Revisiting Journey’s Aptly Titled ‘Evolution’
After years of slugging it out in the trenches, Journey finally achieved a modicum of mainstream success with their fourth LP, 1978's Infinity -- and they were only getting warmed up.
The band's determination to break into the Top 40 came with a price, and was reflected in a series of lineup changes that included the addition of new singer Steve Perry (who made his debut with 'Infinity') and continued with the departure of drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who quit before Journey entered the studio to record their fifth studio album, Evolution. In a February 1979 interview with BAM, Dunbar -- by then a member of Jefferson Starship -- vented his frustration with his old band's increasingly commercial direction.
"You believe that financial success is gonna do it for you, but it never does," argued Dunbar. "All the financial success in the world can't touch your artistic feeling -- once that's destroyed you can't really enjoy yourself, you can't release anything. I've got to release what I feel. Otherwise, I start getting a temper and building up depression." That lack of release, he explained, spilled over into Journey's less-spontaneous live sets. "I mean, if you're playing with a lot of feeling and trying to help them play well, and nobody's giving you a damn thought, they're not listening, there's no point in you being there. ... They wanted to play everything exactly note for note according to the record. I never wanted to do that, but I did it for the last album. It bored the s--- out of me. They could never understand my freedom. They don't understand my playing. They thought I was trying to prove I have technique. Getting out of it was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Plucking new drummer Steve Smith from the ranks of former Journey tourmate Ronnie Montrose's band, the group reunited with Infinity producer Roy Thomas Baker for Evolution -- though, as Perry pointed out in an interview with Sounds, they hadn't really been thrilled with his work on the previous LP, and only consented to work with Baker again because they were fans of his engineer, Geoff Workman. "Roy was out driving his Rolls Royce or doing shopping half the time we were recording Evolution, insisted Perry. "It's really just produced by us and Geoffrey Workman."
"Admittedly Roy had a lot to do with the sound of Infinity," interjected guitarist Neal Schon. "But if you listen to both of them I bet you'll prefer the new one. You know, Infinity had layer after layer of sound, hundreds of overdubbed guitars ... there's less of that on Evolution and I prefer it."
As it turned out, losing a drummer and a few overdubs didn't hurt Journey's burgeoning chart presence. Released April 5, 1979, Evolution went on to become their most successful album to that point, rising to No. 20 on the Billboard album chart, selling more than three million copies, and scoring the band a Top 20 hit with the record's second single, "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" -- all of which merely set the stage for a group poised to become one of the biggest rock acts of the next decade.
"We wanted to be successful," explained Schon shortly after Evolution was released. "We wanted to compete and we took the steps that we thought were right to do so. If they're the wrong ones, we'll find out soon enough. We're not copping out, we're just trying to make money. Otherwise you can't live...I think if the people are open-minded they're going to enjoy us because I think we sound different to any other band that's out right now."
"It's good different," said Perry. "So many people sound the same right now. Sit back, listen and I think you'll realize that we are the most different sounding band, you cannot compare us to anyone. And by staying individual-sounding, we're taking a big chance. We're trying to make our own statement, we're not walking into anybody else's shoes."
Dunbar probably would have argued that sentiment, but whether or not Journey were truly taking a risk, their sonic Evolution made them a natural fit for radio -- a relationship that only strengthened when the band returned in March 1980 with its sixth studio LP, Departure. It wasn't enough to keep founding keyboard player (and original lead singer) Gregg Rolie from leaving the lineup at the end of the year, but his hand-picked replacement, former Babys member Jonathan Cain, quickly demonstrated his own knack for hitmaking; his debut release with the group, 1981's Escape, gave Journey its first No. 1 album. The rest is history.