In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
“I want something for the kids. Something street, something with a pulse.” This is what Sylvester Stallone told Survivor keyboardist and songwriter Jim Peterik — at least according to Peterik, who loves telling the story. Six years earlier, Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now (Theme From Rocky)” had come to define Stallone’s character Rocky Balboa, the against-all-odds working-class boxing champion. “Gonna Fly Now” had been a #1 hit, and Stallone had used it in the first two Rocky movies, both massive successes. But as the writer and director of Rocky III, Stallone wanted to get away from that triumphal orchestral disco-laced film-score sound. He wanted something that rocked.
Stallone sent Peterik a VHS tape that had the first 10 minutes of Rocky III. The tape already had music on it: Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.” Stallone had wanted to use that song in the film, but Queen had denied him the rights. So Stallone needed a replacement, and Peterik was eager for the job. Peterik was disappointed when he founded out that the tape only had the first 10 minutes of the film. He called Stallone and asked if he could see the full movie. Later on, Peterik admitted that he just wanted to see how it ended, but he built the song on a phrase that showed up in the middle of the story.
In the movie, Rocky’s trainer Mickey dies after a confrontation with Mr. T’s glowering antagonist Clubber Lang, and Rocky’s old rival Apollo Creed takes over as his trainer instead. Again and again, Creed tells Rocky that he has to find the eye of the tiger. Survivor took that phrase and turned it into a song that sounded very much like “Another One Bites The Dust.” “Eye Of The Tiger” is a pure work made for hire — as much a tailored film-score track as “Gonna Fly Now.”
Peterik, like the rest of Survivor, came from the Chicago area. In the early ’70s, Peterik had led a band called the Ides Of March, and in 1970, they’d had an out-of-nowhere funky rock hit called “Vehicle.” (“Vehicle” peaked at #2. It’s a 7.) It was the only hit for the Ides Of March, and the band broke up in 1973. Peterik spent years doing session work and writing ad jingles. He put Survivor together in 1978, and the band included a couple of people who he knew from the ad-jingle world.
In the early ’80s, Survivor released a couple of albums that didn’t really go anywhere. But one single, 1981’s “Poor Man’s Son,” had made it up to #33, and Sylvester Stallone liked the song. Survivor were on a label called Scotti Brothers, and Stallone was friends with label boss Tony Scotti. (They’d gotten to know each other when Stallone’s brother Frank was on the label. Frank Stallone’s highest-charting single is 1983’s “Far From Over,” from the soundtrack of the Sylvester Stallone-directed Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive. “Far From Over” peaked at #10, and it’s a 4.) So Stallone called up Jim Peterik and asked him for a song.
“Eye Of The Tiger” is everything Stallone could’ve possibly wanted. By the time he made Rocky III, he’d dropped all pretensions of ’70s-style social realism, and he was making pure muscular greased-up spectacle. “Eye Of The Tiger” fits the bill. Its intro is pure bombast — some nervous guitar tics, a rising drone, a few thundering power chords. Nothing else about the track can quite match up to the fists-up perfection of that opening, but the rest of the song does everything it can to keep up. The beat is a simplistic four-four thud. The lyrics are pure inspirational gibberish: “Face to face! Out in the heat! Hanging tough, staying hungry!” (Survivor make sure to jam their band name into those lyrics, a smart bit of branding.) Singer Dave Bickler wails everything with nut-squished intensity. The song is everything it needs to be.
“Eye Of The Tiger,” written and produced by Peterik and bandmate Frankie Sullivan, doesn’t really belong to a genre. It’s got the riffs-up swagger of the Sunset Strip glam-metal scene that was just starting to take shape at the time, and it’s got the studio-rock sheen of bands like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. It’s also got a thumping post-disco beat and a whole lot of synth action. In his book The Accidental Evolution Of Rock ‘N’ Roll, my old Village Voice boss Chuck Eddy posits “Eye Of The Tiger” as the beginning of a genre that he calls flashdance. Here’s how Eddy describes flashdance:
Many of its songs seem to be played in minor keys, and most seem to combine fast synthetic syncopation with loud AOR-radio guitar solos. The singers might be black or white, men or women. But they weren’t notably rooted in the church, except inasmuch as soul music has been sifted through hard rock and Europop.
(If you like this column, you should read Chuck’s book. It goes hard.)
The entire idea of flashdance has something to do with Reagan-era optimism, but also with Reagan-era struggle and paranoia. Survivor pant about primal battles over a blaring strut that suggests that they are absolutely going to win these struggles. They sound something like what might’ve happened in an alternate reality where Bad Girls was a solo showcase for Journey’s Steve Perry, not a Donna Summer album. If flashdance really is a genre, “Eye Of The Tiger” is flashdance as fuck.
