How Survivor Built on ‘Rocky’ Success With ‘Eye of the Tiger’ LP
As preparations for their third album, Survivor knew they still had a lot to prove. Everything was about to change in a big way thanks to some unexpected interest from Sylvester Stallone.
The band's chief songwriters – Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan – agree they were at a crossroads at the time. “Probably this is either going to happen, or they’re going to drop us,” Sullivan tells UCR. “We never thought that, but probably in reality, that’s what they were thinking, because that’s what [labels] did back then.”
But Scotti Bros. were committed to the band. “I will give them a lot of credit, because nowadays a record company will stay with you as long as you have a hit, and if you don’t have a hit, you’re dropped,” Peterik says. “The Scottis were behind us, and there was no question there would be a third record.”
Even though Survivor made some progress leading up to 1982, the Chicago-bred band hadn’t had a breakout moment yet. Ron Nevison co-produced their 1979 self-titled debut, an experience that Sullivan says was both intensely frustrating and a valuable learning experience – thanks to things he picked up while working with the producer. But too many people were involved in the process at the time and Nevison eventually left before the record was completed.
Legendary A&R executive “John Kalodner, who is a really good guy, he was a meddler,” Nevison tells UCR. “John’s best attributes were putting [people together], which is the job of an A&R guy, to be a marriage broker – to be somebody that puts people together and then oversees a project but not get right in the thick of it, unless there’s red flags all over the place. I would get messages from Kalodner like, ‘Remove cymbal bell.’ Like, in a rock 'n' roll drum scenario, that actually means, ‘Do the drums over.’
Nevison ended up saying “‘Take my name off that piece of shit.’ Ron’s a hard ass,” Sullivan says with a laugh, adding that he "was kind of bummed out" about how Nevison left the project. “That was my first experience and that was back when I wouldn’t say [anything]. I didn’t know what to do. We did [their sophomore album] Premonition without him, without a producer.”
Watch Survivor's Video for 'Eye of the Tiger'
Sullivan and Peterik took the production reins. Even though Nevison was out of the picture, he still offered Sullivan input on what the band was doing in the studio – something the other members of Survivor weren’t aware of.
“He was [working with] Jefferson Starship, and during the making of Premonition, I would go to that studio at 7 with the tapes from that day, and Ron would take a break and he would listen to cassette tapes and say, ‘Okay, now, you’ve got to start learning. What do you like on that tape?’" Sullivan remembers. "I’d show him and he said, ‘Well, I think that’s okay, but this one’s better. Get rid of this. You can’t polish a turd.’ So I started learning. I finally told those guys like about 20 years later.”
Nevison said he didn't specifically recall doing that, but “it sounds like something I would have done, because we had a relationship.”
Peterik says Premonition ended up being a great “practice run” for their next album – which also gave Survivor the chance to break in a couple of new members who would add their own important bits to the developing sound of the band.
“We had our new rhythm section in place, Marc Droubay and Stephan Ellis, and we knew we had found the magic combination of people,” he says. “The first album was good for what it was, but we knew Gary [Smith] and Dennis [Johnson] were not a fit, in terms of the kind of rock we wanted to make. They were just too jazzy. We had to literally tie their hands, so they would play two and four. [Laughs.] They’re great, great players, but really a different set of players. So we had the team in place.”
Sullivan knew Droubay from when he played drums in a group called the Toots Band. They hit it off right away with a shared love for Led Zeppelin, something that’s immediately evident in the heavy nature of Droubay’s drumming. So when he and Peterik found themselves in need of a drummer, he knew the right guy. After reconnecting with Droubay, the pair went out to a rollerskating rink in Hollywood that night and saw Survivor’s future bass player. Sullivan liked what he saw and got Stephan Ellis to commit to rehearsals for the new album, which they were set to begin in less than two weeks.
Listen to Survivor Perform 'Poor Man's Son'
They quickly found the new additions fit in well.
“We broke it down. We got down and raw, and then we took the songs that we’d write and they fit in. So that’s the whole vibe on that record,” Sullivan says. “You’ve still got the songs. You’ve got the background vocals and the guitars; you’ve got the sound. There’s a heaviness to that record. There’s a bottom end on that thing that’s deep. That’s hard to do. Anybody can give you high end, but capturing that low bottom, like John Bonham used to play, just the kick, the snare and the hat, and we did it.
“That was where I said, ‘This is really good. This could be just great’ – and that was the Premonition record,” Sullivan adds. “We ended up remixing some of it because the drums were so good that we put them up too loud in the mix. I certainly wasn’t experienced enough to sit behind a console and actually mix a record back then, and I tried.”
Sullivan could see that Peterik was energized by the band’s new recruits. “I think that he loved that I brought these guys in that played like nobody he’d ever played with," Sullivan says. "We were both stoked up, and by the time the two weeks went by, we had 25 songs and didn’t know which ones to eliminate and we were cutting tracks. We made that record quickly because we had a really low budget. I think that Jim and I always wrote the best songs that we could write. We were always changing lyrics right down to when Dave [Bickler] would sing [them]. But it struck a chord. It’s 'Poor Man’s Son' that caught Stallone’s ear."
