One of the luckiest, and in quite a few people’s minds best, rock songs ever had a big day 40 years ago today. “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts on this day in 1981. The fact that it never got higher than that would come as a surprise to many given that it’s considered a rock classic and is one of the most played “recurrent” singles on radio year after year.
“Don’t Stop Believin’” was the second single off Journey’s seventh studio album, Escape, the fourth with singer Steve Perry. The band was hitting their creative and commercial peak, with the album being their only U.S. #1 and their biggest-seller outside of their Greatest Hits compilation. Currently it’s 9X platinum in the U.S. and has topped 12 million sales worldwide.
The song was popular enough at home, no question about that. It spend 13 weeks in the top 40, but it might seem hard to believe now that the previous single, “Who’s Crying Now?” spent longer on the charts and had gotten to #4, making it the band’s biggest hit to that point. “Don’t Stop Believin’” did well in Canada as well, where the album went triple platinum, but was close to ignored elsewhere. In the UK, for instance, it crawled to #62. And while the California band had their diehard fans, they weren’t universally adored. Critics tended to lambast them regularly. Rolling Stone was not atypical at the time when it rated Escape just 2-stars, saying “Who’s Crying Now?” “does sound good” but otherwise the album was “less a testament to talent than to the times,” calling them “heavy metal lightweights”. They didn’t even mention “Don’t Stop Believin’” in their review.
Time was initially somewhat kind to Journey and the album. The love song “Open Arms” off it was a hit (getting to #2 in North America, it was the highest charting single for the band, who with 18 top 40 hits trail only ELO for most hit singles without a #1 hit)and by the end of the century, Classic Rock had listed it as the 22nd greatest album of all-time in their opinion.
The stroke of luck for Journey however, came in 2007. It was that David Chase was a fan of theirs, and the song in particular. Chase was a writer for, and producer of the HBO hit show The Sopranos, and he needed a song to close out the final scene of the final episode with. He chose this one.
He loved the song. “Musically (it) starts to build and build into something as it’s just about to release. And when you look at that scene, you get that feeling.” He especially liked the line “’He took the midnight train going anywhere’. I felt these two characters had taken the midnight train a long time ago. that is their life… the dark train.”
Millions tuned in to the finale, and its ambiguity ensured many more would discuss it for days to come and rewatch it, all the while taking in the sounds of Journey. It was the musical equivalent of a winning Powerball ticket for Steve Perry (who has a new Christmas album this year) and his by then ex-bandmates. The song was requested constantly on rock stations and it vaulted back up the charts, to #6 in the UK and #2 in Canada. By then, I-pods were a popular device and “Don’t Stop Believin’” began being added to them. By the millions. For a brief time, it was the most downloaded song ever, and it remains the biggest hit from the 20th Century on I-tunes. The song which had after some time earned the band a gold record for the sales of the 7” vinyl record, jumped to 5X platinum based on the millions of paid downloads.
I guess there’s a message in there. If at first you don’t succeed (or at least not as well as you had hoped) hang in there and “Don’t Stop Believin’”. Success could be just around the corner.