The Unlikely Story Of How “Open Arms” Become Journey’s Hit Ballad
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 07: Inductees Steve Perry and Neal Schon of Journey speak onstage during the 32nd Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Barclays Center on April 7, 2017 in New York City. The broadcast will air on Saturday, April 29, 2017 at 8:00 PM ET/PT on HBO. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
Jonathan Cain first time presented “Open Arms” to The Babys and it wasn’t accepted with, you guessed it, open arms. So Cain, kept the song hidden.
Former Journey frontman Steve Perry later told Jeb Wright, “My understanding is that he had most of it sketched.” Cain and Perry had been discussing song ideas at Perry’s house, not long after Cain left The Babys for Journey.
As Cain recalls, Perry was interested in writing a different kind of material.
“He was talking to me about his solo album and wanting to do ballads, wanting to do soaring melodies with ballads,” Cain said in 2019. “I said, ‘Steve, there’s no reason for you to go do a solo album. You know, you could do it here in Journey.'”
Cain went out to his car to get his Wurlitzer piano, which he brought along “just in case” and showed Perry the unfinished song he originally offered to the Babys. Cain had the melody, but have no lyrics, but even it was still incomplete, Perry immediately recognized the song’s potential.
Perry remembered asking Cain what’s the song,
“and he said, ‘This is just a song that I started. I played it for my wife and I played it for [Babys frontman] John Waite but he said it was too syrupy.’ I told him, ‘Too bad for him and good for us.'”
The duo eagerly worked together to finish the song.
“That particular one kind of wrote itself. It went that quick,” Perry told Wright. “Escape was not easy; it still was hard. Jonathan and I had a lot of moments writing lyrics where there was difficulty between us. He would make a suggestion and I would say that I would try to sing it but then I would not be able to believe it, or own it for myself, so I would have to throw in a couple of changes or make additions to it to make it mine. That was fine with him; that is basically collaboration.”
Cain and Perry were both excited about the outcome. “I just remember just sitting there going, ‘Oh, wait til the world hears this,'” Cain said in an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.
When they shared the song to Journey, sadly, Neal Schon was at a loss.
“It’s not that I didn’t like the song when I heard it,” he said in the same VH1 episode. “It was just so far removed from anything we had ever attempted to record before. It’s just like, ‘What am I gonna do on this?'”
Which Cain replied, “you’re gonna be an orchestra, that’s what you’re gonna do.” In addition to bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith’s tracks, Cain added rhythm guitar and everyone contributed backing vocals.
Years later, when recalling footages for Live in Houston 1981, Perry remembers the memories of constructing the song with Cain and its emotional significance from decades ago.
“I had to keep my head down on the console when ‘Open Arms’ was on,” Perry told Wright. “There is one line in the song that I always wanted to be a certain way. I have ideals about certain things. The line ‘wanting you near’ – I just wanted that line to go up and soar. I wanted it to be heartfelt. Every time it would come by, I would just have to keep my head down and try to swallow the lump in my throat. I felt so proud of the song that I had written with Jonathan.”
“Open Arms” was released in January 1982 and made its way to No. 2 on the charts, becoming one of Journey’s most iconic songs and a set list staple. Truly, a missed opportunity for the Babys had turned into a phenomenal hit which started with just two bandmates who believed in the song.
“[Perry’s] idea melded with what I always had been wanting to find in the song lyrically,” added Cain, who credited Perry with “championing” the tune through its completion.
“You never give up on a song. No matter what anybody says about your song, there’s something there.”