Journey. Known in the UK almost exclusively for “Don’t Stop Believin’” – a song about a girl and a boy from a place – South Detroit – that weirdly doesn’t exist.
A song recorded in 1981 that didn’t make the UK charts until 2009 following its appearance in an episode of X-Factor, (even its appearance in The Sopranos barely registered in the U.K.) and which has since become one of the most downloaded songs ever.
It’s not a terribly British sort of sound, Arena Rock. It’s probably the form of music that most Brits are least interested in. Arena Rock is widely viewed as an American phenomenon, devoid of emotion, credibility or, in particular, authenticity.
But when Jonathan Cain co-wrote “I’ll Be Alright Without You” in 1985, for what would be the fourth single from Journey’s Raised on Radio LP, he had just gone through a divorce. His singer had also split from a long term girlfriend, and that combination of two broken hearts in one band resulted in the rawest performance in a pop song this side of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All”.
The protagonist (and co-writer) of Journey’s “I’ll Be Alright Without You” is Steve Perry, golden throated warbler of the highest quality, a man who you can imagine spent his entire childhood listening to Sam Cooke records, but accidentally found himself the singer in an American Adult Orientated Rock band between 1977 and 1987.
A singer whose stage clothing revealed a man with such regard for formality that he always wore a jacket, but never so much so that he’d feel obligated to wear a shirt.
From the title alone, you may think Perry is grandstanding a former lover, but the opposite is true, as we soon discover.
“I’ve been thinking of the time you walked out on me” he says, and already we know he’s feeling down.
“Do I miss you? Am I lying to myself again?”
“I do these things….”
At this point he trails off, a broken man, but Perry is not alone. He has his buddies singing like a Greek chorus behind him, including his fellow heartbroken co-writer of the song, Jonathan Cain, for whom these feelings are all too raw. The Chorus sound concerned for Perry’s wellbeing, and finish his sentence…
“…it’s all because of you” they sing sympathetically. They know he’s in all sorts of trouble. They’ve probably taken him to a strip club after the break up, but he’s not in Motley Crue. He’s in Journey. Such things won’t work. These AOR people are sensitive types.
“I keep holding on, but I…”
Again Perry falters. Again the Greek Chorus starts up, finding the words he cannot bring himself to utter. “…try not to think of you…”
By now Perry is desperate “Love! Don’t leave me lonely!” he cries.
“I’ll be alright without you / There’ll be someone else / I keep telling myself”
Who’s he kidding, right?
“ALL I WANTED WAS TO HOLD YOU!” wails Perry as he collapses to the ground, like James Brown used to do during his act, only to allow his band to revive him…
Then Neal Schon’s guitar comes in, a staccato riff, and the Greek Chorus of his buddies then harmonise him back to his feet, building him up, up, up to the chorus again
“I’ll be alright without you” they implore, perhaps not really believing it in the moment, but singing it for him, trying to tell him life will be fine, before Perry’s voice drifts away and Schon peels off the most tasteful, jazzy, complex solo, and the bass player shows his chops, all presumably to cheer up the perhaps inconsolable Perry, as the song fades.
It’s a song about how you might feel after a divorce, but the performance is more about how your friends will rally round, even when life and love looks futureless, because a girl or boy broke your heart. And it’s a song that tells you your friends will be there for you, especially those that can play jazz rock guitar as tastefully as Neal Schon. It’s also a song that tells you perhaps even more than their biggest hit: don’t stop believin’…