ve already grossed $28 million on tour this year. They have been and are extremely popular. But they have never been cool.
The band is back in the news as well for being incorporated into the Stranger Things juggernaut, a remix of their 1983 smash “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” featured as part of the new episodes released earlier this month. Those keyboards. That voice. That straining for epic grandeur. It’s like Journey never left.
“Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” is as good an intro to the Bay Area band as any of their other hits. If The Sopranos’ needle-drop of “Don’t Stop Believin’” gave a new generation an entry point into Journey’s full-throttled optimism, “Separate Ways” is the gateway drug to the band’s bombastic emotional excess, their mistaken belief that feverish intensity is the same thing as unshakeable romantic devotion. They’re probably not the most earnest rock band of all time — there are plenty of contenders for that title — but their combination of sincerity and emphaticness was emblematic of a rock era ruled by dudes with no chill. No wonder the music video for “Separate Ways” is so spectacularly, awkwardly awful.
Journey started up in the early 1970s, guitarist Neal Schon and keyboardist/vocalist Gregg Rolie both previously part of Santana. Their early tunes were jazzy, prog-rock excursions, although their sound changed when they decided to focus on more straightforward songs, recruiting singer Steve Perry to be their new frontman.
“I found music as a life-sustaining thing when I was about six years old,” Perry once said. “My parents were about to split up, and I discovered Sam Cooke and 45 RPM records. I could turn what was happening around me off and live there. And it saved my life.” Speaking with The New Statesman, he went into more detail about his childhood, saying, “People don’t become performers because they don’t have needs. Singing, though it can be very lovely, is essentially a primal scream. And I was screaming pretty loudly — and quite big. … Things happened to me as a child that I still can’t talk about — nothing to do with my parents, but things did happen. … One of my needs to perform was the need to get myself heard.”
Blessed with an incredible voice — velvety, emotive, the larynx equivalent of a blazing guitar solo — Perry made his debut on Journey’s fourth record, 1978’s Infinity, which included such soon-to-be-staples as “Lights,” a swoon-along tribute to San Francisco that he’d originally written about L.A. before moving up to Northern California to be part of the group.
Infinity is where Journey started becoming the Journey everyone knows, mastering an AOR sound that was polished and accessible. Hit albums followed, as well as a backlash from those who dismissed them as wimps and sellouts. In a 1980 interview with Rolling Stone, Schon (who’d co-written “Lights” and the later smash “Any Way You Want It” with Perry) groused, “When we started out, the critics said we had no direction. Now, it’s that we’re openly commercial and should go back to what we were. I don’t think we’ve compromised. We’ve just opened our audience by going toward songwriting and vocals. They like to sing along. And we’re gonna continue to try and please as many people as we can, without making it sound like we don’t have a direction.”
But in that same profile, an executive at Journey’s label acknowledged, “People might say they’re wimpy and boring, but they’re such nice guys. And maybe these days that’s what it takes to sell records, to appeal to the most people possible.” Indeed, this was an era in which rock ‘n’ roll was already becoming big business, ushering in a steady stream of derivative, shiny stadium rock looking to cash in. Technically proficient, vaguely generic acts like Tom Scholz’s virtually-one-man-band Boston were huge. (Right, Boston’s big hit, “More Than a Feeling,” bore a striking similarity to Nirvana’s big hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”)
In such an environment, Journey thrived, proving to be experts at crafting tunes that sounded great on the radio. They only reached a higher level of slick precision when keyboardist Jonathan Cain joined the group, replacing Rolie. Cain, who’d been part of the opening band on Journey’s recent tour, immediately made his impression felt on 1981’s Escape, co-writing “Who’s Crying Now,” “Open Arms” and “Don’t Stop Believin’,” all of which went Top 10. Encouraging Journey to embrace a more synth-driven sound, which would come to dominate the 1980s, Cain had a simple message for his new bandmates: “I said, ‘I watched you guys 40 nights [on tour]. You just need to speak to [the fans] through your songs, bring their lives into your songs, bring their lives into our songs, sing to their triumphs, sing to their fears, sing to their hearts.’ And that’s what I brought. Something like ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ is a perfect example.”
Escape was Journey’s first No. 1 record, establishing them as one of the world’s biggest groups. Critics dissed them, the Grammys ignored them, but by the time Journey unveiled their follow-up, Frontiers, they were very much feeling themselves. If you seek proof, look no further than the press conference they gave around Frontiers’ release. Perry and his bandmates seem especially proud of themselves — and their new video game, which capitalized on that industry’s rising prominence. It’s particularly wild to see them get defensive about their Budweiser sponsorship, a clear indication of how the early 1980s were different from today. Honestly, this three-minute news segment will tell you everything about the tension around “selling out” that was imperiling rock music at the time.
Frontiers’ opening track was something Journey had debuted on the road while promoting Escape. “[Perry and I] wanted to write something rhythmic and still have a strong and haunting melody,” Cain would later say. “We needed a main rhythm to run through the synthesizer and [drummer] Steve Smith designed that kind of drum beat to let everything breathe. … Steve has always listened to a lot of Motown records, songs with a strong chorus approach, songs that were really urgent-sounding, but still had rhythm and melody.”
