Journey's most enduring song, this track has a unique structure, which helps it stick in your mind. Where most songs have a chorus that's repeated several times, "Don't Stop Believin'" brings in its chorus (and title) only at the end - about 3:20 into the song. The structure goes: instrumental, first verse, instrumental, second verse, first pre-chorus, instrumental, third verse, second pre-chorus, instrumental, and then finally the chorus until fade-out.
It was not their biggest hit (that would be "Open Arms
"), but it is by far Journey's most famous song, thanks to a resurgence in the '00s.
The line, "Strangers waiting, up and down the Boulevard" is a reference to Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, where dreams are made. Keyboard player Jonathan Cain got the idea for the song when he went there to pursue his career. In his Songfacts interview
, Cain said: "The song began with the chorus. My father had coached me. I was in Hollywood, struggling with my career, kind of lost. I was asking him, 'Should I come back to Chicago and just give up on this dream?' And he said, 'No, son. Stay the course. We have a vision. It's gonna happen. Don't stop believin'.'"
Cain's dream came true when he joined a group called The Babys with John Waite. In 1980, he joined Journey in San Francisco, and this song took shape.
He told Steve Perry about his idea for placing the song in Sunset Boulevard, and Perry had him describe it. "I described the menagerie of people who would show up on a Friday night," Cain said. "All the dreamers that had dreams to become actors. Producers, artists, lawyers, anything... they were all there on a Friday night."
Journey lead singer Steve Perry, keyboard player Jonathan Cain and guitarist Neal Schon are the credited songwriters on this one, but the entire band contributed. In the Time3 compilation, the genesis of this song is explained: "At the band's Oakland warehouse, this song bubbled out of a rehearsal. Schon developed the bass riff, the chugging guitar line and the sweeping chords on the chorus. Steve Smith built the song around a pattern featuring a lot of tom-toms, anchoring the number to a rich drum figure. Perry and Cain drew from their experiences with the Sunset Strip street scene for the lyrics, 'streetlight people.'"
Speaking with New York Magazine, Perry explained that the song originated during a series of gigs in Detroit when he found himself in a hotel room unable to sleep, staring out of the window:
Strangers waiting, up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people, living just to find emotion
Hiding, somewhere in the night
"I was digging the idea of how the lights were facing down, so that you couldn't see anything," he recalled. "All of a sudden I'd see people walking out of the dark, and into the light. And the term 'streetlight people' came to me. So Detroit was very much in my consciousness when we started writing."
The popular resurgence of this song can be traced to its use in the 2003 movie Monster, which was based on the true story of the female serial killer Aileen Wuornos. The film was not widely seen but drew critical raves and a Best Actress Oscar for Charlize Theron, who portrayed Wuornos. In the movie, the song comes on when Wuornos and Selby Wall (played by Christina Ricci) are skating to it in a roller rink. They mention how they love the song, and as it builds, so does their passion, and they end up kissing outside the rink.
The use of "Don't Stop Believin'" in this critically adored scene got the attention of the Hollywood community, who saw the emotion the song could bring out and no longer thought of it as a nostalgia track. Requests started pouring in to use the song in a variety of movies and TV shows, and soon another generation was familiar with the song.
So how did it get in Monster in the first place? The film's director Patty Jenkins used it when they shot the scene and knew it fit perfectly. She sent the band members viewing copies of the film and asked permission to use it on a short budget. Perry called her back and not only gave approval, but helped her select music for the rest of the film; he's credited as a music consultant.
The song was written to give the audience a connection with the band, a goal it achieved. Jonathan Cain told Songfacts: "It was the first attempt to bring an audience into the band's world. We're singing for you. We're singing about your world now. So, it was a departure from what they had been doing before.
What I wanted to do was get a little Bruce Springsteen going on. Bruce was the master of that, bringing his audience into his songs. I was a huge fan of Bruce's."
Speaking with the British radio station Planet Rock in 2010, Steve Perry said of this song: "Personally, it's something that means a lot to me. Everybody has emotional issues and problems, and the song has helped me personally to not give up, and I'm finding a lot of people feel that."
This is the first track on Journey's seventh album, Escape. It was chosen to lead the album because, according to Cain, "With that piano line, it just sounds like a book opening up."
The song got a boost when it was used as the closing number in Rock of Ages, a jukebox musical featuring hits of the '80s. The show ran on Broadway from 2009-2015, and in 2012 was made into a movie starring Tom Cruise. It's an appropriate choice, as Rock of Ages takes place on Sunset Boulevard, which is also the primary setting for the song.
In the last ever episode of the TV show The Sopranos, Tony Soprano plays this song on a jukebox during the final scene. The episode abruptly ends with the lyrics "Don't Stop" as the scene cuts to black.
Steve Perry said in People magazine June 13, 2007: "I needed to know how this song was going to be used. I didn't want the song to be part of a blood-bath, if that was going to be the closing moment. In order for me to feel good about approving the song use, they had to tell me what happened. And they made me swear that I would not tell anybody."
