Journey: The Platinum Game Plan

How a group of San Francisco jammers changed its evil ways and learned to love the business of rock & roll

American rock group Journey, New York, 1978. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty

Even before our interview begins, while he's on hold with a call, Walter "Herbie" Herbert, manager of Journey, manages to get across these facts: •

  • Journey has spent more than $25,000 on framed gold and platinum albums to give to CBS sales people and radio stations, at $100 per commemorative record. • 
  • Along with satin Journey jackets (at $110 each), the outlay per person is over $200. • 
  • It's all worth it. While many rock acts struggle to get airplay and record-company support, Journey is one of the top acts on the charts and on the road because of the friends they've made at CBS and in the record-retailing and radio fields. • 
  • Journey has two platinum albums – Infinity and Evolution plus the hit single "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'." Their latest, Departure, is already Top 10, and the single "Any Way You Want It" should keep it there for a while. • 
  • Just to be sure, Journey is on tour through October, making stops in Germany, England, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland, in addition to a two-month sweep of the U.S. • 
  • And, to make more friends, a Journey staffer picks through the fan mail – production manager Pat "Bubba" Morrow dutifully drags out one of three huge bags for inspection – and selects about 30 a week for "special attention." A quadriplegic fan in one city, for example, will soon be getting two free tickets, backstage passes and Journey T-shirts when the band hits town. "It puts a face or a name in a city where otherwise there'd be nothing happening," Morrow explains.

While Herbert wraps up his call, I look at the special fan letter – accompanied by a color portrait of the writer, cut out in the shape of a heart – and take note of Journey's headquarters. Inside the ivy-fronted, three-floor house in the affluent Pacific Heights neighborhood, everything is white and beige, except the Oriental rugs. Herbert works in a den-like double-sized room upstairs, toward the back of the house. From his desk, he can see the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay, flanked by the tall trees of the Presidio army base and by the Palace of Fine Arts.

Herbert, 32, is curly-haired and stocky. He's wearing a football jersey and gold gym pants. Right now, nothing could please him more than to tell the story of Journey, which he does in a loud, almost piercing voice. In casual conversation, he sounds like a football coach in sudden-death overtime at the Super Bowl. Which happens to be pretty close to his self-image.

"I sometimes fantasize myself as a football coach," he yells. "Like John Madden with the Oakland Raiders. We're the Raiders of rock." And, later: "We train for platinum just like the Olympic team trains for gold medals."

Journey – lead singer Steve Perry, guitarist Neal Schon, keyboard player Gregg Rolie, bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith – are indeed a team. Seven years of finding the right personnel and honing their act have made them a seamless hard-rock unit. Schon says they could last another 10 years, easy, and Rolie adds, "Things have been running so smooth we're going to be pretty boring to write about." Maybe so. But then there's the coach.

It was Herbie Herbert, after all, who put them together in 1973 in the aftermath of the first edition of Santana. It was Herbert who groomed them through their switch from guitar-based space rock to tighter, mainstream love rock, with the emphasis on Perry's vocals. And it's Herbert who's kept them going, with a weird mix of Haight Street benevolence and Wall Street smarts.

Herbert always wanted to be the business manager of a rock band. In 1966, at age 18, he managed a San Francisco group, Frumious Bandersnatch (a name taken from Alice in Wonderland). F.B. Snatch, as it was often called, included Ross Valory on bass. The band was represented by Bill Graham's Millard talent agency, and when it broke up, Herbert went to work as production manager for another Graham-represented group, the just-emerging Santana. Gregg Rolie was the lead vocalist and keyboard player. Santana enjoyed sudden, spectacular success and, after their second album, Abraxas, added guitarist Neal Schon (then only 15). When Carlos turned to spiritualism and tried to change his group's music accordingly, Rolie dropped out (to start a restaurant in Seattle with his father), as did Schon, along with several other musicians – and Herbie Herbert.

But Herbert still wanted to manage a rock band. In 1973 he called Schon, Valory (who'd been playing with Steve Miller) and Aynsley Dunbar, the veteran drummer. To round out the band, Herbert called Rolie, who, as Schon puts it, was "getting rambunctious" – that is, itchy – in Seattle.

Journey became a local favorite, their jam-oriented, progressive rock right in line with the jazz-rock fusion music of the early Seventies, and they signed with Columbia Records. On their first record, Journey came off as an instrumentally powerful but vocally mediocre group. And that's where Herbert began to do his work.

"I had to de-program them in a lot of ways," he says. "Originally, the band was very self-indulgent. A lot of long solo excursions were created specifically to set up Neal Schon for his guitar statements. But who was he talking to? Our first album sold about 100,000 – to our cult, our peers: the musical community of America. And if we wanted to rise above that, we had to decide that we were willing to apply ourselves."

Herbert found three things wrong with Journey when they began. He recounts how he put it to them: "Number one: songwriting and composing. You guys are a bunch of zeros. "Number two: performing and entertaining onstage. Forget it! You don't wanna move a muscle. A few facial expressions and Neal in his little velvet suit. That was it.

"Number three: you can't sing. Neal couldn't say his name without his voice cracking. And when Gregg opened his mouth it was scary. Gregg Rolie, singer of such hits as 'Black Magic Woman,' at that late date had destroyed his voice."

The music did fit in with the times, though, Rolie says. But, he admits, "some of it was just blowing our chops and playing for ourselves." Steve Perry remembers Schon dismissing the first three albums as being the work of "just a diffused underground band with dull instrumental jams." Schon himself adds, "Jamming was the easiest thing we could do."

After the first album, says Rolie, "We decided we'd taken that kind of music as far as we could." They began to work on their singing. Coach Herbert sent them to singer-instructor Bianca Thornton, who mixed basics with sensitivity training, involving touching-feeling exercises.

Herbert heard improvement on the second album, Look into the Future. "And by the third album, Next, Neal Schon emerged as lead singer on two tracks, and the group was vocally prepared to support a new musician who would have equal proficiency with the voice to Neal as a guitarist or Aynsley as a drummer."

Journey had no trouble finding a singer. As far back as 1976, Steve Perry, a long-haired Portuguese tenor with the look of a baby-faced Wayne Newton, had been around asking if the band needed a singer. Journey didn't then, but after the Next LP, they decided to add one, hiring Robert Fleischman, who'd been recommended by Denver concert promoter and manager Barry Fey.

"They all locked in," says Herbert. But throughout Fleischman's stay with the band, Herbert had these "cosmic" thoughts about Steve Perry. After Fleischman was invited to join the band, Herbert suddenly remembered Perry. And when, in the middle of a tour, a CBS product manager began talking about the lead singer for a group the company had been interested in, "I felt, 'Steve Perry!'" Herbert says. That's who the CBS man was speaking of, and Herbert asked for a tape.

Perry, a 27-year-old from Hanford, in the San Joaquin Valley of California, always wanted to be a rock & roll singer. But until Journey, he sang with local club bands, and his greatest exposure came from radio commercials, in which he imitated, among others, Bobby Lamm of Chicago for an amusement-park spot. In 1978 Perry put together a group that was on the verge of signing with CBS when the bass player was killed in an auto accident. It was then that CBS hooked up Perry and Journey.

"We were okay," says Herbert. "We had Fleischman out there. But I was scared by what I'd heard on the tape." Herbert recalls, in detail, his first listen in his office. "It came on," Herbert recounts. "The first words: 'If you need me, call me.' Not even 15 seconds and I'm on Mars! It was a combination of Marty Balin and Jesse Colin Young. It was a flawless voice. I went, 'We got a heavy job to do. We gotta get rid of Fleischman, and then we gotta get this guy.'"

Fleischman, says Herbert, helped him out. At a concert, "he gave me some static about not getting enough of the spotlight, and I said, 'You're gone, adios.'"

With Perry, Journey finally began living up to their optimistic album titles. On Infinity, Perry's soaring voice, combined with more carefully arranged tunes and production by Roy Thomas Baker, gave Journey a new sound – and two songs that gained airplay: "Wheel in the Sky" visited the national charts for eight weeks and "Lights" was a Bay Area favorite ("Wheel," ironically, was co-written by Fleischman). With the airplay, extensive marketing involving billboards, posters and radio ads, and a staggering world tour – 172 cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe – Infinity reached platinum status. The next album, Evolution, broke out immediately, with "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" taking Journey into the Top 20 for the first time and into large arenas as headliners.

With success, of course, has come criticism. Journey is accused of being bland, formulaic, wimpy and (naturally) commercial. They are compared to Toto and Foreigner. Their music, one critic says, "is for people who take Quaaludes." Some of the knocks even come from within the organization. One of the band's most valuable aides nods with empathy when I pass on a Journey concert two nights after I'd seen them at the Palace of Fine Arts. "Their music's not my cup of tea, either," he says. At CBS Records, one executive fishes for a compliment, and finally manages: "Well, 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."

No argument there. At a time when touring rock bands have been forced to lower their expectations, Journey is setting attendance and gross-receipts records. In concert, they get rabid responses from teenagers. During "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," the audience at the Palace – which had paid $20 a ticket to attend this show, a benefit on behalf of the Palace's maintenance fund – stood up and did the inane waving-the-arms-over-the-head bit while the band crooned "na na na na-na" ad nauseum.

Steve Perry's energy is boundless. His moves – the march steps, the spins, the constant imploring the kids to clap and sing along – are spontaneous, he claims. "It's not a showbiz thing. I'm a very hyper person to start with. Out there, I'm reacting to the band playing."

Perry is an ingenuous sort. Girlfriend at his side, he breezes into Pat Morrow's house in upper Haight-Ashbury for the interview and begins by announcing, "Sorry to be late. The limo was an hour late!" (Morrow quickly explains that Perry needed a limousine because he had difficulty finding the house.)

Perry gets flustered at criticism of the band. "'Formula rock,'" he says, "I don't even know what it means. I mean, if something's successful, does that mean it's no good anymore, and it's not to be admired?"

Neal Schon, with a few more years' perspective, adds, "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."

