Journey’s Jonathan Cain on the impact of radio, unexpected lineup changes, and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ being named the biggest song of all time

Posted on:

< < Back to

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (WOUB) – Journey is one of the most successful bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

They’ve released 14 studio albums, played the biggest venues imaginable, and can lay claim to many of the most iconic songs of the ’80s, and rock as a whole. From the pumping Anyway You Want It and Separate Ways (Worlds Apart), to their signature power ballads like Faithfully and Open Arms, the band has reached an echelon of musical and pop cultural influence very few artists ever do.

This objectively solidified in January when Forbes reported that the RIAA certified Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ as 18 times Platinum – making it the most successful song ever in America. It shares this title with with Post Malone and Swae Lee’s Sunflower, which reached this same milestone last May.

Journey is celebrating their 50th anniversary with their Freedom Tour 2024 with special guest Toto.

WOUB’s Nicholas Kobe spoke to Jonathan Cain, Journey’s keyboardist since 1980 and co-writer of a majority of the band’s hits, before Journey plays the Charleston Coliseum (200 Civic Center Drive) Saturday. Find a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. 

A promotional image for Journey's Freedom 2024 tour.

Nicholas Kobe: If you had to describe Journey in one sentence, what would you say?

Jonathan Cain: I would say it’s a blend of all of the American styles of popular music, blues, rock, soul, and pop. So I would say it’s a sort of a gumbo of American music. We’re sort of a hybrid of the radio of the ’60s. It’s funny because the ’60s stations played all of that on one station. So you had these stations like in Chicago, WCFL, WLS, where you would hear soul, rock, and blues all in one hour. When I joined Journey, Steve Perry and I talked about how we weren’t just waned on one sound, we were pulled in the directions of Motown, The Who, Deep Purple, Al Green, Tina Turner and so many great vocal bands of the time.

We had The Lettermen and The Vogues. I don’t think we were country music fans as much, but then we heard Johnny Cash singing Ring of Fire and Rosemary Clooney, all of those wonderful songs she recorded. So growing up with that sort of hit parade and then going into the ’60s, we were torn between, well, ‘are we rock, or soul, or what are we?’ I think we dabbled, more so than The Beatles, but they were actually dabbling too.

You could go back to Meet the Beatles and you could say, ‘Well wait a minute, there’s Little Richard, there’s Chuck Berry, there’s The Lettermen.’ They weren’t confined to one sound of one song. A lot of modern music sounds like the same song reimagined over and over again. For us, I think we were just raised with a different musical appetite. So a song like Open Arms, is very pop sounding, but then very soulfully sung by Steve Perry and played by an amazing band. We were sort of like that. We broke the mold.

The Rolling Stone hated us because we were all over the map and we didn’t have that one album where we had just played the same stuff over and over again. It was maybe to our advantage to have different styles because we had different genres of radio to appeal to. If you think about it, we were lucky to have Who’s Crying Now come out and be on adult contemporary radio, Stone In Love and Wheel in the Sky on rock radio, and then you have Lights and Don’t Stop Believin’ ending up across-the-board.

We were able to bridge the gap and make Journey sort of a household name with an amazing management and record company. Columbia, which became Sony, was instrumental along with all the program directors who appreciated Journey even though the critics hated us all the time.

I mean, you kind of hit on this, but do you think the way that you guys came about and then got big, do you think that’s inseparable from the age of radio

Cain: Yeah, it is. Definitely. Radio really was such an influencer. Not so much now anymore. All these streaming services have sort of replaced it, although we still have powerhouse stations that matter and that serve the community so well and are still listened to and loved. I think that we just weren’t afraid to do things and release a song like Open Arms and Separate Ways – and it’s all Journey. When we play concerts, the people get a break. They get a break from the same sounds. So it’s a potpourri of styles and sounds, and textures. Steve Perry was such a nimble singer being influenced by Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and then Steve Marriott [Small Faces, Humble Pie] at the same time.