The opening scene of Rocky III isn’t even a scene; it’s a montage. (Flashdance was good for montages.) Rocky Balboa, now the champion, is getting increasingly confident, at home in the glamorous world of magazine covers and credit-card endorsements. Clubber Lang, meanwhile, is staying hungry, beating people up, watching Rocky’s fights with disgust. Lang, in that opening, is the tiger. He’s got the thrill of the fight, and he’s rising up to face the challenge of his rival. (The version of “Eye Of The Tiger” in that scene is the demo; the one that hit #1 is Survivor’s finished version of the song.) Later on, Rocky himself has to become the tiger — the last known survivor stalking his prey in the night.
Rocky III was a huge hit, earning $125 million and finishing 1982 as the year’s #4 movie. (Only E.T., Tootsie, and An Officer And A Gentleman made more money.) “Eye Of The Tiger,” used so effectively in the movie, was a big, triumphant breakout for Survivor — a global smash that won a Grammy and got nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. (It lost out to a song that’ll soon appear in this column.) In the years that followed, “Eye Of The Tiger” became a movie-soundtrack standby, playing in nearly as many jokey and parodic training montages as “Gonna Fly Now.” Survivor have sued politicians like Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee for using “Eye Of The Tiger” without permission in campaign appearances, and it’s funny to think those rancid sacks of shit imagining themselves with eyes of tigers.
In the pretty-funny “Eye Of The Tiger” video, the members of Survivor present themselves as an incredibly doofy street gang, strutting in formation down dark sidewalks. But they weren’t much of a gang, as the years ahead would prove. Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger album didn’t have any songs that hit the zeitgeist the way the title track had done, and their follow-up, 1983’s Caught In The Game, yielded no hits. Singer Dave Bickler needed surgery for vocal-chord nodules, and his bandmates didn’t want to give him time off, so they fired him. They replaced him with the new singer Jimi Jamison, formerly of the Memphis bands Target and Cobra.
With Jamison as their new singer, Survivor landed four more top-10 hits, getting as high as #2 with 1985’s Rocky IV theme “Burning Heart.” (“Burning Heart” is a 7.) But the hits dried up after 1986’s “Is This Love.” (“Is This Love” peaked at #9; it’s a 4.) After a few commercial disappointments, Survivor broke up in 1988. But a few years later, Jimi Jamison started touring with a new band and calling that band Survivor, which led to a whole lot of legal wrangling. Over the years, different permutations of Survivor broke up and reunited. In 2013, there was a Survivor tour with both Dave Bickler and Jimi Jamison singing. A year later, Jamison died of a meth-induced stroke at the age of 63. Right now, Survivor continues to exist, but the only original member on board is Frankie Sullivan. “Eye Of The Tiger” basically outlived the band. It’ll probably outlive Western culture as we know it.
BONUS BEATS: On his 1984 “Eye Of The Tiger” parody “Theme From Rocky XIII,” “Weird Al” Yankovic eerily predicts Rocky Balboa’s future as a Philadelphia restauranteur: “It’s the rye or the kaiser, it’s the thrill of one bite.” Here’s Yankovic’s parody:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of a song that will end up in this column. “White & Nerdy” peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1995, the year that he won the world heavyweight title, the British boxer Frank Bruno recorded a not-as-bad-as-you’d-think cover of “Eye Of The Tiger.” Bruno’s version peaked at #28 in the UK. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On the pretty-great 1998 single “4 Alarm Blaze,” M.O.P., alongside guests Jay-Z and Teflon, rapped over an “Eye Of The Tiger” sample. Here’s the prison-riot video:
(M.O.P. have never made the Hot 100 — not even with “Anthe Up.” Jay-Z will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s dancehall lunatic Elephant Man making excellent use of the “Eye Of The Tiger” melody on his 2003 track “Fan Dem Off”:
(As lead artist, Elephant Man’s highest-charting single is the 2004 Lil Jon/Twista/YoungBloodz/Kiprich collab “Jook Gal,” which peaked at #57. But Elephant Man charted higher when he guested on Kat DeLuna’s 2007 single “Whine Up,” which peaked at #27. In related news, I love Elephant Man.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2012, Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report did a story about Survivor suing Newt Gingrich over using “Eye Of The Tiger” without permission. On the show, “Eye Of The Tiger”-era Survivor singer Dave Bickler sang excerpts from one of Gingrich’s books to the tune of “Eye Of The Tiger.” Here’s that bit: