Sunday, June 14, 2009

Escape To Rich Mountain

The masters of the universe own the Number 1 slot on my 100 favorite Cd countdown.

We're finally here, at the end of my 100 Favorite Cds list! It only took a couple of years to get here. So this is it, the album that I've played more often in my life than any other album. I've worn out multiple cassettes and vinyl record copies of this album (well, not worn out vinyl I lent them to people and would get them back warped or dusty) because it's awesomeness has to be experienced more than once. I bought this tape after liking what I was hearing from this group's entries into the Top 100 songs countdown of 1982 with Casey Kasem aka the radio broadcast that changed my life. Plus, they were a local Bay Area band. It couldn't get better than that.

Number 1: Journey - Escape (1981)

1. Don't Stop Believin'

I read somewhere this was the cornerstone of the Journey songbook, truer words have not been spoken. Like Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger", Journey's anthem struck a chord with everyone who wanted to feel hope was alive in '82. The magnificent song structure is the stuff people like me have blogs for, the momentous beginning, the Neal Schon guitar ramp up, the lurching Steve Smith drums and that killer chorus of Jon Cain and Steve Perry's soaring above a heroic Neal Schon guitar line. Many high school classes of '81 and '82 used this song as their graduation theme and a snippet of this was featured heavily in their video game advertisement.

That's right, because Journey was the first band to have their own video game which I proudly owned and played on the Atari. The game itself kinda sucked and was confusing as hell. Still, hearing Atari-ized versions of Journey playing while you move the block shaped dude around flying barriers and fans was...well, it was. That advertisement is burned in my memory though. "The concert's over and now you must help the members of Journey past screaming fans and reporters" or something like that. Oh, it was promoters. It's an awesome awesome commercial.

As time passed I thought the song would just be the highlight of their career among Journey fans, but in recent times "Don't Stop Believin" has taken a second life. It's become a cultural staple as it's been adopted by sports teams and television shows for demonstrating the power of the human spirit (yes I over exaggerate, but it's frickin' Journey!). Once it was used in the last scene of the HBO series The Sopranos, it's exalted place in modern pop culture was sealed.

As a huge fan, I was pissed at the end of 1982 when music critic Joel Selvin included this song in his list of Top 10 worst songs of the year. He more or less said "Don't Stop Believin" was an excuse to show off Steve Perry's vocal range. In my angry retort 27 years later I would like to say - America is a free country and you Joel Selvin are welcome to express it under the freedoms we cherish as Americans. There, after all these years I finally said it. Take that Joel Selvin!

For me, the song is one of my all time favorite tunes. During the Steve Augeri era, the band had a different ending where it sped up like a locomotive that I thought was really cool. It is a song that does exactly what it says it's gonna do, inspire to keep on keepin' the nnniiiiigggghhhhhttttttt!

And most importantly, when my later-to-be-wife wrote some of the song lyrics from "Believin" on a piece of paper at the place we worked at it drew my attention. Pretty lookin' and good taste in music. A win - win!

A killer song about being "in the heat with a blue jean girl", you feel the rush of infatuation with it's choppy beginning to it's gliding end. The Time3 box set liner notes said this song started with Neal Schon playing some guitar on a tape and labeling it "Stoned In Love". I like to know a bunch of useless trivia about music, yet this piece has permanently placed an image in my mind when I think about this song.

Now the guy was probably just as likely to smoke pot with or without the afro I would assume, so I guess I'm profiling Neal Schon because of how he looked (damn hippie!). He didn't even look like this during the making of Escape. Oh well, I don't care. Tell it to the judge, Schon!

Anyway, Schon's chopped up guitar riff drove the main part of this song which kicks into a meaty bass line for Ross Valory. It's cool how the rhythm section punctuates the lyrics, it's Stone in luh-u-wuv duh duh, duhhhh! I always liked how this song broke down and then built back up to the smooth ending. Live, sometimes "Stone in Love" would segue into "Keep on Runnin". One of my all time fave double shots.

3. Who's Cryin' Now

The addition of new band member keyboardist Jonathan Cain greatly deepened the songwriting. With "Who's Cryin' Now" the band came up with their first clear cut shot at Adult Contemporary. Steve Perry tears it up given the slower pace needed for him to really emote. On the Greatest Hits Live CD when he hits the bridge Perry goes into this delicately modulated vocal (...when the heartache is oouuvver) that's 10 times better than the already outstanding recorded version. It's hard to believe now, at the time rock bands felt it was risky to show the sensitive side of their bic lighter hearts. The band nails this with it's dusky portrayal of romance on the rocks. And Neal Schon has said he's received compliments for his sad, sad guitar solo at the end (at least that's what I remember him saying in interviews after deliberately playing a similar solo for "Signs of Life" from the Arrival album).