"When you're born," Perry reasons, "you're in the business of life. You get a number from the government; they've got prints on you. You gotta pay taxes and you gotta eat. And we enjoy eating as much as anybody. We're not a commercial product. We're into making albums, and we turn our money back into things we can use – like trucks."

Journey, like more and more money-smart groups, has incorporated itself; its members (and Herbert) are equal partners and shareholders. The corporate name is Nightmare Inc. ("That was our impression of the business at the time," says Herbert), and the corporation, formed in 1973, lends out Journey's services to, among others, CBS Records.

From the start, Herbert meant to take care of business, and he got no argument from the band. "Everybody had bad experiences of exploitation," he says. Herbert vowed "to run this business on traditional standards."

The bulk of earnings was plowed back into stage, sound and lighting equipment, and, as Perry says, the band purchased its own trucks. Which gives Journey not only financial savings but control over their shows as well. That control extends to their relationship with CBS Records. Nightmare Inc. not only provides CBS with finished records but with artwork and merchandising material as well.

So Journey has the freedom and autonomy of a custom label, without most of the headaches. And when Journey thinks CBS isn't doing enough for them, they take matters into their own hands. Which prompted their relationship with Anheuser-Busch and its beer, Budweiser.

"See, the industry is so geared to new releases," Herbert explains. "We'd be touring eight months of the year, but the money and promotional support from CBS would stop after three months. We realized they couldn't justify a year-round campaign for us, so we had to go get help." He traded Journey endorsements for musical equipment.

"But I needed a marketing campaign that would make sure the band's name and likeness didn't leave the public eye. We'd be making an album and, wow, it was like we'd disappeared off the face of the earth." So, in exchange for posing for Budweiser ads and doing some radio jingles, Journey got free Bud at every gig and, more important, some 500,000 copies of a program-poster, which were handed out to every Journey ticket buyer. That is, until the Journey-Bud link began to receive press attention [RS 285]. About the same time one story connected Journey to teenage alcoholism, Herbert cut off the relationship. "We got our hands slapped," he says ruefully, sounding every bit the defeated coach.

Still, the band manages to eke out a living. Gross revenues for Nightmare Inc. for 1979 have been estimated as high as $4 million.

"We do very, very well," says Herbert. "But every single person in our organization does very, very well. There are a lot of staff members here making $50,000." Herbert talks of profit-sharing and incentive programs for Nightmare's 30 employees. "And that's how it should be. It's just a lot of money I'd be giving the government otherwise.

"It's team play," he enthuses. "And I keep them in training, so that they're better musicians – but also better role models for kids." Not to mention better businessmen.

Herbert hasn't had to push hard. 'These guys elected to be more total human beings," he says. "Everybody'd spent time being a resident asshole. Neal, Gregg and Aynsley – they all felt like they'd been in this business and had been successful. Now, what's it like to be on stage and feel good?"

Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon, survivors of the Santana wars, feel okay. And older. "The drugs and stuff," says Rolie, "were just a product of the times. The whole industry has become much more mature." Schon himself has not only grown up; he's assumed the role of the band's ambassador to the record industry. He spent a recent vacation in Australia and Japan meeting CBS people and making radio and TV appearances. "I had a great time and it's gonna help us a lot," Schon says. "We want to be internationally known. We want to grab Europe, Japan and Canada. And I'm going for everything I can go for to help the band, and myself."

On the surface, quite a change for the flashy whiz-kid guitarist. But, as he explains, "People thought I was flashy, 'cause with Santana I wasn't the main guitarist, and I had only eight bars to do my stuff in." Now, with Journey, "We're trying to sound like a band, a tight unit." Rolie adds: "We stick to what the record is. I think the people want that."

Whatever the people want, Journey's music got too tight for Aynsley Dunbar. "They started tying down things and complaining about my drum rolls," says Dunbar, now with Jefferson Starship (and winner of the Best Drummer balloting at the Bay Area Music Awards). "They kept getting more formulated, note-for-note, every goddamn night. Everybody says, 'My god, that's a tight band.' It's tight because it doesn't do anything." "The problem with Aynsley," says Herbert, "was that he was anything but a team player. He was doing anything and everything to look great. And he did." Dunbar was dismissed in late 1978 and replaced with Steve Smith, who'd met Journey on the road while drumming with Montrose.

To bassist Ross Valory, Dunbar is the more accomplished drummer, but "Steve has a better concept of the rock music we're playing."

But that too is changing. Schon talks about wanting to stretch out. "It's time," he says. "We can slowly take our audience with us to about where we were before. We're in the league of Pink Floyd now, so we can do that." On the new album, there's evidence of Journey flowering again. But they promise not to go too fast. As better businessman Gregg Rolie puts it, "You can't jump too far ahead of your audience or you'll lose them."

And the chances of such a miscalculation are slim with Herbert around. Which he is, all the time. At the Palace of Fine Arts, the show was about to begin. While a taped overture blasted out and the crowd stirred, Journey was in the wings, jumping around in a loose huddle. On cue, everybody but Perry dashed onstage. Herbert held the singer back until the right second. Then he pushed him out, just like a prize quarterback, into the Super Bowl, overtime, sudden death.