Monday, August 17, 2009

Survivor Deliver A Knock-Out Hit

In 1982, U.S. hard edged rock outfit Survivor were elevated from the fringes of the mainstream charts, to being compared with the likes of arena rock powerhouses Journey, Boston, and Toto. And it was all down to one song, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, featured in the hit motion picture ‘Rocky III’. Now when we talk about Sylvester Stallone’s character Rocky Balboa, we are talking about one of the most quintessentially recognisable film characters of the last thirty years. The struggling boxer’s rags to riches story, as told in the first ‘Rocky’ film in 1976, delivered Stallone several Academy Awards, and not surprisingly, a licence to produce five sequels over the ensuing three decades (though some may have wished for that licence to have been revoked). Whilst I have a bit of a soft spot for the original ‘Rocky’, the next three sequels in particular kind of blend into one another. Let’s face it, Stallone applied pretty much the same generic story template to each (with minor variations), and just added an extra Roman numeral to the title, though I believe he redeemed himself (and the franchise) somewhat with the most recent sequel ‘Rocky Balboa’.

Arguments over the merits of Stallone’s movies aside, after all this is a music blog, for all but the most committed ‘Rocky’ devotees, it’s almost problematic to differentiate some of the sequels apart, in terms of story arch and plot lines. People usually do so in one of two ways - either by the name of the fighter who Rocky either challenged or was challenged by, or by the name of the hit song lifted from the film. Now aside from Apollo Creed appearing in the first couple of films, Mr. T playing the title challenger in the third, and some tall Russian guy being Rocky’s pugilistic nemesis in the fourth, I couldn’t tell you anything more - though come to think of it, that’s probably as much as most people would know. I prefer to distinguish the Rocky films from one another by way of the hit song, or music, associated with each - it’s more fun for a start (and means I don’t necessarily have had to sit through each film in its entirety). Bill Conti’s inspiring ‘Gonna Fly Now (Theme From ‘Rocky’)’ from Rocky’s first round effort, not only went to #1 on the U.S. Hot 100 during 1977, but earned Conti an Academy Award to glove, sorry boot. ‘Rocky II’ delivered a reprised soundtrack from Conti ,and Sly offered his little brother Frank a chance to perform the song ‘Two Kinds Of Love’, but no big hits eventuated. ‘Rocky IV’ gave the ‘Godfather of Soul’, James Brown, the chance to revive his flagging career with the funky ‘Living In America’ (penned by Dan Hartman - see previous post), which peaked at #4 in on the U.S. Hot 100, and the soundtrack also featured a return bout from Survivor, with ‘Burning Heart’ (US#2). But next to Conti’s immortal theme, the most memorable song associated with the Rocky franchise is without doubt Survivor’s ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, featured in ‘Rocky III’. Survivor’s own story, in some respects, mirrors the archetypal rags to riches story of Sly’s Rocky Balboa character, though thankfully won’t require six full length motion pictures to recount (unless a generous movie producer of questionable judgement is willing to give me a $300M budget to do so - any takers?).

Though Survivor came to prominence in the early 80s, one of the band’s formative members had already experienced considerable success with the Chicago-based 60s/70s outfit, The Ides Of March. Guitarist and vocalist Jim Peterik co-formed the band sometime during1964 as The Shon-Dels, who the following year, released the single ‘Like It Or Lump It’, on their own label. By 1966, The Shon-Dels had evolved into The Ides Of March, and enjoyed their first chart success soon after with the single ’You Wouldn’t Listen’ (US#42). During the late 60s, The Ides Of March added a brass section to the mix, and that would prove a key ingredient in their biggest hit. ‘Vehicle’ raced to #2 on the U.S. charts (OZ#73/UK#31) during 1970, and drew comparisons with contemporary act Blood, Sweat and Tears (with a dash more funk). Tours supporting the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin confirmed The Ides Of March as A-list players, but by 1973 they’d moved away from their earlier successful formula, and consequently the popularity of The Ides Of March waned. By the end of ‘73, The Ides Of March had called it a day, and Jim Peterik looked elsewhere for another music vehicle.

