From the mid-seventies through the late eighties AOR, aka Album-oriented rock, ruled the radio airwaves in the USA. And I absolutely hated it and all I believed it stood for. Then Journey released a song in 1986 and ruined everything…
This essay won’t necessarily make you like Journey or the sound of AOR or ultimately appreciate either of them if you haven’t before. And I totally get that. But please know I was once like you. I was for all intents and purposes, a hater. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is this AOR?: If ever asked to define the AOR sound, I always say the same thing : It’s basically the musical equivalent of Baby Bear’s bed in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as in not too Hard (Rock), not too Soft (Rock) but juuuuust right…in the middle that is, taking elements of both ( loud guitars from the former, melody from the latter) and not overly accentuating either. And for added context, I’ll usually add that Journey are The Beatles of AOR. They were the purveyors of the most accessible and successful AOR songs in history (including the genre’s defining theme tune, “Don’t Stop Believin”) and they remain the standard by which all other AOR artists are judged.
More Than A Feeling: By the time I hit my teens I had organically, inevitably begun to shed some of the uncool, childish musical accoutrements I’d accumulated in my youth. Once I hit junior high, I stopped buying Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine and instead started getting Creem and Circus, the “cooler” rock themed mags whose covers featured people like Patti Smith and Cheap Trick. I removed the Andy Gibb poster from my wall and used my allowance to buy albums by ELO and Eddie Money. I was growing up and my quest to ROCK had officially begun ( okay ELO and Eddie Money were not all that “hard” but you know, baby steps).
While I loved the two aforementioned artists, the first full on rock band I obsessed over was Boston, whose 1976 debut album, home to classic rock stalwart “More Than A Feeling”, remains one of the best selling records of all-time. I particularly loved their hairy singer Brad Delp, slapped his pictures on my bedroom wall and even went so far as to do a painting of him, which I sadly trashed years ago. And so, predictably, the first actual rock concert I ever attended was a Boston show at Nassau Coliseum after which I bought a tour shirt and a glossy program to ogle. Yes, guilty, total fan girl.
I don’t know, I just did…
The reason I am bringing all this up is because Boston are rightfully regarded as one of the seminal AOR bands and the premise of this whole piece is based on my resistance to and hatred of AOR. They literally helped architect the sound. And I loved them, so clearly the AOR appreciation gene existed in my inner circuitry, a part of me was drawn to it. The fact is the root of my hatred for AOR had less to do with the actual music than it did with an unpleasant association. Namely that the kids who bullied my shy, weird, art nerd ass in junior high and high school all seemed to love it. Which is to say I noticed which band was on your tee-shirt or badly painted on the back of your denim jacket as you were verbally laying into me. I wasn’t only getting my butt kicked by you but by the band the you liked. As you were tearing my notebook in half, the band looking out from your shirt were your approving henchmen and totally on board with the brutalization.
And so I started to hate the music my tormenters openly liked on principle. Fuck Yes. Fuck Bad Company. Once I hit high school, I was still me but of course the bands had changed. Fuck REO Speedwagon. Fuck Journey. Thankfully there exists a visual aid, courtesy of Freaks and Geeks, that explains this concept far better than I ever could:
When ballots were being passed out in homeroom during senior year to choose the official Prom theme song, I distinctly remember Journey’s “Open Arms” being one of the choices. While I don’t recall if it was ultimately chosen, I do recollect my exact thought when I saw that it was on the 3 song shortlist: What a shit song. I checked it off on the ballot, just to be spiteful.
Senses Working Overtime: And it wasn’t a challenge to hate AOR. Boston aside, I wasn’t fighting a powerful urge. In fact I didn’t feel like I was missing a damn thing. My “unwelcoming” classmates could totally have their WPLJ with its horrible AOR parade of Journey, Billy Squier and f-ing Styx. See, by the time I got to high school I’d discovered my own musical homebase in the form of an NYU generated radio show called Wavebreaker that featured the latest songs from all the coolest New Wave and Post Punk bands of the era like Soft Cell, XTC and The Jam. I fell under its spell instantly and loved nearly everything they played. Hearing those artists for the first time was nothing short of revelatory. That AOR shit didn’t even come close. I mean how could this even compare with this ?
My official teenage God, Bible and Overlord…
She Needs More: MTV hit just as I began college and I spent a disturbing number of hours every day watching in rapt attention, clocking in anywhere from 3-8 hours a viewing session ( at least). In retrospect I may have been a bit too into it.
Journey were still extraordinarily popular at that point and so were a staple of MTV’s daily playlists. It was therefore inevitable that they and I would cross paths during my lengthy viewing shifts. And it was during one of these shifts in 1986 that I first heard “Girl Can’t Help It”, the latest single off Journey’s then brand new album Raised on Radio. The video itself featured the sweaty band performing the song live at Calaveras County Fairgrounds. It wasn’t even the official single aka the studio version you could buy. But it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I totally loved the song.
