Revisiting Journey’s Career-Shaping ‘Departure’
With their fifth studio album, 1979's Evolution, Journey finally cracked the Top 20 of Billboard's album chart — and they soared even higher when they returned the next year with the follow-up, Departure.
Released in March 1980, Departure arrived at a crucial moment during Journey's transition from jam-friendly experimental rock to an arena-ready mainstream sound, and found the band continuing to streamline its songwriting in an increasingly successful quest to invade Top 40 radio.
True to its title, the album served notice that the group was closing a chapter in its history by embracing a new direction while letting go of some formerly fundamental ingredients.
"We named it that because there's going to be a little bit of a musical change," singer Steve Perry teased in a spring 1980 interview with Voice. "We're departing from some of our roots and keeping some."
"I think you'll notice the successful elements from Infinity and Evolution, but there will be a new intensity there," offered guitarist Neal Schon during an October 1979 interview with Record Review. Noting at the time that it may be a double album, he predicted, "I think it will be a bridge between what we are doing now and our past work. Everything will just be intense, whether it's acoustic or electric, and I'm looking forward to making it."
Part of that intensity derived from a switch in producers. Having openly groused about working with Roy Thomas Baker on Evolution in spite of their dissatisfaction with the work he'd done on its predecessor Infinity, the band hired Kevin Elson to co-produce alongside engineer Geoff Workman, adopting a live-in-the-studio approach to tracking Departure that they hoped would add a little muscle to the music.
"This album represents more facets of the band, because they enjoy playing lots of different music," producer Kevin Elson told Modern Recording. "There's real good rock, some ballads, a little blues, some jazz — this album is a departure in the sense that there's more variety of material. A lot of solos, and even some vocals, have been done 'live,' so there's more of a feel."
It all added up to an album that, while perhaps somewhat edgier sonically than Evolution, was still eminently radio-friendly. Departure climbed to No. 8 on the chart and summed up the Journey of 1980's Top 40 appeal with its lead-off track and first single, "Any Way You Want It," which peaked at No. 23. Neither that song nor its follow-up, the No. 32 hit "Walks Like a Lady," matched the performance of the Evolution hit "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," but Journey were clearly making themselves comfortable on the pop charts, and settling in for the long haul among rock's biggest crossover stars of the era.
That success carried a price, however. Having already lost drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who departed prior to Evolution after openly complaining about the group's musical direction, Departure found Journey preparing for life after co-founder Gregg Rolie, who contributed only one co-write (the ballad "Someday Soon," which featured his sole lead vocal on the album) and was quickly tiring of life on the road. Although he'd appear on their second release of 1980, the Japanese soundtrack album Dream, After Dream, Rolie soon yielded his spot in the lineup to former Babys keyboard player Jonathan Cain.
The switch would be fully felt on Journey's seventh album, Escape, which soared to the top of the chart upon its arrival in July 1981, fueled by a batch of radio-ready anthems penned by the new triumvirate of Cain, Perry and Schon. For fans who'd long lamented the loss of the group's prog-tinged roots — and critics who'd made a point of trying to lump them in with bands like Styx, Boston and Toto — Journey's early '80s chart triumph was just proof that they'd sold out. But to their credit, the band members never apologized.
"Look, any music that is sold is commercial," shrugged bassist Ross Valory in a 1980 conversation with Circus. "Whether it's Van Cliburn, Ravi Shankar or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's just that we've made it without becoming the darlings of the rock press — and the victory is sweet."