‘Separate Ways,’ separate ways, and South Detroit: Neal Schon talks Journey’s journey

Published On July 1, 2024 » By »
Neal Schon

Neal Schon of Journey performs in 2023. (photo: Rob Loud/Getty Images)

Journey are about to embark on the Summer Stadium Tour with co-headliners Def Leppard and rotating special guests Cheap Trick, the Steve Miller Band, and Heart, and each night will obviously be packed with hits. But course, there are certain songs that are musts on any Journey setlist. And when Neal Schon — Journey’s co-founder, lead guitarist, and last original member — sat down with me to chat about the band’s legacy and what he believes is about to be their “biggest year yet,” I had to ask about two specific crowd-pleasing classics.

Schon was generous interview subject and a good sport, not only sharing his memories of the infamously mime-tastic, dockside “Separate Ways” video (“so bad that it’s actually funny”) and the geographically incorrect “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But he also opened up about current relations with bandmate Jonathan Cain (with whom he has very publicly feuded in recent years), the possibility of a reunion with Steve Perry, getting taken to the police in Peru with Santana at age 16, and much more. Don’t stop readin’ — scroll for all the details!

I know it’s a cliche to talk about “Don’t Stop Believin’” right out of the gate, but that song has taken on so many lives over the years and generations. What do you think it is about that song that makes it such a perennial favorite?

NEAL SCHON: Everybody asks me that same question. … Some of the greatest songs come from nowhere and they happen very quickly, and this was what happened with “Don’t Stop Believin’.” We were rehearsing together as a band, as we always did. I had a rehearsal place over in Oakland, Calif., that I had taken over from Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone. … On this particular day we’re writing with Jonathan [Cain]. He just came into the band and he brought in the quarter- pulse of the chords. It was kind of like a sped-up “Let It Be,” and I’m going, “OK, I’m going to look for a Motown bass part because I knew Steve [Smith] was very R&B- oriented and blues-oriented, as well as I was. So, I was looking for something to motor the song with the bassline… I was thinking more of Smokey Robinson, that kind of vibe. And so, I came up with the baseline, we finished it together, Jon helped me put an F-sharp in it that wasn’t there, and then I came up with the B-section that the vocals kind of follow and we kind of threw it together like that, just like section by section. And then I started playing the choo-choo-train guitar solo part and they liked it where it was. I just started playing. I was jamming while we’re playing along and really wasn’t thinking about what I was doing. And they go, “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” That inspired them to write the lyrics around the train. It kind of came together very quickly like that. The arrangement was completely different than any other song we had ever done.

The arrangement is very interesting, because this song was such a huge hit then and yet it’s not structured like a normal song. It’s four minutes and 11 seconds, and it’s not until 3: 21 that the chorus comes in! And the chorus is only sung four times. That is not a typical radio hit. But every part of the song is so good, you don’t even realize it takes three-plus minutes to get to the title of the song.

Yeah, we put it together the way we heard it. And the label of course at that time, they have A&R guys that think they know everything and they’re saying, “You gotta chop this thing up. It’s never going to get on the radio.” We decided to stick to our guns. We decided, “No, we’re not going to chop it up. We like the way it sounds.” And so, I think because of that, they didn’t pour as much money into that song as they would pour into other songs. Chart action is not always because of the song — it’s because there’s the big giant machine out there. There’s a lot of politics and money involved and all that kind of thing; I’m going to be completely frank and honest about it. But I did know that when we recorded this song and we finished it and were in the final mixing stages of it with Michael Stone and Kevin Elson, I went, “I think this song was going to be massively huge. I don’t know why. I just have a gut instinct.” And to have it happen this many years later and just continue to get bigger, and now become the biggest song in the world ever in the history of music, I’m going, “This is insane.” It’s a pleasant surprise and I’, definitely very grateful that we spent the time and got it right.

It’s had so many placements in pop culture: The Sopranos, Laguna Beach, Glee, Rock of Ages. When the American Idol Season 8 cast with Adam Lambert went on tour, “Don’t Stop Believin” was the group-number finale. Do you have pop-culture moment that’s your favorite?

The last one is a favorite story for me now is Teddy Swims. My wife and I were following him on the internet for many years, and I’m like listening to this guy’s voice and I’m going, “Man, this guy is seriously soulful. I don’t know if he’s ever going to make it, but I think that he can really, really sing.” Later [in 2019] I got asked to go on to America’s Got Talent with Teddy Swims, he became famous from singing “Don’t Stop Believin’”… that went hugely viral to where I think he was actually a big part of pushing our song over the top and becoming as big as it is, and then Teddy got his first No. 1 single ever, shortly after that. It is all synergy to me.

There’s another guy on America’s Got Talent, Richard Goodall, who just did a big viral audition of singing that song. It just keeps on going.

Yeah, it’s amazing. I watched him and it’s one of those great stories: a janitor at a school, the kind man that opens his mouth and everybody goes, “Who is that?” And I just saw it on the internet the other day. They put him next to Steve Perry, and it’s uncanny how they sound exactly the same. It is wild to me.