For a while Peterik wrote advertising jingles to pay the bills, but continued penning songs for another Chicago-based outfit, the jazz-rock oriented Chase, and was even invited to join the band. But in August ‘74, tragedy hit Chase when several members of the band were killed in a plane crash. Peterik then signed with Epic Records as a solo recording artist, and release a handful of low key singles (‘Last Tango’, ‘Don’t Fight The Feeling’), whilst he continued writing songs for other artists, including the vocal soul/R&B group Essence (‘Sweet Fools’). In 1976, Peterik released a solo album, ‘Don’t Fight The Feeling’, on Epic Records, and toured with the likes of Heart and Boston under the banner of The Jim Peterik Band. Drummer Gary Smith and bassist Dennis Johnson played with Peterik on that album, and by 1978 Peterik’s manager Rick Weigand pushed for an expansion of the band’s line-up. Guitarist Frankie Sullivan and vocalist Dave Bickler joined the fray, and Survivor was born. Smith and Johnson continued to tour and remained attached to the band, but the core of Survivor quickly became Peterik, Sullivan and Bickler.

Over the next year or so, Survivor racked up the frequent performance points across the U.S., playing a contemporary brand of guitar driven rock, though Peterik switched to keyboard duties during this period. By the end of ‘78, the band had signed with the Scotti Bros. record label, and during 1979 they recorded the tracks for their eponymous debut album. ‘Survivor’, the album (US#169), was targeted directly at the heartland of the album oriented rock demographic. The album’s opening track, ‘Somewhere In America’, penned by Peterik, was your archetypal guitar driven rock anthem, about the search for love - drop the word “America” into the title and chances are there’ll be some sales generated Stateside, and ‘Somewhere In America’ became Survivor’s first foray inside the U.S. Hot 100, in early 1980 (#70). Meanwhile, Jim Peterik continued to be a prolific songwriter for/with other artists, including .38 Special, Sammy Hagar, and Henry Paul. Survivor’s foundation rhythm section of Gary Smith and Dennis Johnson had also continued to be much sought after session players beyond Survivor ranks. Following the release of the stand alone single ‘Rebel Girl’ (US#103), later in 1980, both Smith and Johnson left the Survivor island (sorry had to throw that in), and the band recruited two new fulltime members to round out the line-up - bassist Stephan Ellis, and drummer Marc Droubay.

After a further eight months on the road, the tightly knit Survivor returned to the studio for their sophomore album, ‘Premonition’. The album further consolidated Survivor’s burgeoning reputation as skilled purveyors of album oriented rock, much in the vein of contemporaries like Toto, Night Ranger and Foreigner. Given the favourable climate in the U.S. at the time toward such melodic rock, Survivor began being added to radio playlists. The lead out single, ‘Poor Man’s Son’, delivered Survivor their first top forty hit late in 1981 (US#33). The song also caught the ear of Sylvester Stallone, who would soon play a pivotal role in Survivor’s evolution. The follow up single, ‘Summer Nights’ (US#62) probably didn’t benefit from its mid winter release, but sales for ‘Premonition’ pushed the album inside the top 100 (#82).

By 1982, Sylvester Stallone had started production on round three of the Rocky saga. Stallone was conscious of the role that Bill Conti’s powerful theme had played in adding to the profile of the first two ‘Rocky’ chapters. But whilst his brother Frank would record several songs for the soundtrack to ‘Rocky III’, Sly wanted something that packed more of a rock punch as the film’s lead song. He’d been mightily impressed by Survivor’s top forty hit ‘Poor Man’s Son’, and after consideration to use Queen’s existing hit ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ bit the dust, Stallone contacted Survivor and commissioned them to write and record a song for his latest pugilistic epic. Stallone gave Survivor’s primary songwriters, Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan, a video cassette copy of a rough cut for ‘Rocky III’, with the lone specification of “wanting something with a strong beat” - something to feed into the film’s theme of fighting against the odds - something… inspiring. Peterik and Sullivan firstly wondered why Stallone had made a comedy about golf, then realised they’d mistakenly put in a tape of ‘Caddyshack’. With the right tape in the machine, they watched the film and were struck by a particular phrase uttered a number of times by Rocky’s trainer Mickey. It was more of an instruction really to encourage the ‘Italian Stallion’ to keep the “eye of the tiger”. Within about 90 minutes they had written the foundations for ‘Eye Of The Tiger’.

