Mike Stone is a totally cool guy and a great engineer and producer, having done fine important work with Queen, Shoes, GBH, Gary Moore, Textones, Lou Reed, Joe Walsh, Al Stewart, Ace, and Strawbs, among many others. But his claim to fame, his key to multiple large homes and a life of leisure is a series of inexplicably multi-platinum corporate rock albums in the ’80s.
With ’81 came Stone’s arrival as a platinum-plated man. Canadian melodic hard-rockers April Wine’s The Nature of the Beast arrived in January – a mere platinum album. With February came Journey’s live Captured, a reasonable recapitulation of the band’s career to that point, that did double-platinum business.
Then in August, Journey’s studio album Escape was unleashed on the world. With Steve Perry’s impressive, even soulful, operatically-trained high tenor cutting through the very definition of ’80s arena-rock and power ballads, people robotically marched to their record stores and bought an inconceivable 9 million copies of an album that is basically just pretty good.
Well, if somewhat grandiloquently produced by Stone and Kevin Elson, the album is better than many and certainly no worse than hundreds like it, but for some reason it became a must-have.
“Don’t Stop Believin'” has a good beat and a catchy tune. “Who’s Crying Now” is a nice ballad. The title track rocks convincingly, if somewhat stiffly in a prog-rock manner, on the strength of Santana-veteran Neal Schon’s guitar, as does “Dead Or Alive.” I suppose the clincher for many was the truly pretty ballad “Open Arms,” but good God, 9 million?!?!? The mind boggles.
With the floodgates open, no mortal was going to staunch the flow. While Journey was a real rock band with an honorable history, Asia was a studio-construct of prog-rock superstars (Geoffrey Downes – keyboards, Steve Howe – guitar, both ex of Yes; Carl Palmer – drums, ex-ELP; John Wetton – lead vocals and bass, ex of King Crimson, Roxy Music and many another arty band). Had the members brought with them the best of their respective former units, miracles might have been wrought.
However, with production slipping across the line into the clearly bombastic – multidubbed cascading background vocals supporting Wetton’s manly, straining, baritone on essentially meaningless lyrics, all riding on a cushion of cheesy ’80s electronic keyboard nonsense, Palmer’s beat-challenged drums, and canyons-worth of echo – miracles were not achieved. It would be difficult to ascertain what need the sales of 4 million copies of Asia met in ’82. The even-less distinctive Alpha sold another million in ’83.
Journey, looking positively gritty in comparison with Asia, came back in ’83 for another 5 million with Frontiers, another pretty good album with inexplicable sales figures, until you realize that about half the people who bought Escape gave the follow-up a try.
Which brings us to Whitesnake – by ’87 Stone had learned that by backing off of the lush, multidubbed background vocals a bit, pumping the guitar a smidge, and draining the reverb/echo off of the lead vocal a tad (except in the “freaky” parts), you could still get the sales without alienating your core hard-rock crowd.
Besides, Whitesnake, led by ex-Deep Purple singer David Coverdale, rocked way harder than either Journey or Asia, and still did ballads for the girls. Whitesnake sold 8 million albums and wrapped up Stone’s remarkable ’80s – wrapped it up except for the nine tracks he placed on Journey’s Greatest Hits, which has sold 8 million copies since its release in ’88.