As the 1980s began, Journey –at that time comprising guitarist Neal Schon, singer Steve Perry, drummer Steve Smith and the band's newest member, keyboardist Jonathan Cain - rented a warehouse in Oakland, California, to work on new songs for their latest album, Escape (1981). Previously Cain had considered abandoning music as his lack of success in Los Angeles had left him in a dark place, but when his father saw him down he would always say: "Don't stop believing or you're done, dude." Cain then offered this idea and a hook to his colleagues and Don't Stop Believin’ was then ‘built backwards’ from that point as, unusually, the chorus only arrives near the end.
“We sat and threw things around like we usually did,” explains Schon, “and between Steve and Jon and myself we kind of had the song together in a couple of hours.” Smith suggested to Schon to play arpeggios that sounded like a train, and the band added the idea of two young people leaving their hometown, so “then we added the line about the midnight train to anywhere,” continued Schon, “that is the kind of chemistry we had.”
Journey recorded the song in one take at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California, and it became its signature song; decades after its release, it was the best-selling digital track from the twentieth century, with over seven million downloads, and helped the band shift over 80 million records in total.
However, amusingly, many years later Schon admitted to having been completely wrong about the song: “At the time I didn’t get it; [Don’t Stop Believin’] was like the black sheep on the album. I was scared to death of it to tell you the truth!”
Neal Joseph Schon was born on 27 February 27, 1954 in Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, to musical parents with German and Italian roots. “My father was a jazz musician so I first played clarinet, oboe and piano, and learned how to read music,” Schon says. It was not until he was 10 that he started to learn how to play guitar - an acoustic Stella and then a Gibson ES-335 - but “I learnt arse backwards, man, because I learnt to play solos before I learnt rhythm.”
At around this age he came across the Beatles, Dave Clark 5 and “all the blues: Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Michael Bloomfield, Albert King, Paul Butterfield, BB King, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters and Electric Flag, and then I saw Aretha at Filmore West when I was 13. I thought I had the flu but then I realised I was being turned on by that music!” he says with a laugh.
Schon goes on to describe Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix as ‘the nucleus’ of what he wanted, and he was lucky enough to see many of his heroes play live at a very young age. “I saw Hendrix at Winterland but by the time I went on the third night he had smashed all his amps and they sounded like they were dying!” he recalls.
When Schon is asked what stands out most at the start of his musical journey he recalls meeting members of Santana with a big smile. “I was playing down by the peninsula in a bar called Poppycock in Palo Alto with a pretty good rock n roll band, and the bass player knew Gregg Rolie and Michael Shrieve pretty well from the Santana band, and one night we sat down together and jammed until about six in the morning,” he says.
In fact Schon was so young he was secretly hiding in bar cellars to participate on stage, and he even saw Carlos Santana play in a gym, years before he met him. He recalls: “it was so echoey, I couldn’t make much out, but Carlos was very melodic and soulful and played stuff that I’d never heard before. I had no idea I would be playing with him years later...”
Schon was showing promise as a painter and was undecided what direction he wanted to take, but Rolie started to pick him up at high school, and helped him figure out what he wanted to do. “Around ’67 or ’68 there was a very strong club scene in San Francisco. In those days musicians used to hang out in bars and play together. When I was 15 I met a lot of the club owners around here, and I was playing a lot of blues in those days.”
Almost unbelievably, Schon has said that he was asked by Eric Clapton to join Derek and the Dominos in practically the same moment that Santana sought to contract him, in 1971. Although perspectives and details differ, in one interview Schon says that “when I first met Clapton we sat down and played for a good couple of hours, and I showed up at the studio next door to find a note from him suggesting that we jam together […] I played with him and we had a great time.” In a separate interview he adds: “after we met Clapton asked me to move to London with him to be second guitarist in Derek and the Dominos and I thought ‘wow this is too much!’ but the Santana band had heard and the next day they asked me to join them. I stayed with the Santana band because I thought it was just going to last longer.”
Subsequently Schon played on Santana III (1971), Caravanserai (1972) and, later, Santana IV (2016), and reflected “they were the best musical entity I had been in and they gave me a lot of space to play, so I was really happy.”
However in 1972, Schon moved on to play with Azteca who released Azteca (1972) and Pyramid of the Moon (1973), and was experimenting with other formations when Herbie Herbert, his manager, approached him about starting a new band with Gregg Rolie, which became Journey.
Schon describes the moment when he first met Steve Perry as a kind of revelation: “we decided we could work together because within 25 minutes we had a song. It was my first experience of working with a vocalist.”
The band released Journey in 1975, and then followed up with at least one release per year until 1980 with Look into the Future, Next, Infinity, Evolution, Departure and Dream, After Dream; a Japanese film soundtrack.
Journey were becoming increasingly successful but Schon recalls that the band had ‘paid its dues’. “It was a lot of work, for three years we had five or seven guys in a station wagon driving for hours and hours,” he recalls. “We’d jump on stage with no time for sound checks, jump back in the car and drive to the next gig. So when we were accepted it was like finally, man, somebody gets us!”
In 1981 Rolie left and Cain joined the band, as said, to help compose and release Escape, which then took Journey to another level. Another single from that album, Open Arms, was also a big hit. Two years later the follow-up album, Frontiers, met with similar success in America and went to number six in the UK charts.
In addition to Schon’s releases with Journey, which continue to date, he has released 10 solo albums plus material with Bad English, Hardline and many other bands. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Journey on 7 April, 2017.
In a February 2021 interview he talked about his excitement at a new Journey album coming out with drummer Narada [Walden] and bassist Randy Jackson. “My parents would say I was over-confident about my guitar playing but I don’t believe it was a luck thing,” he says. “I believed in what I was doing, I had a gut instinct […] As soon as we can get back to it I just feel so confident that the live show we are putting together is just gonna kill!”