“Poor Man’s Son” received some radio airplay, giving Survivor their first Top 40 hit when it climbed to No. 33 in late 1981. “Summer Nights,” the band's next single, picked up some additional spins in early 1982. Survivor then spent a lot of time on the road, touring “with a bunch of different groups,” as Peterik notes. “From Triumph to Starship and Zebra and Kansas.
“We were rehearsing and we were doing some shows," he adds. "Just about that time I got the fateful phone call from Stallone. We had no clue that Stallone was going to call us. I got home and I hear on the answering machine, ‘Hey yo, Jim, give me a call, it’s Sylvester Stallone.’ I thought someone was pulling my leg. Long story short, he says, “I love your band” because [label head] Tony Scotti had played him ‘Poor Man’s Son’ and he said, ‘That’s the sound I want for Rocky III.’”
Sullivan remembers the story a little differently. He says Stallone told Scotti that he didn’t like the song he had originally slotted for Rocky III. "Tony Scotti [realized] ‘This could be great for my band and great for him.’ He said, ‘I’ve got a band. You like that song, ‘Poor Man’s Son,’ you went out to see them.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Why don’t we get them? Why don’t you give them a shot? Give them the opportunity. Talk to ‘em.’ And he went for it.” [He] never got the credit that he should have. He’s the one that made that happen.
“If you think about it, if you’re president of the record company and he’s one of your best friends and he’s struggling with music, you’re going to say, ‘This is a great opportunity for one of my acts,’” Sullivan says. “So he talked to him and that started ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ I read these things, ‘The house rock built’ and ‘The phone call that shook the world.’ Well, I have to tell you that never happened. Tony did it.”
Watch the Trailer for 'Rocky III'
The main issue as they watched a few minutes from the upcoming movie, according to Peterik, was that Stallone hadn’t been able to get the rights to use Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” “We’re watching the montage at the beginning, and we hear 'Another One Bites the Dust' as the music bed,” he recalls. “And I go, ‘Well, they’ve got a song!’ I called Stallone and Sly goes, ‘Oh yeah, we couldn’t use it. We couldn’t get the publishing on that Queen song.’
“So I went back in the kitchen and turned down the sound and we just started going at it. We realized, ‘This is going to be an incredible movie,’” Peterik says. “You know, you see Mr. T rising up and Stallone kind of getting soft. I had my guitar around my neck and I started doing that [imitates 'Eye of the Tiger' guitar]. The slashes that come right after that, I actually wrote about three or four days later in my head driving down the street – but we really couldn’t get any further down the road without seeing the whole movie.”
They begged Stallone to send them a cut of the full film, which he eventually did.
“It came FedEx the next day and that’s when the story all made sense," Peterik says. "We hear the trainer, Mickey, going, 'Hey, Rocky, you’re losing the eye of the tiger.' Frankie and I looked at each other and said, 'There it is.' The following day, we got together, and Frankie actually threw out a couple of lines that really set the wheels in motion. He goes, 'Back on the street, doing time, takin’ chances.' I said, 'Man, that sounds good. How about this? 'Risin' up, back on the street, did my time, took my chances.' We were off to the races.
“I was at the piano and he was at the guitar. Three days later, we were at Chicago Recording Company and we cut the demo, sent it to Stallone and he absolutely flipped. He couldn’t believe we had come up with this thing so quick. He made us write a third verse. He said, 'You know, you’re getting a little bit lazy. You’ve got to bring me a third verse.' So we kind of bastardized the first verse and wrote a third verse – and that demo was actually the version that went into the movie.”
Dave Bickler recalls that when he heard what they had done in the studio, he knew that they were onto something. “When we did the demo in Chicago, I thought that it would be a hit record. I just had a feeling about that. Of course, I’d had that feeling before,” he says with a laugh. “It just had a certain rhythm to it, which I think has been borne out historically, you know, there’s something about that song that just never dies. The message of it seems to be timeless and kind of a zombie that can’t be killed."
Listen to Survivor Perform 'The One That Really Matters'
Cutting “Eye of the Tiger” and seeing it go into the film put the members of Survivor in a really good frame of mind when they entered the studio at Rumbo Recorders with engineers Mike Clink and Phil Bonnano to finally begin working on the album.
“We were in the best mood cutting that record,” Peterik recalls. “Not that we weren’t in a good mood with Premonition, but we kind of knew that this album was going to be huge. I remember that almost every day somebody from the record company would come down just to see how we were doing. Cliff O’Sullivan, who was our product manager, would come in and say, 'Guys, how the fuck did you do this? This is incredible!' He especially liked 'I'm Not That Man Anymore.' With that kind of support, it was pretty incredible. I think we probably wrote a few songs in the studio. 'The One That Really Matters,' I think I finished that when we were in the studio, and that’s actually one of my favorite tracks.”
