One of the perils of achieving “classic rock” status is the brand that carries you — your sound — can also imprison you. Listeners come to expect a certain package that makes you you, and if you deviate, you’re not you. Make sense?
Rare is the classic rock act that’s able to zig when it’s expected to zag. Fleetwood Mac famously did it with its jarring “Tusk” album to follow up the radio-friendly smash”Rumours.” Lou Reed did the same with the near-career killer “Metal Machine Music.” And Bruce Springsteen shook up his rousing, full-throttle catalog with the barren collection of demo cuts that comprised “Nebraska.”
But a band like, say, Journey, isn’t capable of such leaps. In its 1980s heyday, Journey had lots going for it, churning out a mix of rock songs and ballads performed with a deft balance between Neal Schon’s screaming guitar and Jonathan Cain’s keyboard hooks. Tying the two together was arguably the band’s biggest asset — Steve Perry’s soaring vocals. Whether at a school dance or on the boombox behind the gas station counter, it was through Perry that you immediately identified a Journey song as a Journey song. It was the one feature the band could not afford to lose.
But that’s exactly what happened. Between the usual “creative differences” squabbles and Perry’s increasing struggles to keep his vocal range as he aged, Journey reluctantly parted ways with its singer on the expectation that he could be replaced. It was easier said than done. The band muddled through two decades of lineup shuffles and comeback attempts before hitting the jackpot with Filipino cover singer Arnel Pineda.
Even for casual or non-Journey fans, the story is an amazing one, and worthy subject matter for the PBS Independent Lens documentary “Don’t Stop Believin’.” After years of getting by with temporary Perry soundalikes, Schon and Cain scoured through YouTube to discover their gem in Pineda, whose vocal resemblance to Perry was uncanny. He successfully auditioned, joined the group on tour and cut a new album with them. With Schon and Cain as sharp as ever on their instruments, Pineda provided the final piece of Journey’s wayback machine, bringing fans as close to 1983 as they’ll ever get.
But, as tends to be the case with Independent Lens documentaries, there’s more to this story. We see how Pineda, a considerably younger and less experienced musician, fits in with the band. Schon and Cain tutor their prized protege with the detailed attention of Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. It’s not so much a partnership between co-equals as a business arrangement. It’s clear from the outset — Pineda will enjoy wealth, fame, even some degree of musical development, but with the ironclad condition, and one he willingly accepts, that he must sound like Steve Perry. If he can’t deliver, night in and night out, he’s done. And surely even Schon and Cain realize that without Pineda — or miraculously discovering yet another Perry soundalike — they’re finished as well.
So while “Don’t Stop Believin'” highlights the degree to which a rock group’s brand controls its identity, the deeper philosophical question is the surrender of one man’s identity to another’s. What’s it like to know that one’s raison d’être is to be someone else? By outward appearances, Pineda seems well adjusted to this reality. It certainly beats the alternative of singing covers at Filipino karaoke bars. But it’s a chilling conclusion that his fortunes — and Journey’s — forever answer to the tune called by Steve Perry.