How Journey Ended Up With That ‘Cheeseball’ Video for ‘Separate Ways’
Journey resisted MTV's siren call for a while. They offered throwaway performance clips, and once allowed NFL Films to capture some backstage moments. But they didn't go all in; there were no big sets, no big ideas.
Then they released a promo clip for "Separate Ways," the first single off 1983's Frontiers.
Singer Steve Perry had specifically been against this kind of choreographed video. "He'd always say, 'We're performers, we're entertainers, but we're not actors,'" keyboardist Jonathan Cain says in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution. "And we were not a very photogenic band. So, we stayed on the sidelines at first."
Eventually, they could no longer resist the growing trend. But the whole process got away from them. Journey ended up having little say in what became a deliriously campy setup in New Orleans by producer John Diaz and the late directer Tom Buckholtz.
Perry tried to push back in their lone pre-shoot meeting, but was brushed off. "Don't worry," Diaz reportedly said. "You're going for the obvious. There're better ways to convey emotion in these things."
The band arrived at the Louisa Street Wharf during Mardi Gras season, only dimly aware of what would be required. The still-unformed concept involved a woman who fell asleep with her headphones on, then dreamed the video. Much of the rest would be improvised on the spot.
Guitarist Neal Schon wasn't sure about any of this, though he eventually learned to appreciate the clip's camp factor. "I like the song, I don't know about the video," he told Huffington Post in 2012. "Well, it was the beginning of the video era. I think we made that video for, like, $5,000. You know, nobody was spending big money on videos, for one."
Cain had his doubts too, but figured this was the way things were going to be in the MTV era. "Visual impact is very important these days," he told The New York Times in 1983. "This is the '80s. We feel we're a band of the future, so we've gotta do well at this. Yet we don't want to be embarrassed out there. There were times this morning when I must admit I felt like I was on 'Celebrity Bowling.'"
There were problems from the first: A blustery wind rolled in from the Mississippi River, and that sent Perry scurrying to his Winnebago for warmth. He'd also brought along Sherrie Swafford, his then-girlfriend, despite a band agreement to leave significant others at home. Swafford was apparently unhappy about the presence of Margaret Oldstead, a local woman who starred in the video.
"Sherrie was like, 'You're really going to have this girl in your video?'" Cain told Huffington Post. "So, Steve was getting pressure from her. And, in the end, I think [Journey manager] Herbie Herbert had to talk to Steve and go, 'Come on, let's just do this. We're down here in New Orleans; we don't have any other ideas. Let's just go do this.'"
Oldstead, a student at nearby Tulane University, was oblivious to the drama surrounding her. She had answered an open audition on a whim. "I was working and paying my way through college, so the [notion] of making money for shooting a video was a godsend," she told Marc Tyler Nobleman in 2013. "It paid $250 a day and I was paid for three days of work. That was a lot of money at the time for a student like me. So, I was now the girl in the Journey video, still clueless."
Suddenly, a large boat arrived from the U.K., ready to dock in New Orleans. "They were mooring the British ship and there's Journey," Buckholtz told the Golden Age of Music Video in 2011. "So, they thought we had organized a big welcome for them. And when the British naval band came out to play for the arrival, they interrupted our video shoot, and all the people on the ship started shouting, 'We want Journey!'"
Then there was a very late night. "What they couldn't understand was why no one ever said 'Last call!'" Oldstead added. "Being a New Orleans girl, I couldn't understand what a last call even was. They explained they were out all night because normal cities close bars and let everyone know that they are closing. But this was New Orleans and Mardi Gras."
Watch Journey's Video for 'Separate Ways'
Things were just as interesting during the filming. At work on a largely autonomous set, Buckholtz was free to experiment. "There was a lot of 'let's try this' or 'let's try that' – a lot of it shot on the fly," he said. "We mostly had to wing it, and back then, CBS Records only sent one person, so there was virtually no supervision."
Many of the clip's most obvious fashion missteps – Oldstead's white leather jacket, Perry's checkerboard sleeveless shirt – could be understood, if not forgiven. Same goes for the band's general lack of self awareness. It was, after all, the early '80s. But for some reason, someone came up on the idea of playing air guitar. And air drums and air bass and air synths.
Adam Dubin, who co-directed the video for the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)," argued that Journey may have been a victim of poor timing. At this point, there weren't any rules in place.
"Here's a band at their commercial peak, and some idiot decided to film them on a wharf, and – here's the worst part – instead of giving them instruments, let them mime playing imaginary instruments," Dubin says in I Want My MTV. "The director should be shot. And the manager should be shot for allowing his band to be put in this position. But this is my point, there really wasn't a music-video aesthetic yet."
Pressed on who exactly hatched this air-instrument plan, Buckholtz sighed before finally telling Golden Age of Music Video, "That was me."
Cain told I Want My MTV that he's still at a loss to explain any of it. "I will never live down those air keyboards," he added. "No matter what else I've done in my career, sooner or later people find a way to ask me about the 'Separate Ways' video."
Buckholtz, who also helmed clips for Journey's "After the Fall" and "Chain Reaction" during this same whirlwind week, admitted that inexperience played a role in any missteps. In fact, he described himself back then as "a hick director. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't have done it any different — well, yes I would, but my wife laughs every time it comes on TV. I'd never done one before, and maybe that shows."
Schon acknowledges now that the video for "Separate Ways" is far more infamous than beloved. It became fodder for one of the more memorable segments on MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head ("Is this the Partridge Family?"); there have been countless other jokes since. Schon has found a way to put things in perspective, he told Huffington Post. "Better that way than not ever seeing it at all," Schon argued.
Perry eventually came to the same place. "You gotta love it! We'll be immortalized forever now!" he told Entertainment Weekly in 1994, after watching Beavis and Butt-Head excoriate his band.
"It was just cheeseball, from beginning to end," Cain added. "I can still see Steve Perry at the meeting going, 'No!'" Still, some good came of it all. Perry eventually promised to write the still-angry Swafford a song by way of an apology, and "Oh Sherrie" became a No. 3 solo Billboard hit a year later in 1984.
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