You had to love that, too. So he got it, but I think his wheelhouse was R&B. We made Raised on Radio. It was funny as a tribute to the R&B we listened to growing up. That was our plan, do just a whole different kind of album, and people either loved it or hated it because we didn’t have enough of what they considered to be the sound of Journey. So we were restricting it a little bit with that record. When I listened to it, it was quite an accomplishment if a cool album is different. Similar to what The Beatles did. They kind of dabbled in everything, they went this way and that way and ended up with Let It Be.

But then there was the White Album and Helter Skelter. Then you have Elton John, my goodness, and his diverse catalog. He went all around with Bernie [Taupin] just doing every musical style you could think of, starting with Your Song and then he did Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting. Two extremes, and I got to see that. He was my first big influence in the ’70s when I went to see him live. I was so encouraged by his acceptance and that he was accepted for those styles and exploring really cool lyrics and going with it. Then you had that piano in there.

When I came to Journey, the piano was kind of dead. There wasn’t anybody playing the piano, and that was the signature I brought into the band. Gregg Rolie had Feeling That Way and Maybe Just The Same Way,  which had a piano in it, but, I felt like we needed to bring that sound to the forefront, and we did. Perry loved the way I played and I loved the way he sang, and it was a mutual admiration society between all of us. We were just happy to be the band we were. Neil [Schon], of course, had all of his amazing ideas and I was able to be the glue for him and Steve at the time and the classical prog rock that he wanted to do.

I found a niche and helped Steve carve some melodies into some of it, and we did some amazing stuff together. When I see some of The Beatles’ studio movies, I watched one the other night, it reminded me of us in so many ways. We were prepared to try anything and had the songs ready. We were well rehearsed. I guess The Beatles were probably not as rehearsed as we were, they kind of made stuff up on the fly, which is great because they had George Martin and the genius of his production. You take him away – I don’t know what we would’ve had. You know what I mean? You forget how great he was with those guys. It just all worked and there’s that little tension there, competition, maybe. I think for us it was just we wanted to write great songs and get on the radio as much as possible. That was what Steve Perry told me he wanted to do when I joined: ‘I want to be on the radio as much as I can, so help me with that,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I get the same juice. I love being on the radio too.’ We wrote a couple of great songs that still stand the test of time after 40-some years.

Going right off of that, one of the big things that came out recently is Don’t Stop Believin’ being named the biggest song of all time according to the RIAA. What was your reaction to finding that out? Would you point to anything specific about the song that made it hit that goal?

Cain: I think it’s a generational song. I think there’s always going to be small-town girls and city boys wanting something more. It’s a song of permission to dream. South Detroit isn’t a real city, it’s an imaginary city of possibility. You’re not stuck where you are. That’s the message of that song. If you don’t like your situation, then move on. That’s kind of what I did and what Steve did. We both moved on from our hometowns and went to this city to wing it, and we weren’t going to take no for an answer. He left Hanford and went to LA and then of course ended up in Journey. I was in Chicago and I knew that I had to get on that midnight train head to LA and the rest all worked out. It was interesting that at the time, I think it only went to number nine when it was released.

It wasn’t a number one song, and yet it still hung around and then sort of got rediscovered when Rock of Ages pumped it up. Adam Sandler had it in The Wedding Singer as an instrumental. Then of course you had The Sopranos, David Chase. They thought he was crazy for that last scene. We knew about it a year before the thing came out, and yet his producers were like, ‘are you sure it’s going to be Journey?’ And he said, ‘it’s Journey or bust.’ It was kind of just a song that built and built and built.

I think it got us in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – quite by accident. Bruce Springsteen and Elton John were singing it at some kind of gala or something. The story that I heard was that Springsteen had just learned it and was singing it on stage with Elton and Lady Gaga. All of a sudden Bruce leaned over and said, ‘this is a pretty good song, is this Journey?’ Elton was like, ‘Yeah Bruce, it might be Journey.’ They were resistant to put us in the Hall, then we received the 500 million download, RIAA certificate. Then the billion that came with Spotify. I think that many plays warrant another look at Journey. They went in and they pitched it to the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and we were considered finally, and thanks to Bruce for having fun with our tune and recognizing something that maybe everybody else was overlooking. So we’re grateful to have been nominated and to have been the number one chosen band. We went into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame number one, which is quite an honor. I’ll always remember that night, it was a great night.