The last question I have about “Don’t Stop Believin’” is, if you look at a map, I think “South Detroit” is actually Canada, because of the way the upper U.S. border is shaped. So, how did the “South Detroit” line come up? I don’t think that’s a real place.

Steve, I remember, would only sing things that were singable. He had to be able to enunciate them the way he wanted to and be able to convey the note the way he wanted to. And “South” rang to him more than “North” or “West” or “East” – “South” sounded right, even though there was no South. So, it could be Detroit, it could be Canada, it could be anywhere anybody wants it to be, but that is the funny thing about it.

I feel like the US map needs to be changed. I think the song is so big now that I feel like part of Detroit should just rename itself “South Detroit” in honor of the song. And then Michigan can give Journey the keys to the city of South Detroit.


So, obviously that’s one of your power ballads. Journey are known for the big, anthemic ballads. But I think I’ve read that you weren’t initially into the whole power-balladry thing. Is that true? 

It wasn’t all ballads. I was having a hard time with “Open Arms” in particular, because it was something brand-new that I’d never done before. … If I was going to listen to a ballad back then, I would listen to Mountain, like heavy ballads, really kind of deep and heavy. I was more into that than a light and pretty ballad. That was just where my head was at, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. Everybody knows the story. And I didn’t want to play it live either. I was scared to death of it. But when we did play it, the audience erupted and both Steve and Jon looked at me like, “See” I told you, dummy!”

I understand your hesitation, because it can be a curse for harder rock bands that become known for their one big ballad.

Like Extreme. I toured with them years ago and they were known for that acoustic song “More Than Words,” and then they came onstage and they were heavy funk metal. And I was like, “How do people kind of put that together?” I mean, they’re coming to the concert to see Extreme, and people that didn’t know them are thinking they’re going to get a full set of acoustic material like that. And it was completely the opposite. So, I hear what you’re saying. I agree with you.

Was that a concern you had when you went down the “Open Arms” road, that you didn’t want to be pegged as this prom ballad band?

Yes. I’m going to be honest. It was a concern for me. But you know what? We rock live, and I’ve learned that there’s a time and place for all of it, and there’s an audience for all of it too. Not everybody’s the same, and it’s a good thing that they’re not because it’s made it a lot wider and broader spectrum for people to enjoy our music.

Absolutely! OK, the other Journey classic I definitely want to ask about is “Separate Ways.” The Escape album with “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Open Arms” came out in 1981, the year that MTV debuts, but by the time “Separate Ways” came out, MTV was huge and music videos were big business. And that was the first time Journey made a conceptual video…

You mean hat million-dollar video we did?

That cost a million dollars?

I’m joking!

Ha, OK, phew! I was about to say…

I think we made it for five grand… and it looks like it, now. You go back and you look at it and it’s pretty trite. I’m like, “Oh wow, it’s so bad that it’s actually funny.”

Where did the idea to mime playing the instruments? That’s what everyone remembers? I mean, you were some of the greatest musicians on MTV  then, and then they take the instruments out of your hands, which makes no sense.

It was very uncomfortable, yeah. It was a director’s idea. It was his idea and not really being used to doing videos at all… I never really thought the Journey ever did a conceptual video, ever, that was good. I thought that we were live video band… that was who we were and that’s how we came off the best, I felt. The conceptual thing never really hit home to me; it just looked too manipulated and it was not cool enough.

Well, I’m glad you didn’t actually spend a million dollars on “Separate Ways,” because I was about think you guys got ripped off. I love that video, but I love it because of the fact that it looks like from a time when people weren’t yet spending a major money on videos and there were no rules about what videos should look like. People were just kind of winging it. I love that era of MTV.

Neal Schon is ready for his close-up in "Separate Ways," 1983.

Neal Schon is ready for his close-up in “Separate Ways,” 1983.

Right now [the “Separate Ways” video] is more accepted than it was at the time when it came out, when everybody was looking at it and going “Oh. I don’t think so… This has got to be one of the worst videos of all time.” I had to kind of agree, but now I think it’s accepted because everybody realizes that it was one of the first videos ever made and we didn’t spend a fortune on it.

Did you consider it a badge of honor when Beavis and Butt-Head trashed it? I would!

I thought it was funny as hell. I was a fan of Beavis and Butt-Head.

Have you seen all the “Separate Ways” parodies? There’s an indie-pop band called Escort that recreated it shot-for-shot. There’s a band called Glass Delirium that also did it shot-for-shot. Some family did it in quarantine and it went viral.

I’ve seen it all, and I think it’s all hysterical, man. You have to have a lighter side to you and not take yourself so serious like, “Oh, that’s not cool, they can’t be making fun of us!” Who cares? We’re the ones that are selling the tickets and having a great time onstage, so I couldn’t care less. I’m going to laugh with them at it.

I read an interview with the model who starred in the “Separate Ways” video, Margaret Olmsted. She had pleasant things to say about her experience and said everyone in the band was very nice, but she did say that Sherrie, Steve Perry’s girlfriend at the time, was jealous of her. Do you have any recollection of this?

