Having a small number of fans doesn’t mean failure…particularly if one of those small number happen to be one of entertainment’s biggest names. That’s what Survivor found out 40 years ago when, seemingly out of nowhere they scored one of the biggest hits of the entire decade – “Eye of the Tiger.” It hit #1 in the U.S. on this day in 1982 and stayed there for six weeks. Good thing for them Sylvester Stallone had happened upon one of their early singles that nearly flopped, and loved it!
Survivor was a Chicago-based band which had been around for four years by then. They’d formed when Frankie Sullivan met Jim Peterik, who in turn had worked with Dave Bickler. Sullivan was an excellent guitarist who’d played in a few obscure bands; Peterik was an accomplished songwriter and had been the lead singer in the Ides of March, for whom he’d written the hit “Vehicle.” After that he’d written tunes for the likes of Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon and 38 Special’s hit “Hold on Loosely.” But for much of the ’70s, he worked in advertising, writing commercial jingles, which is how he met Bickler. He in turn had sung those jingles. They formed the band Survivor and got signed by Atlantic Records-owned Scotti Brothers.
However, their “metal lite” rock didn’t instantly catch on. Their first two albums were all but un-noticed, neither hitting the top 75. But they had managed to score one minor hit in 1981, “Poor Man’s Son.” And Sly Stallone liked it. He was putting together Rocky III, as the name suggests the third movie featuring his boxer Rocky character. He wanted a dramatic, punchy title theme for the movie. His first choice was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”, but they refused to let it be used. So he phoned up Survivor. He asked them to make a song with the impact of the Queen hit; one a bit like “Poor Man’s Son.” Although the theme from the first Rocky movie, “Gonna Fly Now” had been a #1 hit itself, Peterik says Stallone “made it real clear he wanted to distance himself from that first song…he wanted something to get to the youth market.” A few years later he laughed “it’s hilarious to think I was once part of the cutting edge.”
They didn’t stray far from “Poor Man’s Son” to make the Stallone theme. Careful listeners will notice the same basic chord progressions and more than a passing resemblance between the two. Peterik wrote strong, punchy lyrics about tigers and surviving and they played the demo for the actor star. He loved it, but asked that the drums be “punchier, louder” in the mix, so they obliged. One doesn’t say “no” to Rocky…unless perhaps you’re Freddie Mercury and Brian May!
It was the thing that made their career. Rocky III was a smash, in fact the biggest box office hit of the year. So millions heard Survivor in the theatres, and seemed to love the song. It quickly scaled up the charts everywhere the movie played…but nowhere more than at home in the U.S. It ended up spending 15 weeks in the top 10, six of them at #1 before being displaced by Steve Miller Band’s “Abracabra.” the six week run on top actually wasn’t the best of the ’82. J.Geils had spent the same number of weeks at #1 with “Centerfold”, the McCartney/Wonder duet “Ebony & Ivory” had spent seven weeks and besting even that, Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” started the year in the midst of a 10-week run. But it was still mighty impressive for a previously-unknown act.
By the time all was said and done, it had gone to #1 in Canada, the UK, Ireland, South Africa and several other countries and even made the top 10 in Japan. It ended up being the second-biggest selling single of the year at home, moving well over two million copies of the vinyl 45; currently it’s an incredible 8X platinum. And it won Survivor the Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a group or duo; they were nominated for an Academy Award for it but lost to “Up where We Belong.”
Survivor hastily recorded an album to fit around the smash single, and obviously enough called it Eye of the Tiger. Although allmusic pointed out the rather obvious, that “nothing here really scales the same heights as the title track,” the one song’s popularity pushed the album to #2 and platinum-status at home, in Canada and Australia.
The song not only has remained one of the most-played of the decade on oldies’ radio but has been used in an array of TV shows ranging from Big Bang Theory to Supernatural. Peterik says of that, “it’s still not a joke, although the Starbucks commercial kinda makes it a joke.” One place where it’s use hasn’t been welcomed is in Republican political rallies and ads…and we’re not joking. Survivor have put “cease and desist” orders on three different candidates who used the tune without permission. Of those, only Mitt Romney agreed to discontinue using it; Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee actually went to court before agreeing to an out-of-court-settlement.
The popularity didn’t quite last, but they did continue to do alright through the ’80s, scoring six more top 40 singles including “Burning Heart”, which got to #2. Probably not coincidentally, that was recorded for… you guessed it, Rocky IV.
Survivor carry on to this day but Sullivan is the only original member remaining.