Songwriter Interviews

Jim Peterik of Survivor

by Carl Wiser

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"Only play your best material."

That was Neil Diamond's advice for Jim Peterik after his band The Ides of March opened for the bedazzled one in the '60s. It became one of Jim's rules to live by, and it explains why his memoir (Through the Eye of the Tiger) opens with the fateful message Sylvester Stallone left on his answering machine - the one asking him to write a song for Rocky III.

That song, of course, is "Eye Of The Tiger," perhaps the most transcendent song of the '80s. Survivor was an upstart band when Jim wrote it with their guitarist Frankie Sullivan, but by then he had done his time in the songwriting trenches, writing jingles and tunes for other artists - the composer's equivalent of Rocky getting ready for the big fight.

After rising up to the challenge, Jim became one of the top songwriters in the game, literally writing the book on the topic (Songwriting For Dummies). Other Survivor hits followed, including the theme to Rocky IV, "Burning Heart." Jim also co-wrote several hits for .38 Special - "Rockin' Into The Night" and "Hold On Loosely" among them - and The Beach Boys comeback song "That's Why God Made the Radio."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Jim, my five-year-old daughter is a big fan of contemporary hit radio, and last week for the first time, her ears heard "Eye of the Tiger," and she lost her mind. This doesn't happen very often: I'll play Aretha Franklin, but she wants to hear Taylor Swift and the hits of today. So whatever you did on this song is as relevant today as it was in 1982.

Jim Peterik: This makes my day. To hear that reaction from a five year old, is just... I can't say I'm surprised. The first time I knew we had something very special was when we were on the road with REO in '82. The record was just climbing the charts. Everybody was saying, "Oh, it's going to be a big hit, the movie, blah, blah blah." And I'm going, "Yeah, yeah, maybe."

Before the show we went to a Shakey's Pizza or something in whatever town we were in in the South. There was a jukebox there, and someone played "Eye of the Tiger."

It starts, and all of the sudden this little girl gets up - she's probably like your daughter, five years old - she jumps up, goes to the dance floor, starts spinning around and saying, "They're playing my song! They're playing my song!" And that's when I knew we had something. Out of the mouths of babes, you know.

All I can say is there's something in the DNA of that song, the telegraphic guitar thing, the whole package. I wish I could clone that.

Songfacts: Somebody almost did clone it not too long ago, when Katy Perry did the song "Roar." [I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire...] What were your thoughts on that?

Jim: I was very conflicted with that. I called my publisher and we were checking out the options: "Do we have a lawsuit here?" I thought her song was very good, but that's kind of beside the point. And bottom line is, it would have been a tough case to win. So instead, I embraced it, and I started looking at it as a positive thing.

People enjoy music, but they don't necessarily know it. So people say, "Oh, I love Katy Perry's version of your song 'Eye of the Tiger.'" And I'm going, "No, that's not our song. That's called 'Roar' and they used the phrase 'eye of the tiger,' and 'we will rock you,' and all these other references to pop/rock classics."

But at the end of the day, I think "Eye of the Tiger," our song is timeless. And the Katy Perry is a good song that will probably come and go. I just think "Eye of the Tiger" will stand forever.

Songfacts: Another bit of appropriation that I wondered about, Weird Al Yankovic, one of his first big songs I remember from him was "The Rye or the Kaiser," which finds Rocky working at a deli. Did he ask you for permission for that?

Jim: He did. He went to my publisher and he went to Frankie's publisher - we had two different publishers. He asked to get permission. It's funny, "Eye of the Tiger" couldn't have been hotter at the time, and at first I'm like, "Do I really want to do this? This is our anthemic ode to the spirit and he's making fun of it." And just about the same day I found out that Michael Jackson had given Weird Al permission to do "Eat It." And I'm going, "Okay, if Michael Jackson can approve it, I think I can, too."

It's actually very clever. It didn't hurt anything and every royalty statement, I look down and I see, "Theme from Rocky XIII" and then there's a bunch of money. So I can't complain.

Songfacts: A lot of people don't think about this, but when somebody like Weird Al does a parody, he has to recreate the song. He's not using your backing track. So you heard this bizarro version of your playing.

Jim: Yeah. It was cheesy. But cheese is okay when it comes to Weird Al Yankovic.

Jim formed Survivor with an agglomerate of other Chicago-area musicians including guitarist Frankie Sullivan and singer Dave Bickler. Jim sang lead in his band The Ides of March (that's him on their hit "Vehicle"), so the plan was to have him and Bickler share vocal duties. Bickler ended up becoming the main vocalist (including on "Eye of the Tiger"), relegating Jim to keyboards and songwriting.

Sullivan is a dynamic performer whose riffs helped define the Survivor sound. Also a talented songwriter, he and Jim co-wrote most of their material.

Jim and Frankie clashed from the outset. As Jim tells it, Frankie created a hostile atmosphere and benefited from co-writing credits on songs he had little to do with writing. One questionable decision Frankie made was to dissociate themselves from Rocky III by keeping movie footage out of the "Eye of the Tiger" video so it would focus on the band.
Songfacts: You talk about this in your book - there's no Rocky III footage in the video, which blew my mind, because I'm so used to thinking about Top Gun, Footloose, all the famous movies of the '80s that became MTV hits. But those were all after Rocky III, so I guess nobody thought to do that then. What was the mindset there?

Jim: Well, that's not true. The Scotti Brothers [heads of Survivor's record label] and Stallone, that's what we were going to do. But as usual, there were certain band members that had different ideas, and Frankie did not like the idea of tying us that closely to the Rocky franchise. He felt we stood as a band and didn't want to get typecast or branded.

I disagreed, but ultimately we went his route. He said, "What if we do something instead of tying it to Rocky, the making of a successful rock band like the Rocky story? Let's come up from the streets." And they went along with it. I still regret it. It would have been an more popular video had it been intercut with Rocky III. Ultimately in Rocky IV, that's exactly what they did with "Burning Heart," and it was really effective.

Songfacts: What was your relationship with MTV and your thoughts on music videos?

Jim: Well, I like to get my songs out any way I can. After all, I'm talking to Songfacts, right? To me, the song is still the coin of the realm, and you've got to sell it. I was at total peace with videos, and we made some good ones. I like the "I Can't Hold Back" video, where we're on the L train and we're all different characters. I'm the businessman and Frankie's the thug and Marc [Droubay, drums] is the bum and Stephan [Ellis, bass] is the nun, and Jimi Jamison is playing himself, kind of the Tom Cruise character.

It's just a terrific vehicle, no pun intended, for "I Can't Hold Back." You can't help seeing the video when you hear that song. Same thing with "The Search is Over," very, very effective video.

The fateful call from Sylvester Stallone came at just the right time for Survivor, who were ready to answer the bell. The group had released two albums; their self-titled debut (with Kim Bassinger on the cover) came out in 1979 and contained their first Hot 100 entry, Jim's song "Somewhere in America," which made #70. Their second album, released in 1981, was Premonition, which contains the forebear to "Eye of the Tiger," a track called "Poor Man's Son."

All the elements are there: A big, juicy hook ("You're a rich man's daughter, I'm a poor man's son"), Dave Bickler's soaring vocals, Frankie Sullivan's gritty guitar, and Jim's keyboard riffs tying it all together. Discerning ears could hear that the band was just a few tweaks away from the big time. The song made #33, but more importantly, got Stallone's attention when an executive from Survivor's record company played it for him.
Songfacts: When you look back on the history of Survivor, "Eye of the Tiger" is, of course, the watershed moment. But to get there you had to have a song called "Poor Man's Son," which was actually a fairly modest hit but had the big moment when Sylvester Stallone heard it.

There's a big difference between early Survivor and later Survivor as you refined the sound. And "Poor Man's Son," I'd just like you to talk about that from a songwriting perspective and how you and Frankie put that song together.

"Rockin' into the Night," was written by Frankie and Jim as a Survivor tune, and was a showstopper at their early concerts. The song wasn't released by Survivor, however, and found its way to .38 Special, becoming their first hit. Jim was commissioned to co-write more songs with .38 Special, resulting in their hits "Hold on Loosely" and "Caught Up In You." Jim's moonlighting didn't go over well with his bandmates, who thought these songs should be going to Survivor.
Jim: That was an interesting collaboration, because I had a song written called "Poor Man's Son." The lyric was exactly as you hear it, but the music was far different. And that's when Frankie really shone is when I showed it to him. He goes, "Well, that's not quite it," And he started doing this very chunky bamp, ba, bamp - he kind of directed the music. I remember we were in Los Angeles rehearsing for the Premonition record, and he turned the song on its head. It wouldn't have been that song.

Same thing with "Chevy Nights" from that same record. My version was trying to be Bob Seger, and it became Survivor because of Frankie's guitar style and his arranging style. So that's where our team really worked.

Songfacts: The lyrical content of that song is not really true to life - you weren't all that poor growing up. So here's where I'm getting at: You've written so many songs, and most of them are songwriting by appointment. You go in and you methodically craft a song. At some point there has to be part of you that goes into the song in order for it to be big, or there has to be some influence. How do you come up with something that isn't necessarily your experience?

Jim: Well, that's a talent that you have or you don't have, and that's living through someone else. There are some songs that I entirely lived, and they're some of my biggest hits. I lived "Hold on Loosely" by .38 Special. I lived that when I was crowding my girlfriend and she was backing off. You tend to get too possessive. That idea totally informed that lyric. "The Search is Over" was really about a friend of mine who was taking his girlfriend for granted, looking everywhere except where his heart was. I lived through my friend - I won't mention his name - through his experience.

So you put yourself in those shoes. Something like "Poor Man's Son," I'm very title-driven, and I love the sound of that: "Poor Man's Son" - the title really drove the song. Sometimes it just takes that to put yourself into that mindset.

Survivor released a song called "Is This Love" in 1986, which made #9 in January, 1987. That December, Whitesnake charted at #2 with a song of the same title. A chorus comparison:

Survivor:
Is this love that I'm feeling
Is this love that's been keeping me up all night


Whitesnake:
Is this love that I'm feeling
Is this the love, that I've been searching for
Songfacts: While we're talking about titles, you had a title called "Is This Love," and not long after your "Is This Love" came out, there was another one by Whitesnake. And actually, the lyrical content was fairly similar, as well. Can you talk about putting that song together and then what your thoughts were when you heard Whitesnake's song?

Jim: Well, it's kind of another Katy Perry moment, isn't it? Yeah, it was probably about a year after, actually. And I started hearing this much more heavy pop thing: "Is this love that I'm feelin'."

Wait a minute, "Is this love that I'm feelin'," that's what we sang. And I thought it was inferior, first of all, because it didn't have the melody. It was a good rock tune, but it wasn't the song that I had written.

I came from a very pop perspective on that song, sat down at the piano and I was thinking of a Cyndi Lauper kind of a thing. And it just came out [singing], "Is this love that I'm feeling?" I thought, "That's gold."

And really that's another song that I wrote out of experience. "We run those mean streets, blind alleys where the currency of love changes hands, all touch, no feeling, just another one night stand," we've all felt that. I felt that when I was dating and on the road and empty relationships that you knew weren't going to go anywhere. What is love? It's a guy questioning that.

Seemed like a good idea at the time: Before forming Survivor, Jim became Chalmers Garseny, a rakish rebel who enjoyed pairing jeans with a white tuxedo and playing his grand piano in the woods. No Chalmers songs were ever released, but his memory lives on in the publicity photo below.
Songfacts: When you actually write down your life history, there must be times when you go, "What was I thinking?" Was there one particular moment that stood out as one of those "What was I thinking" moments?