Survivor’s ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ was released about two months in advance of the cinema release of ‘Rocky III’, no doubt in the hope that it would generate some advance hype. From the opening salvos of Frankie Sullivan’s bombastic guitar riff, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ had all the presence of a heavy weight champion standing triumphant centre ring. For the soundtrack album, actual tiger growls were added to the mix, but thankfully at the band’s insistence, they didn’t ham up the single mix. For a few weeks ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ danced and shimmied as it worked its way up the U.S. charts. The promo clip featured the band members joining forces on the streets, en-route to a warehouse performance. Bicker, Sullivan and crew took on the personas of street toughs, with much denim and leather attire, but Peterik looked oddly out of place, wearing thick horn rimmed glasses and a white cardigan - I always found that a curious choice of attire. Wardrobe aside, the promo clip became a regular on Australia’s Countdown, and the fledgling MTV network in the U.S. By July, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ had delivered a knock out punch to the opposition, and stood unchallenged against all-comers as the undisputed #1 song on the U.S. Hot 100, a title it would not relinquish for six weeks (replaced by the Steve Miller Band when ‘Abracadabra’ cast its spell). ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ similarly reigned supreme at #1 on the British (4 weeks), and Australian (6 weeks) charts over the next two months. In August of ‘82, ‘Rocky III’ received its cinema release and benefited greatly from the fact that ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ was sitting at #1 across the globe. The song cut an imposing presence with its anthemic chorus, and driving beat, and perfectly captured the drive, pace, and energy of the latest round in the ‘Rocky’ franchise. ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ won a swag of awards, including a Grammy Award, People’s Choice Award, and was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Song’. In the quarter century or so since its release, ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ has taken on a life beyond its dominance on the charts at the time. The double platinum selling single wasn’t just an anthem for a film, but a virtual anthem for an entire era of popular music. The number of times ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ has been used as a pop culture reference, beyond its standing as mega-selling hit, has ensured it’s as well recognised today as it was back in 1982 - few songs in popular music assume such an iconic status.

With the monumental success of ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, Survivor had moved beyond just keeping their heads above water in the music industry. As the single sat atop the charts, they released an album of the same name (US#2/OZ#26/UK#12), featuring a strong but largely generic blend of mainstream rock, with a balance of harder edged numbers such as ‘Hesitation Dance’, and the obligatory power ballad, ‘I’m Not That Man Anymore’. The follow up single ‘American Heartbeat’ (US#17), though a quality melodic rock track, failed to inspire the same fervour as its predecessor, whilst the pop-metal infused ‘The One That Really Matters’ went largely unnoticed (US#74).

Before the end of ‘83, Survivor had recorded and released the follow up album, ‘Caught In The Game’ (US#82). The album saw Survivor embracing a hard guitar driven sound to an even greater degree, with plenty of crunching guitar riffs and rousing chorus harmonies, but despite boasting some impressive guest players (Richard Page from Mr. Mister, Daryl Dragon from Captain & Tennille, and Kevin Cronin from REO Speedwagon), nothing really leapt off the turntable and screamed “I’m a hit! I’m a hit!’. The title track single scratched around the bleachers of the U.S. Hot 100 (#77), but all in all the follow up to ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ had been a commercial flop. The band then suffered an upper cut when vocalist Dave Bickler announced that he was leaving due to medical reasons (he was experiencing vocal problems) in early ‘84. Soon after, Survivor announced Bickler’s replacement behind the microphone, Jimi Jamison, formerly with hard rock outfits Target, and Cobra. Jamison’s first bout with the band came in the form of another soundtrack project, this time the film ‘The Karate Kid’. Whilst Joe Esposito’s ‘You’re The Best’ is the most memorable song associated with the ‘against the odds sporting glory’ story, Survivor’s ‘The Moment Of Truth’ managed to wax-on more turntables than in waxed-off, and reached #63 on the U.S. Hot 100.

Having been unable to match the glory of ’Eye Of The Tiger’, some critics, and fans alike, may have been questioning the staying power of Survivor. But Peterik, in particular, had seen it all before, and this rock music survivor (and his crew) were about to get up off the canvas and launch an almighty flurry of counterpunches.

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