This was featured in an episode of the TV show Scrubs called "My Journey." Other television series and films to use "Don't Stop Believin'" include South Park, The Wedding Singer, Shrek the Halls, Bedtime Stories, Yes Dear, King of the Hill, The Comebacks, View from the Top, Cold Case, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, My Name Is Earl, Just Shoot Me and Laguna Beach.
In November 2008 it was announced that this track had become the first song, which was available in the pre-digital era, to sell more than 2 million downloads through iTunes. The track's popularity increased significantly after its appearance in the final episode of The Sopranos. It also became one of the most popular Karaoke songs in America in the late '00s.
In May 2009 a remake by the cast of the Fox TV musical comedy Glee debuted at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, five places higher than Journey's version ever reached. It was performed in the season pilot and became part of the soundtrack album Glee: The Music, Volume 1. By the end of 2009, the digital download had earned 500,000 digital sales.
The Glee version was performed on Sesame Street with monsters portraying the cast. The bit featured the letter G, so the lyrics were adapted to "Don't stop G-ing."
Believing in yourself and following your passion are ideals Steve Perry holds dear. When Randy Jackson, who used to play bass with Journey, was a judge on the singing competition American Idol, he asked Perry to come on as a guest judge. Perry turned him down, saying, "I don't feel good about sitting in judgment of anyone's honest passion to perform or their talent. If someone has a passion to perform, they should do it no matter what anyone says."
Perry added: I was passed on in the music business many, many times before Herbie [Journey manager Walter Herbert] heard my demo and believed in me. That was the moment that changed my life and I'm still forever grateful to him for believing in me. The hardest part is to keep believing in what you love when others tell you that you are not good at it."
MTV went on the air shortly before this song was released. The band made a spartan performance video for it in an empty arena, apparently at a soundcheck. They made a better one with footage from a Houston stop on their Escape tour, which became the official video that shows up on their VEVO account. Neither video got much love on MTV, which preferred concept videos.
In the UK, this song peaked at #62 when it was first released. In November 2009, it was rereleased after Joe McEldry sang it on the TV show X-Factor
, and this time, it climbed to #19.
Joe McElderry won the competition, and franchise boss Simon Cowell wanted to release his version of the song as the single in the aftermath of the teenage singer's victory. However, Journey declined and Cowell instead arranged for McElderry to cover Miley Cyrus' track "The Climb
Guitarist Neal Schon explained to The Sun
: "We knew about Joe's version because Simon had contacted our management. He wanted to re-do the song with a different arrangement. We listened to it. We declined. There was nothing wrong with the original version - if it's not busted, let's not fix it."
Schon added that Journey were aware they were possibly passing up a UK #1 hit. "Randy Jackson, who was on American Idol
with Simon, was stressing that we should let him do it because it would probably go to #1. But we stuck to our decision."
In the UK, the Glee Cast version debuted at #5 on the UK singles chart dated January 17, 2010, one place above Journey's original recording. It was the first instance of two versions of the same song sitting at back to back positions on the chart since December 2008 when Alexandra Burke's take on "Hallelujah
" was at #1 with Jeff Buckley's version
one place behind.
The song starts with Perry singing about a young couple from two different backgrounds:
Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere
Just a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit
He took the midnight train goin' anywhere
But hang on a sec, any good Motor City citizen will tell you, there is no location called South Detroit; Detroit, Michigan, distinguishes only between an East Side and a West Side. If you go south in Detroit ("down-river"), you end up in Canada.
Perry admitted to New York Magazine that he wasn't overly concerned with being geographically accurate. "I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit," he said. "The syntax just sounded right. I fell in love with the line. It's only been in the last few years that I've learned that there is no South Detroit. But it doesn't matter."
This was used in the 1982 Atari video game Journey Escape. The song played in the background while you controlled various band members, helping them find the space ship while avoiding groupies and evil promoters. Computer graphics were pretty bad back then, so the groupies were represented as hearts with legs, and the promoters were floating heads. In fact, the very game was created to be based on the band Journey and the album Escape.
This was one of the first Journey songs on which keyboard player Jonathan Cain played. He replaced Gregg Rolle for the Escape album.
Lady Gaga, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Blondie and Shirley Bassey performed this at the finale of a Rainforest Fund benefit at Carnegie Hall in May 2010.
This song was used in a 2005 episode of animated TV series Family Guy
where Peter, Joe, Cleveland, and Quagmire did a drunken karaoke rendition of the song. ITunes was catching on at this point, and after this episode aired there was a spike in download sales of the song.
Journey toured to support this album, but they interrupted their tour to open for The Rolling Stones in Philadelphia on September 25, 1981. It was The Stones first show on their North American tour.
This became the anthem of the Chicago White Sox during their 2005 season in which they won the World Series. Steve Perry attended the last game of the Series and sang the song at their victory parade.
Perry's allegiance though, is to his hometown team the San Francisco Giants. He was often seen supporting the team when they won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Perry would sometimes lead the crowd
in singing along to "Don't Stop Believin'" when it was played between innings at games.