Nevison, who later worked again with Peterik and Sullivan on the Vital Signs and When Seconds Count albums, was able to see the elements each songwriter brought to the band. “When we were young and did these records, it was a great thing, to have two guys like Peterik and Frankie – because it was the perfect songwriting duo,” Nevison says. “It was a guitar player and a keyboard player, and Peterik coming up with these great melodies and Frankie coming up with these riffs.”
Sullivan says: “We were like lawnmowers. We were crankin’ out songs. We worked so hard. We wrote 1,100 songs in 22 years. We worked every day.”
They were also dedicated to making sure that every inch of the song was where it needed to be. Rather than use the demo version of “Eye of the Tiger” on the album, they ended up re-recording it – a subject of debate between Peterik and Sullivan back then.
“I said, ‘Frank, do we really need to recut this? We really got a good demo. Let’s just remix it,’” Peterik recalls. “He goes, ‘No, no, no – the fidelity is not good enough. We cut it on an MCI board; we’ve got a Neve board here.’ I go, ‘Okay, I guess you’re right.’ And it took us like a month to recreate what took us a day and a half back in Chicago but I’ll tell you, when you listen to that song now on the radio, it sounds as good or better than anything else. I have to hand it to Frank. I’m glad we recut it, but just to capture that magic, it took a while to really get the groove back."
Watch Survivor's Video for 'Children of the Night'
“Children of the Night” is one of several songs that reveals Survivor's intensity during that period, as well as Bickler's virtuosity. He could turn in a speaker-shredding vocal on one song and then deliver a tender knockout punch on a ballad like “Ever Since the World Began.”
"He could pretty much do a whole take,” Peterik says. “‘Eye of the Tiger,’ the demo, he sang that in one take, maybe two – but when he was trying to, what we call, chase the demo [for the re-recorded 'Eye of the Tiger'], that took a long time. It was just because you have that initial rush of enthusiasm when you’re doing the demo and then you have to recreate the excitement, but at the end of the day, I think he equaled it or surpassed it with a better sound. Dave was [incredible].”
Bickler adds: “At that time, it really was easy for me to sing. This thing, about getting inside the song, you’ve got the headphones on and you’ve got a great microphone and it sounds fantastic coming back to you. That’s nirvana for a singer, so it really wasn’t that hard. Of course, we did many takes, but I was in my element, and it really wasn’t that hard to sing those songs. We rehearsed them, the demos and stuff we did back in Chicago, we brought that with us so it really wasn’t that difficult to sing those tracks for me at that time.”
Peterik argues that “Dave Bickler had that street thing that added credibility to every lyric Frankie and I wrote. Stallone mentioned that when he called us to write ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ He said, ‘I love that singer.’ He liked that grit, that vibe.”
For Sullivan, “there were times I would just sit there and he’d stop and he’d go, ‘How was that?’ It sounded like it was already done.' I can remember saying that and then listening back and going, ‘Holy crap, man.’ It was there. I’m like, ‘Okay, you’re done.’ ‘You’re sure?’ ‘Yeah!’”
Listen to Survivor Perform 'Ever Since the World Began'
“Ever Since the World Began” was another song submitted to Stallone for possible inclusion in Rocky III, and it should have been a bigger hit. The guys in Survivor evidently thought so too, since “Ever Since the World Began” appeared on another Stallone project, Lock Up, in 1989 before being re-recorded with the band's next singer, Jimi Jamison. (He also updated “Ever Since the World Began” as a solo artist after Survivor.)
The “Eye of the Tiger” single, because of its attachment to Rocky III, became an integral part of the movie franchise moving forward. It also ended up being the vehicle that Survivor needed to take their career to the next level. The song spent six weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and also reached the top in the U.K. The album just missed the top spot, landing at No. 2, going platinum along the way. The band snagged a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal for “Eye of the Tiger” and also nabbed an Academy Award nomination.
“Eye of the Tiger” has remained a prominent presence in pop culture over the years, still showing up in movies, TV shows and commercials. Survivor’s hard work paid off big time, and Peterik has no regrets as he looks back at the Eye of the Tiger album all these years later. “A lot of the stuff from the early to mid-’80s was really over-processed and [had] digital delays,” he notes. “We learned a lesson from Ron Nevison: He refused to use the harmonizer by Eventide.
“Everybody was using the harmonizer on everything at the 99 setting, and it would be kind of like a doubler on guitars and vocals. You name it, everybody went harmonizer-crazy,” Peterik adds. “Ron would not do any gimmicks. He said, ‘I want this to sound good and not gimmicky and current in 30 years,’ and we never forgot that. When we were cutting Eye of the Tiger, we followed that. There was no gimmicky bullshit. I think part of the reason that it sounds so good today is that it didn’t pander to the gimmicky electronic stuff.”