A Power Ballad that refuses to die

When was the last time you heard Don’t Stop Believin’? Was it on the radio or in the pub? At a festival or a wedding? Was it sung by Journey themselves, the cast of Glee, a fan on YouTube, a choir of schoolchildren or an embarrassing friend on a karaoke machine? but nothing has wormed its way into every corner of the culture quite like a slow-burning power ballad that’s about to celebrate its 37th birthday.

Several years ago it began with the curious sight of Journey’s song at No 6, with the Glee version at No 5, and it has barely left the top 75 since. In the US, download sales have passed 5m, making it by far the biggest-selling 20th-century catalogue track. Americans have had longer to live with it. It was a hit there back in 1981, and it’s had so many phases that even its comebacks have had comebacks. But over here it stalled at No 62 on its first release in February 1982 and didn’t begin to register in the pop psyche until relatively recently. Its path from obscurity to ubiquity mirrors its unorthodox structure: the slow build towards the last-minute eruption.

It was a song inspired by failure. Journey started life as a jazz-rock band in San Francisco in 1973, but they were floundering and hitless when, four years later, they recruited singer Steve Perry, who was having little luck himself. Their fortunes drastically improved, but the sentiments of Don’t Stop Believin’ harked back to the lean years. Before keyboardist Jonathan Cain joined in 1980, he was also struggling while living on LA’s Sunset Boulevard. Each time he called home in despair, his dad would tell him: “Don’t stop believing or you’re done, dude.”

The song was written backwards. Cain had nothing but the climactic chorus when he brought the stub of a song to Perry and guitarist Neal Schon, and they worked together on how to get to that moment. They all liked the concept of two lovers fleeing their hometowns by train (a reverse homage to Gladys Knight’s Midnight Train to Georgia), and Cain told Perry about his time in LA, hence the “strangers waiting up and down the boulevard” line. “I [saw] that every night in Hollywood,” Cain told The Mix magazine. “People coming to LA looking for their dream. We felt that every young person has a dream and sometimes where you grow up isn’t where you’re destined to be.”

In Britain, Don’t Stop Believin’ flopped, despite being Kerrang!’s single of the year for 1982. In the US, however, it was a substantial hit, the first of many from 1981’s multi-platinum Escape album. “Everyone in an American high school in the early 80s probably had a Journey cassette,” says Brian Raftery, author of Don’t Stop Believin’. “But then in the early 90s all the cheesy 80s music got rejected and it basically disappeared. Journey were seen as the kind of overblown arena act that grunge and hip-hop were meant to obliterate.”

The band weren’t best-posttioned to argue otherwise. Perry left in 1987, and then again after a brief reunion in the mid-90s, confirming the sense that Journey were yesterday’s men. But a few years ago, Raftery started noticing younger people singing Don’t Stop Believin’ at karaoke. “It amazed me,” he says. “First of all, how did they hear this song? And secondly, why? I think that younger people aren’t aware of the stigma. They just think it’s another awesomely cheesy anthem.”

Cain dates the song’s resurgence back to its tongue-in-cheek cameo in the 1998 Adam Sandler comedy The Wedding Singer. After that, other soundtrack co-ordinators turned to Journey for a song that was both humorously retro and genuinely stirring. It appeared in a pivotal montage in Scrubs (2003) and a karaoke scene in Family Guy (2005). And then, in 2007, came The Sopranos.

Series creator David Chase has never explained why he wanted Don’t Stop Believin’ for the last-ever episode, but it was a song that would have resonated with every member of the Soprano clan – for Tony and Carmella it was the sound of their youth, for Meadow and AJ a new discovery at college or high school. But when Chase first sought permission from the songwriters, Perry demurred because, he later explained, “I was not excited about the Soprano family being whacked to Don’t Stop Believin'”. He withheld consent until three days before the episode aired, when Chase agreed to tell him (three-year-old spoiler alert!) that the ending was ambiguous. And so 12 million viewers were left hanging with Journey ringing in their ears.