As often happens with artists who are out touring a lot, “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” came about because Journey realized they needed a song like that in their repertoire. “We took Escape on the road and we knew we needed more teeth. … Like, what would make our set undeniably great?” Cain said in 2018. “And we tried to fill in what we were missing musically. … I remember writing ‘Separate Ways’ with Steve on the road. We wrote that in a hotel room — [bassist] Ross [Valory] was going through a divorce — and, boom, out comes ‘Separate Ways.’”
Kicking off with Cain’s space-age keyboard riff before Schon’s heavy guitar lick takes over, “Separate Ways” is the kind of brokenhearted ballad that was a Motown speciality. In the song, the narrator is crestfallen because he and his lady have gone their separate ways, a scenario that leaves him anxious and unhappy. Even worse, she’s apparently with another guy now. But our narrator isn’t giving up on their love. “Separate Ways” is what “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” would have been like if everybody involved decided to be way more bombastic. (The song’s pump-it-up sonic pyrotechnics would qualify it to be suitable theme music before the introduction of an NBA team.) Never one for subtlety, Perry belted out his anguish, making one final, desperate plea to his beloved:
Someday love will find you
Break those chains that bind you
One night will remind you
How we touched and went our separate ways
If he ever hurts you
True love won’t desert you
You know I still love you
Though we touched and went our separate ways
“Separate Ways” was Journey’s fourth song to crack the Top 10 in two years, helped by its ubiquity on MTV, which was then still just a fledgling cable channel. It’s funny how MTV has been blamed for elevating photogenic pop stars — supposedly making the industry more superficial and image-conscious in the process — because the truth was, there were plenty of regular-looking dudes enjoying huge success at the time, too. Like Journey.
In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution, Cain recalled, “Steve Perry was very anti-video. He’d always say, ‘We’re performers, we’re entertainers, but we’re not actors.’ And we were not a very photogenic band. So we stayed on the sidelines at first.” But Frontiers saw Journey try their hand at this new medium, leading to the deeply dorky video for “Separate Ways.”
“This was the very beginning of MTV. Nobody was making $200,000 videos or $500,000 videos or $3 million videos,” Schon said this week. “Some people were paying a million and a half for a music video because they had a movie producer backing them financially. What a freakin’ rip-off. I mean, that’s what it became. But back when we did this, our manager came to us and said, ‘Look, we need to get a music video. Who should we use?’ I suggested the director Wayne Isham. He came in and put together the storyboard. It was going to be in New Orleans, on a pier. Is it terrible? The air guitar and keyboards are cheesy as hell. I give it a 10 on the cringe scale. It’s so silly, man. Journey was not a band that did well with videos that had story lines.”
“I’m at a loss to explain that video,” Cain lamented in I Want My MTV. “Good Lord, I will never live down those air keyboards. No matter what else I’ve done in my career, sooner or later people find a way to ask me about the ‘Separate Ways’ video. And Perry, I don’t know what he was thinking, but he cut his hair right before the video. Bad idea. His hair was rocking before the shoot.”
In the clip, filmed on the wharf in New Orleans near the French Quarter by local director Tom Buckholtz, the quintet sometimes play their instruments, but other times they are just miming, leading to a lot of white-man’s overbite and unconvincing air-rocking. Meanwhile, a young woman, Margaret Oldsted Menendez, wanders around, almost as if she’s unaware of the guys. “I was a college student at Tulane University in uptown New Orleans,” she recalled in 2013. “I double majored in biology and environmental studies. I was working and paying my way through college so the [notion] of making money for shooting a video was a godsend. It paid $250 a day and I was paid for three days of work. That was a lot of money at the time for a student like me. … It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of [Perry’s] girlfriend being upset that a girl was in a Journey video.”
“His girlfriend, Sherrie, was not down with it,” Cain told The Huffington Post in 2012. “And there was this whole thing about, ‘You’re going to have a slut in your video?’” This was Sherrie Swafford, who Perry was dating and who would later be the subject of his 1984 solo hit “Oh Sherrie.” “Sherrie was jealous and possessive,” Cain says in I Want My MTV. “And when she found out there was gonna be a girl in the video — oh my god. There was a big kicking and screaming session.”
Even if the video was an embarrassment, Frontiers was another huge seller for the band, setting the stage for subsequent hit singles like the Cain-penned slow-dance standard “Faithfully.” (Fun fact: After Prince came up with “Purple Rain,” he called Cain, scared that his song was too close to “Faithfully.” “I thought it was an amazing tune,” Cain said in 2016, “and I told him, ‘Man, I’m just super-flattered that you even called. It shows you’re that classy of a guy. Good luck with the song. I know it’s gonna be a hit.’” Cain was less thrilled with the “Faithfully” video, admitting in I Want My MTV, “The live stuff looks great. But the shot of Steve shaving off his mustache was a bit much. I mean, did people even know he had a mustache? I didn’t get that.”)