I recall a bit of that going down at the time — that the producer was trying to get Steve to interact with [Olmstead] in some kind of way. I don’t recall exactly what it was, but I know that Steve was very reluctant to do it and [Sherrie] was very possessive and kind of nuts.

Obviously Steve Perry’s not in the band anymore, and neither are Steve Smith and Russ Vallory, but it’s always been you and Jonathan Cain at the band’s core since the Escape era, the classic lineup of the ‘80s…

Think of this: I’ve bene in Journey 51 years, Jon for 41 years, and for Arnell, this is his 17th year and vocalist, which is way longer than Steve [Perry] was!

That’s crazy. But I did want to ask… it’s an obvious or elephant-in-the-room question to ask, but how are relations between you and Jonathan now? It was in the news that you butted heads over political beliefs or whatever, but it seems like you’ve mended fences or figured out a way to make it work.

We just decided that the music is the music. We worked really hard and diligently on keeping this thing alive all these years and just not let the other stuff get in the way and kind of keep it separate. It’s all right for us to have separate beliefs on everything. It was actually a rule that way before Jonathan  was in the band, that our manager made with us all, that we would never have politics involved in our music, or any one religion, because [Journey’s music] is for everyone. Anytime you [get political] and you segregate, you’re going to lose fans. And why would you want to do that? Just keep it open for everyone to be able to enjoy your music as music.

How do you feel when certain Journey songs get used for a cause or a candidate, at a rally or whatever, that is not in line with your personal beliefs?

I’m not a fan of it. No, I’m not a fan of it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not one way or the other. It’s not the left side, not the right side. It’s just I’m in the middle and I don’t want it to go one way or the other. I think we should remain neutral and let everybody enjoy what they want to enjoy, and I think it’s nobody’s business. I’ve never appreciated music [with] politics. I don’t think they go hand-in-hand. I think that music is the greatest communicator of the world and that it shouldn’t have a label on it to be one way or another. It should be to be conveyed by everyone in their own way.

I’m a little surprised to hear you say that, knowing your background that predates Journey: a growing up as child of the ‘60s, the decade when politics and music really first aligned, and then of course playing with Carlos Santana, who’s always been politically outspoken.

I never noticed the politics in Santana. They were never talked about. The only thing that happened to me when I was a kid, when I joined Santana, we were in Lima, Peru, and people were going nuts. They met us at the airport like we were the Beatles, trying to overturn the limos that we were in. We received the key to the city the next day by the mayor in the main church of Peru, and then later we’re taken down the police station and we’re deported one by one with machine guns to our head!  I was 16 years old going, “I have no clue what’s going on here, but this is really crazy.” And what happened is we were going to play this giant festival and, as I understood it later, the government felt that we were going to try to turn the people against the government. But Santana was never that band, while I was in it ,to make any statements like that.

I guess I meant more you’re from kind of the first generation that really felt music could change the world — that whole youthquake of the ‘60s.

Music does change the world! But it doesn’t need to be politically. I think it’s lighter side is the thing that brings the joy to people when they’re going through tough times. You want to take ‘em out of the funk. You want to lift them. When I go to see somebody [perform], I want to be entertained. I don’t want to be brought down or brought into some funk. I want to get away from everything and be entertained and lifted.

It’s so interesting that you mentioned a minute ago that Arnell has been in the band so much longer than any other singer. He does such a great job, but here’s the pother elephant-on the-room question I’m sure you’ve been asked this so many times. I’m not suggesting a full-on reunion with Steve Perry would ever happen, but would you maybe play a one-off show, maybe for a charity event like Led Zeppelin did in 2007? I did see that Steve Perry has said that he’s considering performing live again. Maybe his voice is back. Would you ever consider a one-off, or is that just totally not in the cards?

Absolutely. I’ve never been closed-minded to it. He knows that, and everybody pretty much in the world knows that, because I’ve said the same thing since he’s left: that the door’s always wide open for him to come in. If he wants to sing one song, wants to sing a verse, let Arnell sing the other part. I felt if it was going to happen, it was going to happen when we got inducted at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — and it didn’t happen. Yet  I had the time hanging with him there and catching up, and so it is what it is. If he gets back into [performing live], that would be great for him.

In the meantime, Arnell does a great job. Are you a little bit surprised that you were able to continue playing stadiums, when someone so associated with the band like Steve Perry left? A lot of bands in that position might be like, “Well, that’s it. That’s the end of the band.” But him leaving wasn’t the end of Journey at all.

I always felt like it’s about the songs, more than it is any one individual. Not taking anything away from Steve or any one of us, or the contributions that we all made to write these songs, but it’s about the songs more than it is about one person. And we prove that. That’s all I can say. You are always going to have your haters. The thing that’s great about this band is we keep attaining younger audiences that are open-minded to everything. They just want to see us. They’re not used to seeing bands jam the way we jam and actually play. There’s so many concerts now that young people go to where there’s not even a live band. It’s just a backing track and dancing and whatnot. And so, we’re one of the last living bands that are doing this, and I feel that this will be our biggest year yet.

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