Jim: Oh, man. So many. So many. When I changed my name to Chalmers Garseny, I thought I was going to be the next Elton John. I hadn't a clue that I wasn't that guy. I wasn't going to be Elton John, I wasn't going to be Cat Stevens, Paul Simon. I would have loved to have been, but I'm a rocker. Those guys can bare their soul and do it well. I need to have a little support from a band.

This Chalmers Garseny thing, it was just hilarious sitting in some record company office and my manager is going, "Yes, and Chalmers here will be going on the road." And when he said, "And Chalmers here," I went, oh, no, no, no. I can't be Chalmers Garseny.

Songfacts: Chalmers is really something, but the fact that you skipped the Grammy Awards was just mind-blowing to me. There was nobody that could talk you out of that?

"Eye of the Tiger" won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. Only Peterik and Sullivan were invited to the event, so Sullivan refused to go, and Jim went along with that decision - he watched the ceremony on a TV in his kitchen. Jim and Frankie did attend the Oscars when the song was nominated for Best Original Song, but they lost to "Up Where We Belong" from An Officer And A Gentleman.
Jim: That was not my decision. I was sitting there eating a frozen pizza because Frankie deemed it not cool, because the whole band didn't get invited. I was livid. So when you ask me if there's any moments I could take back, I can only take back the ones I'm responsible for. That one - now, maybe I could have stood up and gone there and defied everybody, but then they wouldn't let me back in the dressing rooms.

Songfacts: I gotcha. Yeah, I guess from the outside perspective you're thinking, "Well, just go." But it's obviously not that easy when you're there.

Jim: The politics of it, believe me, when you're in a band like that, you don't want that.

Survivor switched lead singers in 1984, replacing Dave Bickler with Jimi Jamison after Bickler was sidelined from throat surgery. The Jamison years produced several more hits, but the band split up in 1989 amid considerable rancor. In 1993, they re-formed with Bickler after learning that Jamison was touring with his own ersatz Survivor. For a few years, there were two Survivors touring America as rights to the name were being disputed. Jim describes this time as "the dark ages," with his Survivor deteriorating fast - they had no record deal but lots of infighting, which got worse as the tour went on.
Songfacts: When you went on the road with Survivor in the '90s, those were very glum times, but you still had to perform "Eye of the Tiger," which is this motivational, uplifting song. What was that like?

Jim: Well, the best part of any band is going up there. There's this shield that you put on, and you're Superman. That was the only good times that I had, really, because we could put it aside - we could do "Eye of the Tiger" and kick ass, and put everything aside. Then you would get off the stage and there'd be the icy cold daggers in the dressing rooms and on the bus. But for that 90 minutes, we were golden.

Songfacts: Was Survivor ever approached about doing a Behind the Music?

Jim: You know, I think they were, but we were so fragmented, I don't think they could ever get a hold of everybody at one time. It would have been a good one. But, no, we never did that. I was not approached directly.

Songfacts: Your band The Ides of March is named after a Shakespeare line. When you are looking over your life story, do you see anything Shakespearean in it?

Jim: Well, that's deep, Carl. I don't know if I'm ready for that one. Mainly, just the rivalry. Everybody needs a foil. Well, I don't know if they need one, but everyone gets a foil in their life, it seems. Whether it's Madonna and her father, seems like everybody needs to struggle against something to achieve their maximum. For me it was Frankie. He was at times my best ally, and certainly a really effective co-writer. But he was also my biggest rival.

I wanted to be in the spotlight, I wanted to be the guy talking to the crowd, I wanted to share lead vocals. I wanted my talent, my gift, to shine brighter than I was able to, and it was that constant rivalry. And if that ain't Shakespearean, I don't know what is.