Dammit to hell.
You Want A Piece Of My Heart? : Up until then, Journey and AOR had been the musical embodiment of high school bullies and suburban conformity. And that association ran deep for me. But pop music doesn’t care about your history. It is forever trying to charm and persuade you, to gain entry into your life by any means necessary. I was conflicted but there was nothing I could do, I wanted to hear “Girl Can’t Help It” again…and again. Mere days later, there I was in Record World, purchasing my first ( and not my last) Journey album. And just like that all my years of concentrated, deliberate hatred went up in smoke.
It is said that the truth shall set you free and the truth soon became clear, which was that not only did I love Journey but that I totally loved AOR itself. Was it because I was finally hearing it out of the dangerous school environs and its terrifying associations ? Was it a case of you can take a girl out of the ’80s suburbs but you can’t take the ’80s suburbs out of the girl ?
I didn’t spend too much time questioning it. I just gave in to the urge. I began to openly explore and indulge this new found passion. I started tuning into the AOR themed radio stations I had previously mocked and avoided. I bought albums by Jefferson Starship, Zebra and Loverboy and allowed them to brazenly rub their leather clad crotches up against my Smiths and Cure LPs. Deep cuts by Heart and Foreigner were finding their way onto my previously elitist, obscurely post-punk band-ed mix tapes.
I admit it was a slow burn. Even as I began to explore my AOR tendencies, I still favored my New Wave/Anglophile side, and as far as radio still primarily worshipped the New Wave mecca that was WLIR…but I was finally comfortable buying albums and singles by AOR bands I liked. I felt free enough to admit that I liked Night Ranger out loud to other humans.
Can’t Fight This Feeling: AOR thinks it’s cool but it isn’t. It tries too hard. But that earnestness, that heart on the sleeve conviction is what makes it so inherently lovable. From opening track to closer, every song on an AOR album brazenly aspires to be a single. And while there are plenty of love and lust themed songs within its arsenal, there are also an equal amount of songs about overcoming things, hometowns and basic survival. With their laser focus on the concept of “chorus”, AOR songs provide the ideal soundtrack to any car excursion. This last fact was brought home during my high school Drivers Ed class. Whether we were tooling around town or making illicit trips to the beach, our mustachioed, chain-smoking, shotgun-seated, born and raised on Long Island instructor always had the radio tuned into…yeah, you guessed it. No other soundtrack would have made sense.
Any Way You Want It: You can’t really be an AOR connoisseur. It’s an oxymoron. The songs are all about living in the moment meaning the only logical response or reaction to a good AOR song is a hearty “I f-ing love this song”. Then you start singing along. Simple as that, no deep analytical conversation or thought is necessary.
Okay, so if I were stuck on a desert island, which songs would I blast in my 1981 Camaro Z28 as I took laps around its perimeter along with “Girl Can’t Help It”? Oh, for sure it would be these bitchin’ babes:
Jefferson Starship: “Find Your Way Back” (1981)
Once gigantically voiced Mickey Thomas joined Jefferson Starship as their new lead vocalist in 1979, taking over from giants Marty Balin and Grace Slick who’d departed the previous year, the band began to lean hard into the AOR. “Find Your Way Back” is an anthemic, histrionic piece of candy that sounds like it’s always existed. If you were putting together an AOR song in a lab, this is what it would sound like. It features all the necessary ingredients that go into making a perfect AOR song. Infectious, simple acoustic intro. Over the top vocal. An unadorned, shamelessly singalong chorus. Shredding of a supremely neat and shiny nature. It sounds good blasting in both vehicle and arena. I love it. It also evokes powerful memories of…My Mom’s Cowbell™ ( not to be confused with this one).
Growing up, my bedroom and my brothers were inches away from one another and were divided by a single wall. Being teenagers who loved music meant that shit was always turned up loud. While I was listening to all that British stuff mentioned earlier, he spent a lot of time tuned into the AOR radio stations. Neither of us were considerate enough to use headphones which often led to a passive-aggressive battles wherein each of us would incrementally increase our respective volumes in an attempt to drown out the sound of the other. It got to the point that when my Mom would call us downstairs for supper, we couldn’t hear her over the musical din. Having to yell for us endlessly began to take its toll (translation: it really pissed her off). And so she purchased a cowbell, a real one, like the kind that would hang around a cow’s neck in an old children’s book. Anytime she needed to summon us, she simply stood at the foot of the stairs leading to our rooms and violently rang the cowbell. And I have a distinct memory of hearing “Find Your Way Back” emanating from my brother’s room as Mom was shaking her thang one night to summon us to dinner. This is why I will forever think of my Mom as an unofficial member of Jefferson Starship and is another reason why I will always love this song.