That’s how a song that was already slowly re-entering the culture reached the tipping point. Kanye West sang along to it, in a kind of gauche superstar karaoke, on his 2008 tour. The Broadway musical Rock of Ages climaxed with a massed rendition. The LA Dodgers adopted it as their theme song. Just when it could hardly get more popular, it appeared, cleverly rearranged, in the pilot episode of Glee and wooed an even younger generation. “I think that helped stymie Don’t Stop Believin’ fatigue,” says Raftery. “They managed to make a song that was very easy to sing along to even more accessible.” In Britain, Joe McElderry’s version on The X-Factor provided the final shove.

But this cultural carpet-bombing can only explain why people have heard it, not why they love it. What exactly is the unrelenting appeal of Don’t Stop Believin’?

Raftery has a suggestion: “It’s the kind of song you can wink at, but at the same time it’s very emotional. You can have it both ways.” Like Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, Don’t Stop Believin’ is inspirational kitsch, taking the borderline corny, ordinary-Joe heroism of Springsteen circa Born to Run and pushing it way over the top. But whereas Springsteen is more likely to focus on the smalltown world being left behind, Perry and Cain are all about where their heroes are going. The characters’ self-image is shaped by rock music and cinema.

The lyric is just specific enough not to be woolly but vague enough to apply to any situation in which not stopping believin’ is important. If you’re a sports fan, it says you may still get to the finals. If you’re an aspiring musician, on Sunset Boulevard in the 70s or on The X Factor today, it says you may yet see your name in lights. And if you’re just young and think you could do better, well then it’s a song for you as well. No wonder its self-mythologising resonates at a time when nothing is more important than “following your dreams”. “This song has helped me personally to not give up, and I’m finding that goes for a lot of people out there,” Perry told Planet Rock radio in February.

“As cheesy as it is, it’s pretty convincing,” says Raftery. “Here are these kids, they’ve gone through some hard times, but you know what? You gotta keep pushing through it. Which is the story, for better or worse, of America: don’t look back, don’t let your past drag you down, just keep pushing forward.”

And that’s what the song does on a structural level – it pushes forward. It is that midnight train, steadily gathering speed, and as a listener you want to stay on until it reaches its destination. “It’s like a wave about to happen,” Cain told the LA Times. “The anticipation of something happening, a change in your life.”

Byers points out, each new guitar chord appears on the last quaver of the bar, giving the song an extra push. But these are common strategies. It’s the slow burn that makes Don’t Stop Believin’ so unusually compelling.

“Over time, we learn to appreciate these songs that don’t offload all they’ve got in the first minute – Elton John’s Tiny Dancer being another one,” says Byers. “You invest some emotion in bothering to listen all the way through.”

You have to wait a full 80 seconds before the drums come in properly, and the chorus only arrives less than a minute before the end. It generates not just momentum but, as Chase recognised, suspense. It contains the possibility of failure (“Some will win, some will lose”) until the last surge of indomitable optimism. The opposing vision of Midnight Train to Georgia, about someone who leaves LA after discovering that “dreams don’t always come true”, lurks in the shadows. It’s no lyrical masterpiece, but it is a hugely effective bit of storytelling.

Glee dissolves the wall between star and fan, between professional performance and karaoke, making it an ideal vehicle to promote Don’t Stop Believin’ as a song for anyone to perform. “It’s one of the most perfect karaoke songs ever,” says Raftery. “I doubt anyone who works in a karaoke bar goes three hours without hearing it.”

The song gives you license to overact, especially if you don’t have a voice half as supple and precise as Perry’s and you need to compensate with sheer gusto. In that context, it’s both heroic and daft, narcissistic and communal. It’s appropriate that Journey’s current frontman, Arnel Pineda, was recruited after the band saw him performing Don’t Stop Believin’ on YouTube with his previous band. Perry made it great, but the song has now eclipsed the singer.

So first it was a normal song, then a forgotten one, then an ironic reference, then a genuine comeback, then a phenomenon, and now it’s just there, like Hey Jude.

Although, am a huge fan of Steve Perry, Arnel Pineda does a great job of keeping the vibe going with the band and this song.

I am crediting Dorian Lynskey for many excerpts in this post.

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