Songfacts: Jim, have any of your songs changed meaning for you over the years?

Jim: Probably "The Search Is Over." Of course, it's about a relationship, ostensibly about a man and a woman. But for me, it became going back to The Ides of March. After I finally left Survivor in '96, I put back the old gang. And the brothers that I'd put together back in '64 are celebrating 50 years now since '64, when the four of us that are still on stage together got together. I went back to my family, and the search was over.

It had come full circle. I did the star routine, I did the giant stadiums, I did the business side of rock & roll, now I wanted to get back to the fun of it. So every time I do "The Search Is Over," I think of that journey.

Songfacts: And how fortunate you are to have that Chicago homeland to come back to and all those fans. What a great community, with the DJs, the Forgotten Hits folks, all those guys, just fantastic.

Jim: Yes. The Forgotten Hits guys are great. We're doing a big show with The Ides of March with the cornerstones of Chicago rock & roll. It's with Ronnie Rice of New Colony Six, Jimy Sohns with Shadows of Knight, Tom Doody of the Cryan' Shames, which were our favorite when we were teenagers, Carl Giammarese of the Buckinghams, and then Dick Biondi will be hosting with Bob Sirott. It's going to be a blast.

Songfacts: What stands out as Jimi Jamison's best vocal performance to you? [Jamison died about a month before this interview took place.]

Jim: It's funny, because just this morning I got a link to a video of him doing "The Search Is Over" live at a thing called Rock Meets Classic. It had to be a 40-piece orchestra, and a super-duper rock band. There was this huge audience. I had never seen this, he never even told me he did it - he was so modest, really - and he just nailed it.

I showed it to my wife this morning, and we were just in awe of this performance. I have to say that's my favorite moment of Jimi Jamison. Nobody could sing that song like Jimi. I do it every night that I play with The Ides, and I do my Jim Peterik version of it, but it doesn't touch the finesse of Jimi Jamison. He owns that song.

Songfacts: There are certain trends that are always around in songs. You can study it: The beats per minute, the lead vocal, even the lyrical content. Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff and try to follow those trends when you are trying to write a song?

Jim: In a way, I do. I just did a song, an homage to Jimi Jamsion called "Heaven Passes the Torch." I wanted to get a certain Survivor-esque sound to it, so I can't say I copied down beats per minute, but I steeped myself in my favorite Survivor songs. I put on Vital Signs, which to me defines the later-day Survivor when Jimi took over, and I just steeped myself in it. It influences your songwriting and it influences your arranging.

I sent this homage to some people and most people got it. I sent it to a lot of the really cool lead singers that I would like to have contribute vocals. Of course, they all got it. But there's this one guy who was kind of outside the circle. He goes, "Jim, I love the lyric, but the production is so dated." And I said, "Dude, if it doesn't sound like 1984 on this, I failed." That's what I was going for. You get it? It was just hilarious. He didn't get what I was going for.

But I'm also producing an artist named Mark Scherer, and we're putting an album out in the spring on Frontiers called Jim Peterik and Mark Scherer. He's my newest vocal discovery. Every songwriter needs a great voice to write for - at least I do. And Mark is just amazing. I wrote a song called "Desperate In Love," not to be confused with "Desperate Dreams." Good word, though, "desperate."

Anyway, I really wanted to capture the spirit of "Rebel Son" from When Seconds Count, still one of my all-time favorite Survivor tracks. And I did chart the beats per minute, which is enormously fast - I want to say, like, 152. We put the exact click tempo on for "Desperate in Love," and it just smoked. We had to get that feel.

October 7, 2014.
Jim's autobiography Through the Eye of the Tiger: The Rock 'N' Roll Live of Survivor's Founding Member, is available on Amazon. Photo credits for color shots: Lynne Peters.

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Comments: 1

  • Levent Goktem from Istanbul, TurkeyWonderful interview, wisely asked questions... Thank you.
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