4. Keep On Runnin'

Driving power rock from the guys who do it best, like a motorcycle flying down the street "Keep On Runnin" revs up and takes off. In some ways a sort of cousin to "Any Way You Want It", "Runnin" is about a fast beat and fired up anthemic chorus. For years I didn't bother to listen to the actual words (something about bustin' free from blue collar work, even now I'm not sure) because it didn't matter. Once that racing groove matched up with that flying chorus, I was hooked. In concert Jon Cain would play second guitar on this, freeing Schon up to fire off even more ridiculously hot solos.

5. Still They Ride

Jesse, how times have changed for you braw (sob). Journey goes back to working the sad groove with this sentimental, uh, journey about a guy named Jesse has outgrown his town. Do you know how bored you have to be to notice traffic lights keeping time? I actually had a friend named Jesse at the time, not that the song really related to him at all it was just one of those things where you hear a name in a song and think "Hey, I know someone with that exact NAME!". I don't think I ever mentioned this to him, since he was really sensitive about that whole Rick Springfield "Jessie's Girl" thing he got a lot of crap for (his nickname for Springfield was Dick Springfield for cursing him with that song).

Anywho, I liked how there was a lot of space in the song. Steve Perry delivers his best vocal, filled with nuance and longing. And the part where Schon goes from a stately solo to near shredding yet retaining the lonely dude in a car mood is magic. The 45 had this great cover of a ZZ Top kind of car driving on the road-because it's so lonely and sad on the road.

6. Escape

Journey is a band that likes to have a song with the album title (not all of them have it, but many do). "Escape" was the one with the cool little proggy bit. I can't help but get pumped up when I hear this jam as Steve Perry details fighting against...something vague...but it's holding him down man! You can't hold Steve Perry down!! He will escape you!!!

This song seemed to go in different sections that were pieced together giving it a panoramic effect. Jon Cain really shines in this one, his epic gliss at the intro and the synth stabs to enhance the rhythm break is genius. Seems like a good time to give credit to Cain for streamlining the band's sound (I don't think it was a coincidence that they got slicker after his arrival). While you can't hold Steve Perry down, my strongest memory of this song is my wife and I getting to high five Arnel Pineda during this ditty at a concert last year. Uh oh, I put the words Perry and Pineda in the same sentence. Let the haters begin!

Oh, and my second strongest memory was when my wife bought me a bootleg of the Houston '81 concert in the 90's before it was available for retail. The thrill of seeing the Escape tour in some form during the Clinton years was one of the best gifts I've had. Thanks Bunny!

7. Lay It Down

My least favorite song on the album, it took me a few years to get into it. A juke joint mid tempo rocker, it has that REO Speedwagon quality of packing a BIG rock performance into a slower burning song to create this effect of tightly controlled frenzy. Because it's my least favorite, it's the one I have the least to say about. So without much to say about "Lay It Down", let's take a moment to mention I thought at the time that Steve Perry played a big part of the muscle T shirt fad that happened at that time. In particular, the pink muscle T with black tiger stripes. After an exhaustive search of the internet, it would appear that I was wrong. No pictures seem to exist of this shirt which I thought I remembered so well. Guess I'm just getting old. I'm starting to remember crap that never actually happened. Maybe the shirt below was the one I was thinking of? I will say this though, I have my IPOD on shuffle and out of over 8000 songs this one popped on while I was typing this post. It's the spirit of Steve Perry at work (except of course, he's not dead. It's just a joke folks). Hey, and it does rock. La-la-la-la Lay It!

8. Dead Or Alive

On the other hand, "Dead Or Alive" is smokin'. Like a train coming off the tracks, this song starts fast and then gets faster and wilder as it goes. Really nice to have a total change of pace, this song about a hit man's life and demise is miles away from the rest of the album's romantic subject matter. My favorite part is when they mimic gunfire with blasts of rhythm after Perry sings "A heartless woman's thirty eigh-e-eigh-e-eigh-e-eight". Maybe the funnest song the Bay Area band ever did considering their usual repertoire. The only time I got to hear this live was when it was performed with Jeff Scott Soto on lead vox during the Def Leppard co-headlining tour. It sounded great. a real highlight to the show. Speaking of which, the clip linked above is from the band's legendary Day On The Green appearance at the height of their fame. I still remember the huge picture spread of the concert stage in the next morning's San Francisco newspaper (that picture is included in their box set booklet, so I know I didn't hallucinate that one!). When I say legendary I should probably say local legend, I missed both of the band's headlining Day On The Green concerts at the Oakland Coliseum :(

9. Mother, Father

At the time I first had the tape, this was my favorite song because it was very dramatic. Written with help on the music from Neal Schon's dad, "Mother, Father" had an almost movie-of-the-week feel wrapped in its melodrama of broken homes. It's sweeping orchestral quality brings class and power to the sad tale. On the live performance version included in their Houston live 1981 CD & DVD, it's a show stopper and when Perry hits that high note wail at the end "Mother Father" becomes almost operatic.

10. Open Arms

Though technically not the first of it's kind, "Open Arms" is sometimes credited as the beginning of the power ballad. Through all those ballads that would follow from other bands, none could match the intimacy of the original thanks to Jon Cain's great songwriting and Steve Perry's sincere delivery. Journey's biggest hit on the Billboard charts (it reached #2), it's success pushed Escape over the top and elevated the band to the status they've been at since. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if John Waite had not thought the song was so "syrupy" when Cain pitched it to him in The Babys. It's not like Waite had a problem singing ballads for his supper later in his career.

"Open Arms" has become a mini American Idol for Journey's lead singers as all of them must pass the litmus test of singing this song. There are a couple of comparisons on You Tube and it's fun to listen to the contrasting styles of the different vocalists though they are all working the same vocal style with the same arrangement. This is not a comprehensive comparison because I'm pretty sure Deen Castronovo and maybe Jeff Scott Soto sang "Open Arms" as well and are not included, but it's still fun. To summarize what the AI judges would say, Randy would say "You worked it out Steve Perry, you did your thing", Kara would say "whatever Randy just said but talking longer", Paula would say "I appreciate your heart, your spirit" and Simon would accuse them all of being karaoke singers even to Steve Perry himself. He's just a cheeky bastard that way.

I like all of the versions except for Deen Castronovo, not that he doesn't sound good (of all the singers to follow Perry, he sounds the closest to me to the original) but it just throws me off when the drummer starts singing in this band. For me, nothing tops seeing Perry live during the Raised on Radio tour. It just means more in the original text

Bonus Track. La Raza Del Sol

I call it a bonus track even though I don't think it was ever included with any printing of Escape. This song I found on the B side of the 45 to one of the singles back in the day. It's an interesting trip back to the band's Santana origins with a slightly Latin groove and of course, some lyrics in Spanish. Once it was included in the Time3 box set it became more available, up to then it was a rarity that many people didn't know about. I can see why it was left off in that it doesn't fit in well with the other songs on the record, but as an extra track tacked on the end it's awesome. When I would record the album to tape, I would throw this on the end for an extra kick.

Career wise, Escape is the album that changed Journey's successful rock band to mega stars. It's a peak the band would never reach again (though Frontiers got close). I followed everything this lineup of the band did as closely as I could with a Beatlemania like fandom back in the day. This is the most perfect record I've ever heard, obviously, and it's my favorite album of all time.


Kels 40 something chapter said...

Dear Mr. Mike, You summed it all up in a nut shell didn't you....This is my all time favorite album also!
Thanks for sharing, Perry on!

Anonymous said...

If you would happened to be interested in more Spanish songs lyrics in Spainrocks you can find a good number of Spanish lyrics. Hope you like it.

Jeannie said...

I remember when you mentioned it to me- that you saw my "scribbling". We were sitting at the table in the back on our break, just you and me. It was a hot day and we sat fairly close under the umbrella because there was just a little bit of shade in that afternoon sun. When you mentioned how you saw I knew Journey, I laughed. It was just one more thing that we had in common. I'm sure I had mentioned that I became a fan because of my brother (what a big thanks I owe to him!!!) and I remember we both sat there spouting random Journey lyrics. Knowing you like I do now, it's no wonder you became smitten with me (LOL!)...your heart had no chance against a gal that can match you on Journey lyrics.

These many years later, Journey is my sentimental band- the band that brought us together. Every song I hear, I am reminded of how much I love you. But your review of Escape is a perfect reminder of why I liked Journey in the first place- they are just an incredibly awesome band. Ha ha...I can match you on lyrics, but not on your review.

Thanks honey! :D

"Should have told you then I knew
Should have told you right from the start
But the words didn't come out right
So I'll tell you straight from my heart.

You meant more to me than I let you see
You held on somehow
All your tenderness
And your sweet caress
I miss you now."

Mr. Mike said...

Hi Kels! Thanks! It's great to know there are other people who like this album as much as I do.

Anonymous spam blog post, you have NO idea how much I hunger for Spanish song lyrics. I only know the Chicago song my wife taught me, "Sabado, en el parque..."

Hi Bunny! I love you too and love your song quote. I'm going to go kiss you now.

Frontrow said...

Mr. Mike,

Posted something earlier, but looks like I forgot to submit it. Anyway, excellent choice for #1! Couldn't have been anything else. I had to go to Stockton today and had a chance to load up my phone with Journey songs! It was a cool ride.

I remember first listening to this LP thinking, wow! every song is good.

Congrats on getting through the countdown.

Mr. Mike said...

Thanks Frontrow! That sounds like a great trip, Journey makes excellent car driving music. One summer I made a couple of Journey tapes and I stuck "Suzanne" on each one, just because I really liked that song. Good times.