Monday, August 23, 2004

Wanna be a Survivor? Beware, it all begins with The Ides of March!

Let's start off this post with a quick word-association pop quiz. When I say the word "survivor," you immediately think of

A) A CBS show where everyone you wish was naked is clothed and everyone you wish was clothed is naked.

B) A lame, overplayed tune by Destiny's Child.

C) The band that sang "Eye of the Tiger."

D) The band that sang "Poor Man's Son."

If you answered "D" then you and I are cut from the same cloth, even though "C" is referring to the exact same band. Survivor was hardly my favorite group of all time, but it bugs me to death that they're thought of as a one-hit wonder. If you've been watching ESPN Classic, then you probably know that they've been running the Rocky movies in order on Sunday Nights over the past few weeks (they're up to Rocky IV). Survivor is probably best known for their songs from the soundtracks of Rocky III ("Eye of the Tiger") and Rocky IV ("Burning Heart"), so the time seemed right to flashback on a band that was much more interesting than most people realized.

So yes, it all did start with "The Ides of March." I'm talking of course about the Chicago-based band that scored a #2-hit with "Vehicle" in the Spring of 1970. Now, there's a band that WAS a one-hit wonder and is consistently been referred to as one of the greatest one-hit wonders off all time. You know the song even if you don't think you do. It's been used in many car commercials and you can always count on Paul Shaffer to play it on March 15th (The Ides of March--get it??; Thanks to my buddy Bret for pointing that out to me while we were watching Letterman all the way back on 3/16/89 in the McCoy Hall Lounge. The show was taped on the 15th but didn't air until the wee hours of the 16th).

The man who wrote, sang and played guitar on "Vehicle" was Jim Peterik. In 1978, Peterik would form Survivor and in an interesting twist would serve as neither their guitarist or lead vocalist but rather as their keyboardist and primary songwriter. Survivor's first Top 40 hit, "Poor Man's Son" would peak at #33 in the Fall of 1981. While the song, which appeared on the band's "Premonition" album, did not attract an incredible amount of attention, this writer believes it was the best song of the band's career. But more importantly the album did catch the attention of a certain big-name actor who was in position to give the band an opportunity that was reminiscent of, well, the opportunity granted by Apollo Creed to a certain no-name boxer from South Philly.

Here's how Peterik descibed it in an interview with StrutterZine:

"....It started with a message to both (Survivor guitarist) Frankie (Sullivan) and my answering machines from Sly Stallone. Frankie and I got together at my house and called him back. He told us of his new Rocky III movie, that it was complete except for the title song. He had heard our Premonition album and liked the tough honesty of that record. But he was looking to update the sound he had on the earlier Rocky movies and thought we'd be perfect. We knew at that moment that our big break had come - if only we could deliver the goods. Stallone sent us the first three minutes of the movie where the song was to appear. It featured Stallone getting rich and soft contrasting the sinewy Mr. T.- rising up, ready to kick his ass. I started playing the dead string riff as Frank and I headed to my music room. We got a good start on the music that day but needed more grist for the mill, lyrically. We persuaded Stallone to send us a rough cut of the entire movie. It was then that song really came together. We pulled the phrase “the eye of the tiger” from the dialogue and from there the ideas flowed. We sent Stallone a demo we did quickly with the band. He flipped out over it, but made us write a third verse and offered a few other suggestions. Due to the tightness of the schedule, the version you hear in the actual movie was the demo version that Frankie mixed in L.A. while he was spotting-in the music to the soundtrack...."
(The full interview is available at

I first heard "Eye of the Tiger" on Tuesday, June 22nd, 1982 at an end-of-school swim party. The second time I heard it was around 11 AM on the following Sunday Morning. I was spending the weekend with my two best friends from 8th grade, Sim and Leon, who are largely responsible for me being the chart-geek I am today. So naturally we spent Sunday Morning huddled around Leon's new portable radio/cassette player listening to American Top 40. How into it were we? After we heard what we thought were the four debut songs of the week ("Dancing in the Streets" by Van Halen at #40; "Island of the Lost Souls" by Blondie at #39; "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" by Chicago at #38---Casey noted it was their first hit of the 80's; And "Even the Nights are Better" by Air Supply at #34) we took time to figure which four songs must have dropped out of the countdown that week. Even though it was never announced that Air Suppy was the highest debut of the week, it became rather clear to us that it was as the countdown rolled on....until after song #20. Then, on way to commercial we heard it: "Up next, the highest debuting song in nearly two years!" We were floored. For us this was the equivalent of man's landing on the moon, a song debuting all the way up at #19. Nowadays, thanks to music videos and the Internet songs debut in the Top 10 all the time but back then a song coming into the countdown that high was something of a novelty.

As the show resumed post-commercial break, "Eye of the Tiger's" trademark, opening guitar rift set the stage for an excited Casey introducing the highest debuting song since Diana Ross's "Upside Down" entered the countdown at #10 in August of 1980. We would hear "Eye of the Tiger" again later that day when hit the cinema to catch Rocky take on both Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. It's amazing to think that professional wrestling might never have become the pop-culture phenomenon that it was, had Rocky not decided to give Mr. 24-inch pythons himself that cameo in the flick. "Eye of the Tiger" would go on to spend six weeks at #1 and finish the year as Billboard's #2 song for 1982. Survivor would follow-up "Eye of the Tiger" with "American Heartbeat," which despite reaching #17 in the Autumn of 1982 has received virtually no attention since it fell off the charts 22 years ago.

Survivor received some minor airplay on the rock stations in 1983 with "Caught in the Game" but it failed to reach the Top-40 and it seemed like Survivor's best days were gone. Then, a wild thing happened. Lead singer Dave Bickler would leave the group for medical reasons. By the time Survivor released their Vital Signs album in 1984, they were fronted by Jimi Jamison...WHO SOUNDED EXACTLY LIKE DAVE BICKLER!! Admit it, you're shocked! Survivor really had TWO lead singers who sounded exactly the same. Never had any group pulled such off such a stunt and a tough stunt it was when one considers how distinctive Bickler's vocals were.

Jamison's vocals must have been blessed by Midas because over the ensuing two years Survivor reeled off five Top-20 hits: "I Can't Hold Back" #13; "High on You" #8; "The Search is Over" #4; "Burning Heart" #2; "Is This Love" #9. Jamison's vocals would continue to be heard by millions worldwide on a weekly basis as he sang the theme to the world's most popular TV show: Baywatch! (Note to self: Being asked to sing while Rocky and Apollo run on the beach--Good. Being asked to sing while Nicole Eggert and Pamela Anderson run on the beach--VEEEEERRY GOOD!!)

As for Jim Peterik, he continued to be Survivor's keyboardist but would continue writing songs for other groups as well. Over the years his tunes have been recorded by The Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith and, most notably, 38 Special. Four of 38 Special's biggest hits ("Rockin' into the Night"; "Hold on Loosely"; "Caught Up in You"; "You Keep Runnin' Anyway") were either writen or co-written by Peterik. On an interesting note, Peterik had back-to-back tunes on the chart for the week ending July 3, 1982 when "Caught Up in You" was at #10 and "Eye of the Tiger" was at #9.

See, I told you there was a lot more to this band than you realized. The next time "Eye of the Tiger" comes on the radio and the one know-it-all in your crowd proclaims the band a one-hit wonder, reply with a sly "No, not really" and then hit them over the head with a few tidbits from above. Trust me: it's really, really satisfying.


P.S.---Going back to the original word-association game, if you're one of those people who started thinking about The Soul Survivors, I'll try to get around to them when I do a piece on legitimate one-hit wonders. Now there's a tune that still rocks, 37 years later!