Neal Schon has written a few hits in his time. He knows how to write a song that connects, across generational divides, across continents. With Journey’s new album, Freedom, lighting up the airwaves with the San Francisco rock legends’ irresistible melodies, Guitar World sat down with Schon to talk about some of the greatest tracks in the catalog.
Here, he shares some of the stories – and the electric guitars – behind classic hits Wheel in the Sky and Don’t Stop Believin’, but also those behind four of the tracks from Freedom – an album that reminds us that Schon’s ear for a hook remains undiminished after all these years. It is just something that’s in him.
As a wise man once said, “Either you go it or you ain’t.” Neal Schon has got it. He has always had it.
The Way We Used to Be – Freedom (2022)
“This was the first song I wrote during the pandemic. I wrote it on keyboards then sent my keyboard loop to [Journey keyboardist] Jonathan [Cain]. I didn’t think it sounded like your typical Journey song, but it was something to do for myself; I had to get things rolling in some kind of way to get my brain going.”
“When I listened back, I thought, “I don’t know if this is a Journey track, but it sounds funky, bluesy and kind of edgy.” I thought it sounded like a modern Stones kind of vibe – or the Faces. I was really surprised when Jonathan sent me back his demo. He had written all the melodies and the lyrics, and I went, “That sounds really good.” That was the beginning of the writing for this new album.
“Guitar-wise, I kind of left this one sparse; I love hearing the air and the holes in it. Great-sounding Strat, though! It was a relic black Strat from the Fender Custom Shop that has some type of noiseless pickups, [but] not the newer ones they’re making now. I used it on quite a bit of songs on the record.”
Don’t Give Up on Us – Freedom (2022)
“When Narada [Michael-Walden] and I started laying down tracks, it was mainly him and me in the studio because we live close together in Marin County [California]. While the lockdown was happening, I’d go to his studio and at least work with drums and guitar. Then I’d put some bass and scratch vocals on it. He’d sing a bit, I’d sing a bit – but that’s how that song came about.
“I just started chunking away on the guitar with what I thought sounded like some Motown chords, then I sang some melodies on it. I sent Jonathan the song after it was arranged and after we had overdubbed on it, so it sounded pretty complete.
“He came up with the melodies; after he sent it back, we continued to do vocal demos on it and background vocals. It’s wild how this was definitely a lockdown album where everybody was in different locations – except for Narada and me.”
You Got the Best of Me – Freedom (2022)
“I was looking for more up-tempo songs for our set. Even though the shows are going great and nobody’s complaining, I’m always leaning toward having a little more adrenaline. I knocked that one out, arrangement-wise, before I came into the studio with Narada.
“We laid it down, and then the chorus just kind of flew out of my mouth like Any Way You Want It and Wheel in the Sky where I kind of came up with the hook and the chorus, lyrically and melody- wise.
“Then I had the melodies; I sang my melody ideas and sent it to Jonathan, who finished the song lyrically. Then we just continued to tighten up the pieces; I sent it to [bassist] Randy [Jackson], to [vocalist] Arnel [Pineda]...”
Let It Rain – Freedom (2022)
“This was a cool idea that was bouncing around in my head for years. I always loved the Chaka Khan song [Clouds], and I love that Hendrix-y type, Prince funk vibe. It reminded me of a lot of the early stuff before I started Journey – things I was working on with Greg Orrico and Larry Graham.
“It brought me to that time and space where I was remembering that slow, sexy groove that was in my head and always had it on kind of a Whammy pedal. So I brought one into the studio and I started jamming with Narada – and it ended up being the song that it is now, without changing anything.
“We have about five generations of fans coming to our shows now, which is pretty amazing. I felt like this is definitely for some of our younger fans who never got to see the late-Sixties, early Seventies vibe of everything that was coming out of England – a Hendrix, Zeppelin kind of a mixture of Jimmy Page, Prince and all the influences I grew up with.”
Wheel in the Sky – Infinity (1978)
“We had completed our first three records. We hadn’t changed our lineup at that point, and we were all traveling in two station wagons – all crammed in. We had eight, nine guys in one car.
“There were long road trips with [former Journey drummer] Aynsley Dunbar at the steering wheel with his fuzz buster. Everybody had to take a break and pull over to the roadside to take a leak.
“Our road manager happened to be driving that day, Pat Morrow, and he was just fatigued. Our old manager, Herbie Herbert, who is resting in heaven, was yelling at him over the phone, ‘Pat, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’ Pat said, ‘I’ve got to pull over. I need a break. I need a candy bar.’
So we pulled over at this gas station. I pulled out an acoustic and sat on the hood of the car and started banging out the chords. I came up with all the verse and B sections, then the chorus came out within minutes.
At that point, our then-bass player, Ross Valory, and his then-wife, Diane... she had handed me some poetry she had written; I remembered a line that said, ‘Wheels are turning on my mind.’ I don’t know where it came from, but I was banging out D minor chords in the chorus and I said, ‘Wheel in the sky keeps on turning. Don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.’
CBS at that time came to us and said, ‘You need a front man, otherwise we’re going to drop you.’ So I started writing with Robert Fleischman – and that was the first song we wrote together.”
Don’t Stop Believin’ – Escape (1981)
“For the first time, you’re hearing a chorus on the outro, which was completely against all rules of nature in that time period – and now – if you’re going to try to get a song on the radio. The saying was, ‘Don’t bore me. Get to the chorus.’
“In this case, the chorus didn’t happen until the end of the song. Actually, I had a short guitar solo before the chorus; so the obvious thing for me to do was to play the melody of Don’t Stop Believin’ – the melody people are going to hear right after I play it. Steve turned to me and said, ‘What? You’re going to play the melody that I’m going to sing?’ I go, ‘Why not? It’s a good one.’
“When the song was done and the mix was almost finalized, I turned to everybody in the room and said, ‘I think this song is going to be massive.’ They released it as a single, and it wasn’t so massive – but then it ended up being massive. It just took a long time for everybody to catch up!
“Jonathan wrote the lyrics, ‘don’t stop believin’’ with Steve, but it was a phrase his father had given him when he was trying to make it in the music industry and not having much luck, I guess. His dad said, ‘Don’t give up, son.’ It just kind of came out of that.”
Any Way You Want It – Departure (1980)
“That one came about during sound check; I believe we were on tour or just had toured with Thin Lizzy. I was a big fan, so it was a classic case of being inspired by some of the cool-sounding riffs they had.
“I came up with the simple riff that goes all the way through the song – another song where there’s three chords to it and that’s it. It came together in a very short period of time – I’d say an hour. It continues to be our second most-downloaded song. Crazy.”
Patiently – Infinity (1978)
“The first song I wrote with Steve [Perry]. I believe we were on tour with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I had an acoustic in my room, and I had these chords, the verse chords, and our manager at the time, Herbie Herbert, wanted Steve and me to get together to see if there was any chemistry before he joined the band.
“I recall sitting in the room; I was playing him the core changes, and he just started singing to it. I guess he had some lyrics that... just kind of fit the song. I think we knocked it out in about half an hour. I was like, ‘I guess we have writing chemistry!’”
- Freedom is out now via BMG.