“I think there’s always going to be small-town girls and city boys wanting something more. It’s a song of permission, to dream. “South Detroit” isn’t a real city, it’s an imaginary city of possibility. You’re not stuck where you are. That’s the message of that song. If you don’t like your situation, then move on.” – Jonathan Cain on Don’t Stop Believin’

I think you’re absolutely right about the impact of that song in particular. “South Detroit” can be anywhere, the “Midnight Train” goes anywhere. It’s interesting how many different times that song has re-entered the popular culture.

Cain: Right? It’s funny, when I went to finish the lyric with Steve because he had scattered the verse, I came in with a chorus and the melody, it was Neil’s guitar part that came up with a train idea. In between verses he played this staccato thing, and I looked at Steve and I said, ‘it sounds like a train!’ So I go, ‘oh, midnight train to Georgia, midnight train going…. anywhere,” and he goes, ‘Yeah! Like that!’

I had witnessed the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll in LA in the ’70s on Sunset Boulevard where Elton had come with Honky Château and played at the Troubadour. David Geffen, Casablanca Records, setting up shop right there on Sunset. You had Lago and the Rainbow Barn Grill. My brother and I lived in Laurel Canyon for eight years, and when we were not working, we would go down on a Friday or Saturday night and witness the menagerie of hustlers and just street people walking around trying to make deals with each other, just hustling and cruising.

I said, ‘it was kind of like a little circus.’ There was something happening every weekend. Somebody was beating somebody up at The Rainbow. There were so many fist fights at The Rainbow, and famous people were in ’em. I guess drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. That’s kind of what was going on. And I said, ‘what if we had this as a backdrop for a song?’ And he [Steve] said ‘I love that idea.’

He left Hanford, CA and the turkey farm he was working on to become lead singer of Journey. He wasn’t there, but it was fresh in my mind. That’s why it was strangers waiting up and down the boulevard and we just tried to paint this sort of Americana picture of the a hotspot of rock ‘n’ roll, which it was probably never before or never again. You had Van Halen playing Whiskey a Go-Go, Aerosmith at the Starwood, and David Bowie at the Hollywood Bowl with his Diamond Dogs thing. It was quite a time.

He and I sort of crafted this movie and that’s where the idea of the movie never ends. That goes on and on and on. That’s just an eternal flow of the youth and the kids that are making music today, and they’re dreaming the same dreams. My kids are dreaming about getting into the music business. I’ve got twins, a daughter and a son, they’re in a little duo and they’re working hard on their music. And it reminds me a lot of me trying to break through as this singer-songwriter in LA.

As that movie of you and Journey has gone on and on and evolved over the years, is there anything that kind of shocked you about the direction that Journey has gone?

Cain: I think where the band’s at now is where it belongs. We did experiment and evolve. I mean, I think the biggest shock for me was Steve Perry retiring. I had to scratch my head when that happened, when he just said, ‘I’ve had enough. I’m burned out. I don’t want to go on.’ I would’ve never bet in a million years that I would hear that from him. That was the biggest shocker. He was willing to just let it all go. After a couple of Platinum Records and a successful tour. He had the most fun I think he’s ever had on the Raised on Radio tour in ‘87. That was the last tour. He really had fun. I mean, it’s the first time he didn’t have, Sherrie [Sawfford, Steve Perry’s Ex-Girlfriend] telling him he was lousy and all the stuff she did.

She was a piece of work, but he was free. I remember he sang Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. I wish I had a movie of that. And he did Stand By Me. He was having fun. So Neil and I were thinking, ‘well, even though we had lost Smith and Ross, let’s make another record, and let’s get down the road.’ But there was this physical thing that came upon him. He had some health issues and they got serious and were holding him back. Then he went and did a solo thing and in ‘95 came back. That was another surprise for me. I was like ‘now he wants to go do some dates after eight years?’ Neil and I had done Bad English, so he was kind of the surprise in Journey. That he was just going to walk away from something he helped build.