In 1984, Perry recorded a solo record, Streek Talk, and then Journey reconvened for Raised on Radio, but by that point the group was fracturing. Journey got back together for a comeback album a decade later, Trial by Fire, but then that was it for Perry. “I was wrung out like a sponge,” he said about his decision to quit the band. “There was just no juice in my heart for music, and it really scared the hell out of me. But I knew intuitively that if I kept doing what I was doing, I’d have a hole in my soul that would get bigger and bigger. And I’d fill it with bad behaviors, if you know what I mean. So I had to stop.”
Journey soldiered on without him, releasing five albums this century, including the new Freedom. Schon, who has remained with the group, was asked recently if he talks to Perry anymore. “We are in contact,” he said. “It’s not about him coming out with us, but we’re speaking on different levels. That’s a start, even if it’s all business. And I’m not having to go through his attorney! We’ve been texting and emailing. He’s a real private guy, and he wants to keep it that way. We’re in a good place.”
As with a lot of legacy bands, there were lawsuits between members. When the band got voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Perry appeared on stage during their 2017 induction ceremony and graciously addressed the crowd, although he chose not to perform with his old group. (In fact, until he showed up to sing a few songs with his friend Mark Oliver Everett, aka E of the band Eels, at a concert in 2014, he hadn’t performed live in 19 years.) Later, Perry explained that he didn’t sing with his former bandmates during the Rock Hall ceremony out of deference to their current frontman, Arnel Pineda. “I haven’t been in the band for quite some time,” Perry said. “Arnel’s been in the band for almost 10 years, I think. He’s a sweet kid — he’s a wonderful kid. He sings his heart out every night. It’s his gig.”
Time has a way of healing old wounds — or, at the very least, blunting the vitriol once directed at certain cheesy corporate-rock bands. It’s now been 15 years since The Sopranos’ finale lent Journey zeitgeist-y cool, conferring on “Don’t Stop Believin’” a patina of hipness it never had during its initial lifespan. Perry had been the final holdout of the song’s three writers, not giving the show permission to use the track until the Thursday before the episode’s airing that Sunday, insisting that David Chase tell him how it would be integrated into the plot before he’d give his blessing. (“What I didn’t want to see was the family getting whacked,” Perry later explained. “Scorsese would do that. He would play something beautiful while people were getting gunned down. So I held out.”)
The suspense wasn’t as great for the Stranger Things producers, who first unveiled their remix of “Separate Ways” in an April trailer promoting the new season. “The lyrics are about people going their separate ways and the characters, at the end of the third season, did all go their separate ways,” Bobby Gumm, head of the trailer company who put together the clip, told Forbes. Perry got involved early on: Bryce Miller, who helped craft the remix, said in the same Forbes piece, “He had some specific mixing notes. He wanted the vocals to be brought out a little bit more in some places and just a refinement of some [other] details. It was really cool to work with him and he had some really nice things to say.”
In the 1990s, as Nirvana and alternative rock were cresting, an over-the-hill band like Journey were the epitome of toothless, boring rock — an easy thing to mock, never more savagely than on an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head, in which the boys take one bewildered look at “Separate Ways,” prompting Butt-Head to wonder if they’re watching the Partridge Family. Adding insult to injury, he then confuses Steve Perry with Barry Manilow. (Cain later admitted in I Want My MTV that he was so mad at the public skewering “I called our manager and said, ‘Isn’t there anything we can do to stop this?’”)
But whether in The Sopranos or Stranger Things, it turns out that Journey’s hyperbolic, achingly earnest music is uniquely excellent as background color in dramatic scenes. As a song, “Separate Ways” is so overblown as to elicit secondhand discomfort from anyone listening to it. (Look, Steve, getting dumped is a terrible feeling, but take it down a notch.) But as a supplemental emotional texture within a TV show or movie, it feels appropriately sized, a fitting complement to the overarching narrative stakes. Journey songs always felt like they should be the soundtrack to Rocky montages — at last, they sorta are.
At the start of the pandemic, everybody was trying to find ways to battle boredom and stave off anxiety. Some baked bread. Some got into quilting. The Heller family decided to do a shot-for-shot remake of the “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” video. “It was all my wife’s idea,” husband Steven Heller said, later adding, “She likes Journey, first of all. And after watching a number of music videos, it was like, ‘We could recreate this video with our kids around the house.’”
The Hellers’ version is the sort of wholesome distraction that a lot of people really needed during that unnerving time. I can see why people found it adorable. But viewed now, it’s incredibly dorky — there’s nothing cool or hip about it at all. In other words, it couldn’t be more perfectly Journey, the band that always cared way too deeply and always, always wore their heart on their sleeve.
“Everything I write comes back to high school,” Steve Perry said in 2018. “I know it sounds funny, but everything. It all comes from the emotions I grew into during my adolescence. Those moments are not to be tossed away.” For a lot of us, those old memories also often contain a fair share of embarrassment, whether it’s the residual shame associated with long-ago breakups or the naive, giddy euphoria attached to good times that are now ancient history. Journey just wanted you to hold onto them a little longer, no matter how uncool it seemed.