How Journey Took Flight With ‘Wheel in the Sky’
Journey's first single on the Billboard Hot 100 was poetry in motion — literally.
"Wheel In the Sky," released in March 1978 as the lead single off the band's Infinity album, began as a poem titled "Wheels in My Mind," written by bassist Ross Valory's then-wife Diane. "She had written down, 'Wheels are turning on my mind,'" guitarist Neal Schon told Vulture in 2022. "In one of our long station-wagon hikes we did when we were traveling as a band — like nine guys in a station wagon in those days — at one point, everybody had to take a restroom break, and the driver needed a candy bar to wake up.
"I pulled out an acoustic guitar, sat on the hood of the car and I banged out that song," Schon continued. "I came up with the chorus. Her napkin poem sat in my mind and I came up with, 'Wheel in the sky keeps on turning / I don't know where I'll be tomorrow.'"
Robert Fleischman further refined the philosophical lyrics during his brief tenure as Journey's frontman. The song was largely demoed and ready by the time Steve Perry joined the group and the recording of Infinity commenced with producer Roy Thomas Baker.
Watch Journey's 'Wheel in the Sky' Video
"They already had 'Wheel in the Sky' in the bag, but the way they had done it with Robert was different from how I was going to interpret it," Perry told Classic Rock in 2014. "When it came time to do that track we had moved [studios] from San Francisco to Los Angeles. ... I sang real high falsetto notes with echo in the background while Neal was playing a beautiful solo."
Perry distinctly remembered encountering "Wheel in the Sky" in the wild after it was issued as a single. "Neal and I went to this pizza place, and I went over to the jukebox and saw a 'Wheel in the Sky' vinyl 45 in the machine — an ecstatic feeling," he recalled. "I didn't tell Neal. I just put two quarters in, pushed the button and sat down, and the song started. Neal looked at me and started laughing. It was a monumental moment. Back then if you started to show up in jukeboxes, it was a sign that you might be finally starting to happen."
"Wheel in the Sky" rolled to No. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 52 on the Cash Box Top 100. Most importantly, it gave Journey a foothold on rock radio that extended to subsequent singles "Anytime" and "Lights." Those helped push Infinity to No. 21 on the Billboard 200, Journey's top showing to date, and eventual triple-platinum status. "Wheel," meanwhile, has become the most-played live song in Journey's catalog with over 1,000 performances, according to setlist.fm.
"I keep reinventing 'Wheels,' and it ends up being a big and powerful highlight in our shows," Schon told Vulture. "That's another song that wasn't a huge hit single but has since become an organic hit within our Journey audience."