Journey‘s self-titled debut fulfilled the goal of replicating a fiery interplay that already defined their early shows. Released on April 1, 1975, the album blended hard-rock meddle with more expansive instrumental excursions, presupposing elements of the revived jam-band scene from decades later.
“The idea with Journey was we wanted to play with Santana, play with Weather Report, play with Mahavishnu Orchestra, play with Return to Forever,” founding manager Herbie Herbert said in Don’t Stop Believin’: The Untold Story of Journey. “But then on the very next night … you play with Ted Nugent or Aerosmith, and that absolutely worked.”
Problem was the wider record-buying public wasn’t on board. Journey stalled at No. 130, their second-worst Billboard finish after 2005’s Generations. Still, this first effort often succeeds in miniature, showcasing a group still evolving out of its early Latin-inflected roots with Santana.
Herbert had served as a roadie for Carlos Santana, who was then working with singing keyboard player Gregg Rolie and guitarist Neal Schon. Both had become disillusioned with their band leader’s new musical evolution.
“In Santana, Carlos was trying to play jazz, and quite frankly, I can listen to it, but I’m not a jazz player. Nobody in the band was, including Carlos,” Rolie remembered in 2011. “The stuff we were playing, it was like we were leaving back the audience we built. It’s not what I would have done, so I left and Neal left – everybody left.”
Herbert also managed the San Francisco psychedelic group Frumious Bandersnatch, which produced fellow Journey co-founding members Ross Valory and George Tickner on bass and rhythm guitar, respectively. His initial plan was to create an all-star backing band for artists who booked sessions in the Bay Area.
Listen to Journey’s ‘Of a Lifetime’
“It was a different band – a jam band with a fusion and progressive approach,” Valory told Deborah Wagner in 2006. “It was something we began because Herbie, our managing partner, suggested – having known Greg and Neal from the Santana experience – that they and I and George Tickner, the other original guitarist, get together and just check out the concept of a local rhythm section.
“In other words,” Valory added, “in the early ’70s, a lot of artists and bands were coming to San Francisco to write and record and to develop their own sound with the San Francisco environments. So, we considered the idea to begin with of becoming a local rhythm section for recording with various artists. It quickly developed into its own project as the band and continued from there.”
Rolie had actually given up on the music business, but jumped at the chance to start a second band.
“When they called me, I was up in Seattle running a restaurant with my dad. They saved my life, because I think the restaurant business is the hardest business in the world!” Rolie told Keyboard magazine in 2017, with a laugh. “When they called and asked me to join Journey, I said, ‘Sure.’ And then we got to work.”
Initially, Prairie Prince of the Tubes served as the drummer, during a period of relentless, very low-budget gigging. They debuted on New Year’s Eve 1973 at the Winterland Ballroom, after finally settling on the name Journey. “It was a long haul,” Rolie noted. “I was there for eight years, and the first three were tough. We toured in rent-a-cars and Winnebagos. I remember we were playing with the band Heart in Spokane, Wash., and we had to push our Winnebago into the venue.”
Listen to Journey’s ‘Kohoutek’
Prince was part of the demoing process for Journey, as they tried out different track listings and additional songs, including more instrumentals. At one point, the album was apparently to be called Charge of the Light Brigade, after a later-discarded demo. As the sessions bogged down, Prince returned to the Tubes, and was replaced by former Frank Zappa drummer Aynsley Dunbar.
The new Journey lineup debuted in February 1974 at the Great American Music Hall, just before Herbie Herbert secured their first deal with Columbia Records. They entered Studio A at CBS Studios in San Francisco to record this album with the meticulous, pipe-smoking producer Roy Halee, best known for his work with the acoustic-leaning Simon & Garfunkel.
Their recordings together sometimes feel muffled and echoey, as if he didn’t quite know how to mic a rock band. But Halee also made some smart choices, recommending, for instance, that Schon double his one-take solo for “Of a Lifetime,” which the guitarist nailed on his first try. “His jaw was on the floor,” Schon remembered in the liner notes for the Time3 box set.
The results blended jazz fusion with a couple of spacey Pink Floyd-ian excursions. Elsewhere, “Kohoutek” remained a fan favorite for many years, while “To Play Some Music” provided the sessions’ most accessible moment. “Topaz” had the clearest connection to Santana, though Rolie pushed back against the comparisons.
“Talk about Santana screws up the whole concept of everyone in this band,” Rolie said in Don’t Stop Believin’: The Untold Story of Journey. “A lot of people would come to see us and expect conga drums. The last thing I want to see for the rest of my life is conga drums!”
“In My Lonely Feeling / Conversations” displays the tight interlocking power of Schon’s work with the soon-to-depart Tickner. Things then end with a flurry on “Mystery Mountain,” which featured a lyrical assist from Valory’s poet wife Diane. (She later played a key role in “Wheel in the Sky,” Journey’s breakout song with Steve Perry.)
Listen to Journey’s ‘To Play Music’
Nevertheless, Journey flopped. Its best showing, in fact, was a paltry No. 72 in Japan.
They felt they’d played their way toward broader success, but Journey remained – at least for now – more of a live draw. Tickner quickly exited. Within a few years, Journey added Perry, and he helped forge an entirely new path toward multi-platinum superstardom.
“It was a jam band, based on a lot of soloing and a different kind of music, progressive rock,” Rolie told Best Classic Bands in 2019. “If it were a new band today, we’d be playing with the Dave Matthews Band and Phish. Then after three albums, we got hold of Steve Perry through our manager, and we started writing songs for singing – instead of songs where we’re going to jam and take this as high as we can.”
Lost was the kind of free-form experimentalism that led to Journey’s appearance on a pair of quite disparate CBS compilations from this era, one focusing on progressive music and another on rock.
“We worked well in both mediums and both genres,” Hebert said in Don’t Stop Believin’, “and would have loved to have made it as that progressive band that made the first three albums – but we didn’t. That was a very, very tough time.”