Journey were already at a crossroads after just one jammy studio project.

The live shows weren't the problem. Journey were drawing nicely around the Bay Area concert circuit.

"They were like a jazz/fusion/rock kind of thing," manager Herbie Herbert told Melodic Rock in 2008. "We played with Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Santana and Robin Trower and bands like that. And it just went over perfect, and I loved that original band and many people did."

But then Journey's self-titled debut stalled at a disappointing No. 138. Expectations were far higher for a group that boasted former members of Santana (Gregg Rolie and Neal Schon) and Frumious Bandersnatch (Ross Valory and George Tickner), and there were already rumblings from Columbia Records.

"We had built this cult audience in quite a few places, because we had toured extensively for three years – and very hard," Schon told Goldmine in 2013. "I would say nine months out of every year we toured, and we had built quite a following being one of the original jam bands in San Francisco. You know, people really enjoyed seeing us live. We weren't selling any records, but we were selling lots of tickets."

Listen to Journey's 'On a Saturday Nite'

Look Into the Future, issued in January 1976, was perfectly titled. They committed to becoming more song focused, while trying to retain the progressive touches that showcased Journey's musical chops on the first album. "We decided we'd taken that kind of music as far as we could," Rolie told Rolling Stone in 1980.

To some degree they succeeded, but only by separating these two impulses. Side One stacked more commercial-sounding moments like "On a Saturday Nite" and "Anyway" with a cover of "It's All Too Much" from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine, then Journey stretched out more on the next side: "I'm Gonna Leave You" went just past seven minutes, while the episodic title song became their second-longest released song at 8:13.

They lost George Tickner, the band's rhythm guitarist, along the way – though he still ended up with two songwriting co-credits, "You're on Your Own" and "I'm Gonna Leave You." Undaunted, Journey released Look Into the Future and immediately headed out on a tour that lasted from February through December 1976, concluding at the Winterland in San Francisco.

"Lately, I think the band has gotten more loose and relaxed onstage, and it comes off," Rolie told Tom Vickers in 1976. "With George, there was a tenseness. He wasn't really into it. He likes writing, but onstage he didn't enjoy himself."

Schon also described the lineup shift as a form of addition by subtraction. "There are parts where you miss the sound of another guitar," he told Vickers, "but it gives us more space."

Listen to Journey's 'I'm Gonna Leave You'

Unfortunately, maintaining that rugged schedule didn't make a substantial impact on sales. Look Into the Future fared better than the band's eponymous first record but got to only No. 100. Still hopeful, Rolie said Journey took it all in stride.

"We were never discouraged, because every time we've gone out on the road, there's been growth," Rolie said back then. "We've learned more about each other, the music and the industry. Journey is a democratic situation that will last, because everyone is a little older now and more aware – and that's the only way a band can work. Everyone has their own musical taste and their own ideas, but we've learned how to use them to improve the group."

Yet it appeared there was an inherent commercial ceiling with this particular mixture of creative voices – especially when former tour mates in Kansas took a germ of an idea from Journey and turned it into a breakthrough hit. "I think if you'll listen to "I'm Gonna Leave [You]" on the Look Into the Future record," Herbert told Melodic Rock, "it's 'Carry On Wayward Son' by Kansas. They just lifted it."

Journey tried shaking things up again on 1977's Next, toughening up their sound and even handing the microphone to Schon for two songs. But when that project halted at No. 85, larger changes were demanded by the band's label bosses.

"You look up and it's 1977, and they've toured all year – all through Europe with Santana and another big tour with ELO both in '76 and '77, and it just wasn't happening," Herbert noted. "So I was just in a complete scramble, and they were gonna drop the act. So there was a scramble to do something to modify what we were doing. So I said we'll change it: We'll go commercial."

Steve Perry's phone would soon be ringing.


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