Judge Michael Rankins enjoyed "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" at a 1981 Journey concert in San Francisco. Fortunately, the district attorney declined to prosecute.
Some will win
Go ahead. Dismiss the music of Journey as typically bland, late '70s / early '80s corporate pop-rock. Laugh it off as disposable, prefabricated, overly commercial arena pap. Ridicule singer Steve Perry's Streisandesque proboscis. Lambaste his band as indistinguishable from its horde of similarly one-named contemporaries: Foreigner, Styx, Boston, Kansas, Asia, Toto, REO Speedwagon. okay, REO Speedwagon is two words, but you know what I mean.
Now toss this DVD into your player, crank up the volume, and just try to keep yourself from singing along with each and every song on this classic concert recording.
I dare you.
Facts of the Case
1981 was the Year of Journey.
The band, which began life in 1973 as a jazz fusion-influenced, progressive rock offshoot of the legendary San Francisco ensemble Santana, broke through to mainstream success with its 1978 album Infinity—not coincidentally, its first record featuring new lead vocalist Steve Perry. After Infinity soared to 21st position on the Billboard album chart on the strength of such cuts as the Perry-penned "Lights," the band cracked the singles Top 20 the following year with "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" from the album Evolution. In 1980, Journey rode its third release of the Perry era, Departure, to #8 on the album chart, coupled with a highly successful tour.
Then, in 1981, Perry and the boys from the Bay were everywhere. Captured, Journey's live album documenting the Departure tour, was an instant hit. The band rocketed "Open Arms," a hit power ballad from the soundtrack of the cult animated film Heavy Metal, to second position on the pop charts, Then came Journey's new studio album, aptly entitled Escape. Harnessing the melodic sensibilities of keyboardist, songwriter, and backing vocalist Jonathan Cain, late of The Babys ("Every Time I Think of You"), to the cascading guitars of former Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton protégé Neal Schon and the stratospheric tenor of Steve Perry, Escape exploded the fivesome from the ranks of faceless also-rans and made them the Band Every Rock Critic Loved to Hate.
As kismet would have it, the nascent cable music channel MTV debuted the same year as the Escape phenomenon made superstars of the five Journey-men. Hungry for audience-grabbing programming, MTV dispatched a film crew to Houston to capture Journey live on the concert stage at the Summit Arena. The resulting special, recorded on November 6, 1981, marked a high-water point in the early history of the then-all-video channel.
Fast forward a quarter-century, and Columbia Music Video sends the MTV generation on a whiplash trip down Memory Lane with the release of Journey: Live in Houston 1981, The Escape Tour.
Set the Wayback Machine, Sherman.
Here's what you would have heard on that autumnal Friday night in southeast Texas, had you plunked down your hard-earned eleven bucks and change (yes, kids that's what a concert ticket cost back in the day):
• "Escape"—from the Journey album Escape
This concert preserves the Journey experience at the pinnacle of their career. Typical of album tours, the Escape show is jam-packed with material from the then-current recording, at the expense of superior songs from Journey's earlier repertoire (I especially missed "Feeling That Way" and "Anytime" from Infinity). The show whips along at breakneck speed, and at 77 minutes seems—at least to any Journey partisan who paid for the privilege—a little too brief. In their hour-plus upon the stage, however, the band struts, frets, and delivers the goods that made them ubiquitous on FM rock stations for nearly a decade.
Steve Perry, though never the most charismatic front man in rock history (he spends an inordinate amount of time in every number singing with his eyes closed, as though he's forgotten that there are thousands of people in the arena eager to connect with him), possessed a pure, soaring voice that few singers could match. Perry's tone finds its perfect match in newcomer Jonathan Cain, who replaced founding member Gregg Rolie just prior to the Escape recording sessions.
Even though Perry garners most of the face time onscreen, the musical star on this night is guitarist Neal Schon, whose technical brilliance—often overshadowed by Perry during Journey's heyday—is spot-on in this performance. Responsible at turns for both rhythm and melody due to the band's single-guitar lineup, Schon sparkles here, whether contributing a crowning riff to the verse of "Don't Stop Believin'" or a blues-flavored stroll underneath Perry's seductive vocals on "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'." And, as the camera shows, Schon's engaging onstage personality makes an effective counterpoint to Perry's more introspective approach.
Every member of the band gets his own moment in the spotlight, with the exception of bassist Ross Valory. (No role in rock music is more anonymous than that of the bass guitarist, unless your name happens to be Paul McCartney.) Schon's guitar solo smokes, as does drummer Steve Smith's trip around the traps. By comparison, Jonathan Cain's gentle piano stylings seem out of place, like a tuxedo in a mosh pit. But when the band plays together, they're electrifying. (Even if you thought for a second that they were REO Speedwagon.)
The MTV videographers make decent use of the stage, even though—as is all too often the case with concert films—the director's choice of shot doesn't always give us exactly what we might want to see at a given moment. The camerawork is straightforward and avoids showy zooms and bizarre angles. My only real complaint is that there's far too little audience footage—almost none, in fact. More crowd shots would have added to the "you are there" feeling that Perry suggests at one juncture, when he drags a hesitant camera jockey into the spotlight from behind Cain's keyboard riser.
For a 25-year-old made-for-MTV event, Journey: Live in Houston 1981, The Escape Tour looks and sounds spectacular. The visual presentation is bold and vibrant—at times, a mite too vibrant, as the amped-up red spectrum combines with blazing stage lights to result in occasional color bleed. The imagery, however, remains crisp and sharply defined overall after a quarter-century on the shelf. The soundtrack, which can be appreciated in either PCM stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, thunders from the speakers with nary a hint of fuzz or rumble. Interestingly, I found the stereo mix preferable. The surround track, though crystal clear, sounded a bit boomy and artificial to me. Your ears may vary.
The accompanying audio CD replicates the DVD's tracklist program in its entirety. As a bonus, the CD adds "The Party's Over (Hopelessly in Love)," a song that previously appeared on the live album Captured, released the same year as Escape.
Extras on the DVD include an 11-minute compilation of interview clips featuring the five members of Journey at the time of the Escape tour. These interviews, apparently conducted over several months, provide some entertaining, reasonably substantive insights into the state of the band at its zenith. The rapidly changing whims of '80s facial hair fashion can be easily observed by those with an interest in late 20th century cosmetology. Most of the clips have digital time code running in the bottom of the frame.
The DVD also serves up a two-minute slide show of Journey action photos, a poorly preserved TV spot from 1981 advertising the album Escape, and the credit scroll from MTV's original concert broadcast. Inside the keep case, you'll find a full-color, 16-page booklet containing more band member and memorabilia photos.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On Monday, November 30, 1981, the callow youth who would become your intrepid Judge would experience Journey's Escape tour first-hand, at San Francisco's Cow Palace (section 19, row Q, seat 13).
My most vivid memory of the evening is that I had broken up with my girlfriend only a few days before, and thus was attending the concert stag with a couple of male friends. When Steve Perry poured out his heart-crushing rendition of "Open Arms," I resolved to call my erstwhile paramour as soon as possible the next day, to see whether any hope for our relationship remained. Two and one-half decades later, that girl is my wife of 21 years.
Thank you, Steve Perry. Thank you, Journey.
They may never have been the critics' darlings, but Journey knew how to craft entertaining, tuneful, technically flawless pop-rock of the first order. This handsome concert disc / audio CD set contains all the proof you need.
Don't stop believin'.
Not guilty of anything except rockin' the Summit. Case dismissed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Studio: Columbia Music Video
• Journey Interviews
Review content copyright © 2006 Michael Rankins; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.