Heart: “Wait For An Answer” (1987)
While Heart’s 1987 album Bad Animals was home to the legend that is maniacal, unrequited love power ballad and former #1 song “Alone”, this deep cut, the last song on what used to be known as “Side One” is the jam. Like all the best Heart songs it is extravagantly, hair pulling-ly overwrought with Ann Wilson’s gargantuan voice making a vertigo-inducing ascent skyward while synthesizers and drums chase after her. “Wait…” is also home to a truly extreme and magnificent key change on the last chorus because Ann Wilson can just do that shit. The song was written and originally recorded by Canadian artist Dalbello and unlike the typical AOR song, features somewhat cryptic and interpretable lyrical content; the protagonist sounds both haunted and desperate and makes oblique references to something bad that happened in the past. All of which only serve to make it cooler. It’s nuts and it’s awesome.
Night Ranger: “When You Close Your Eyes” (1984)
Night Ranger are most famous of course for one of the most beloved and polarizing AOR power ballads in history, “Sister Christian”. “MOTORING”! And it does rule…but “When You Close Your Eyes” will always be the one for me. It was Top 20 hit in 1984 and a welcome addition to the the noble pantheon of hit songs about getting acquainted in the back of a Chevrolet, effortlessly equaling the majesty of its predecessors by Bob Seger and, of course, Sammy Johns. Which is to say “When You Close Your Eyes” is about as straightforward as it gets, a clumsily wistful bit of reminiscence about an old love wrapped in an optimistic and gloriously melodic tune. In an interview with Songfacts in 2010, Night Ranger’s Jack Blades explained his inspiration for writing it this way;
I thought about my old girlfriend, where we split up, and I wonder if she ever thinks about the past, and all these things you went through when you were growing up, and all these things you did when you were together…and your first love…and the first woman that I made love to. And then everybody moves on in their lives, and you just go in separate ways. And I always wondered, “When you close your eyes, do you think about me?”
That’s about as AOR as a songwriting inspiration could possibly be. Perfect.
Zebra: “Your Mind’s Open” (1986)
Zebra are a 3 piece band that despite hailing from New Orleans proved to be immensely popular on Long Island and as a result, ended up relocating there in the early ’80s. Which meant I heard their name bandied around pretty regularly as a teenager. This choice of homebase and the fact that they were especially beloved by people from my teenage hell ground zero of course meant I wanted no part of what they were selling. Oh MTV tried to convince me, showing the videos for “Who’s Behind the Door” and “Tell Me What You Want”, two slabs of pretty perfect, melodically sophisticated AOR with some regularity, but I refused to let them in.
Of course once I had my born again moment that avoidance ended. I f-ing love Zebra. They are responsible for several of my absolute favorite AOR songs ever. “Your Mind’s Open” is the kind of thing you’d hear whilst entering the gate of a carnival whose theme was AOR. It’s plush and it spins around and offers a vaguely inspirational message, a little bit mind over matter, a little bit personal affirmation. It’s like candy-coated version of Led Zeppelin and I totally adore its gloriously falsetto-ed, synthesized fairground heart.
Hold On To That Feeling: In 2018, Steve Perry of Journey did an interview with Kate Mossman for New Statesman magazine and said something so on-point and buddha-like regarding his former band’s music that all I could do was nod in appreciation. He said he had loved high school and looked upon it as “a magical time, when innocence is running your life” and that he thought of a concert venue as “the backseat of a car “. He described his songwriting inspiration like this; “Everything I write comes back to high school. I know it sounds funny, but everything. It all comes from the emotions I grew into during my adolescence. Those moments are not to be tossed away. If something means something to you, go back and get it and make it part of your life. And anyone who doesn’t understand how important that is, you tell them to FUCK OFF”.
And therein lies the essence of Journey, one I wasn’t conscious of at the time but should’ve been perfectly obvious. Duh. Of course. Journey were literally about high school. And while I was actually in high school at the time when they were singing about it, at the peak of their popularity, I wasn’t having the Journey experience of it. None of the carefree, sometimes tears but mostly fun experiences but rather the polar opposite, the other side, the otherness, the bad shit. Turns out I was destined to resent Journey (and their ilk). The joy of high school was literally baked into their songs. It made sense that I’d gravitate to all that angry, wanting and weird British New Wave and Post Punk. That’s who I was. They were like me.
As a teen, the pop music you love gives you an identity. It helps you understand who you are, helps to articulate all your awkward ass thoughts. And when I think about how genuinely angry I was at certain bands and sounds I get it. I was hilariously, disproportionately emotional about it but, you know, I was teenager who lived for music so…
I guess the simplest way to explain it is this; there are a lot of assholes in the world that like chocolate but that’s not chocolate’s fault. Which is to say, I’m sorry AOR (and Journey specifically), you just got caught in my teen hate dragnet and I was mad. I know it wasn’t you. Thanks for still welcoming me in with Open Arms.