Something that he had so much influence on, something where he was an architect, and would just go, ‘well, I’m out’? It just seemed like he was fragile and the fame seemed to consume him. He didn’t like being hounded by fans. I think he really enjoyed that last tour, and that’s why I say that was a shock after such a great run. Then Neil and I looking at each other going, ‘now what?’ So we did other things and then of course, Trial By Fire comes out and, he’s not the same Steve Perry. We knew. We could tell he was a few steps slower there and was struggling vocally with some things. I thought, ‘well, he’ll come back, he’ll come around.’ He had kind of quit for a long time, not doing anything. A couple of years went by, but yet he sang some great things on that record. There were just great songs. When You Love A Woman got nominated for an American Music Award. I think we got nominated for a Grammy, or something like that.

Yet he wasn’t willing to perform anymore. That’s when he just shut it down. So, he kind of did it twice, once in ‘87 and he did it in ‘96. We’re like, ‘well now we got another Platinum record and you’re telling us you don’t want to go out again? You must be kidding.’ So Neil and I are left scratching our heads again, and time went by and we finally figured it out. He came to my door one time and said, ‘I want to get my band back,’ and I said, ‘well, we need a singer,’ So we called him and asked him, ‘come back, let’s record something. We know you’re kind of physically, not all a 100 percent, but we can still write and record and put something out in the meantime.’ He wasn’t having any of it.

That’s when we just decided to move on. Then the big question was, could we, Neil and I create Journey without him? And it turned out we did alright. We did pretty darn good. I got to say, when Arrival came out, I was quite happy with it. It sounded like Journey to me, yet it didn’t get the support it needed. I’d like to remix that record someday, just go back and make it right. It just doesn’t sound like it should. Maybe they’ll give me a budget for that.

Speaking of that, as you guys have continued on, you released an album in 2022, Freedom. Now that it’s been over a year since that record came out, how are you feeling about that one?

Cain: I was disappointed with the way the record company handled it and promoted it. I don’t think they got it to where it was supposed to be. We had some pretty cool songs on it. I think it was a very cohesive album for a cut-and-paste record made during COVID. Could have been different if we had all been in a studio together, but for what it was, it was a pretty cool record. I have to say it was too long. I don’t think we needed all those songs, but it had moments. I had fun creating with Neil and Randy and all that stuff. But we’re in a lawsuit with Smith and Ross and there’s turmoil in the background, so that was kind of a weird time. But an album is a snapshot of where you are in time and that’s kind of where we were during the time. It is what it is. Again, not a bad record.

Absolutely. I’m calling you guys before one of your shows, out on tour with Toto and Def Leppard. What’s it like touring and seeing how not only you guys have changed over the years, but the way these guys who are your contemporaries have changed over the years?

Cain: I think we’re aging gracefully. I think our music holds up and the fans embrace it the same way. Everybody has stayed fairly healthy, and everybody looks great. It just shows the resilience and the professional excellence over the years. That’s the commitment that each guy makes to his craft and I think we’re all committed to giving the fans the best show and it shows.

Going off that, what motivates you, as a creative to keep touring and even making new music with Journey?

Cain: Yeah, I just wrote a new song.

Oh, really?

Cain: It’s a new song I wrote for the fans. We’re hoping to get a single out and it’s very cool, kind of modern for us. Hopefully, we can get that off the ground. But it’s the fans, it’s the love affair with them and their commitment to us. You can’t help but be committed back to them. You see we’re packing ’em to the rafters in Biloxi and Lubbock, Texas, in these little places. It’s like, ‘are you kidding?’ Yep. Sold out and there it is. ‘So why do you keep doing it?’ ‘Because you’re still relevant and they’re still loving you.’ And when you can’t sell it out, that’s when you know it’s time to hang it up. So as long as there’s a demand, it belongs.