Don’t Stop Believin’ is a 1981 single that barely cracked the Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 on its original release. And yet, it became the biggest selling digital rock song in the history of popular music.
It all began with some sound fatherly advice. Neal Schon, founder and guitarist of American rock band Journey, is till inspired by the story behind Don’t Stop Believin’. His bandmate and keyboardist Jonathan Cain was a struggling musician trying to break into the Hollywood music scene. Cain’s dad provided some earnest words of encouragement: “Don’t stop believing, son.” The phrase stuck with Cain, and the rest of us.
Eight Chords and a Train Guitar
While Cain was working out his famous eight chord progression for Don’t Stop Believin’, Neil Schon was hearing a symphony in his head. Schon admits the guys had no idea how big the song would eventually become. But the band members knew they were creating something special. Their arrangement was highly unorthodox, including the now famous “long break with the train guitar.” Schon compares it to a symphony piece. Journey’s talented musicians were creating something that neither the AM nor FM radio stations had ever played before. “If you listen to symphonies, you hear violins all the time with that same signature…it’s probably just from me listening to symphonies and something that rubbed off on me,” says Schon. That “choo choo train” sound became one of Schon’s signature riffs, and represents a pioneering moment in rock music history.
Pioneering a New Sound
At a time when most songs followed a rhythmic formula of verse-chorus-verse, Don’t Stop Believin’challenged the norm. Its progression looked like this:
- Instrumental intro
- Half-length verse
- Instrumental chorus
- Chorus to fade
The band loved it. They thought the extra time devoted to instrumentals was cool. It was different. Of course, being different comes with a level of risk. They were nervous about what their label and the radio stations would think. As Schon tells it, “A lot of people were scared to death of it…saying, ’you mean the vocals are going away for that long…I don’t know man…I’m scared…maybe we should chop it out!’” But, to the credit of Journey’s manager Herbie Herbert, he didn’t ask for the label’s opinion. This was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And, as we all know, they took it!
Nailing the Lyrics
The arrangement of guitar first, followed by the lyrics, turned out to mirror the writing process for the song. The music was worked out before the lyrics were written. This was not unheard of. But it was unusual. It was not the way other Journey hit songs had come together. And, as Cain tells it, it was an improvised team effort. Cain was fairly new to the group when he started collaborating on Journey’s 7th (and biggest) studio album, Escape, released July 31, 1981. (Fun fact, MTV went on the air just hours later.)
A Pleasant Surprise
It came as a surprise when Steve Perry mentioned the band needed to come up with one more song for the label (there were already so many slated for the record). Having little more than this idea that sprang from his father’s consoling advice, along with those unforgettable chords, Cain offered up Don’t Stop Believin’. Everyone liked what they were hearing, and, as the music track started to take shape, Perry would hum along, sputtering a word here and a phrase there, like a repurposed engine about to start. Cain took notes, capturing everything Perry was saying. The next day, more words powered out, until the lyrics were motoring along.
In an unusual twist of fate, as Perry was synching the lyrics with the melody, he started feeling ill. Just a common cold, but sick enough that he had to go home to recuperate before the record was finished. They finished the music track for Don’t Stop Believing without him. When Perry returned, voice in full working order, it was only a matter of three or four takes before he’d nailed the vocals. Truly one of those magical moments when all the planets aligned, which other hit song writing teams have talked about. Schon then rewrote some additional guitar parts, and the group added background vocals, and voila’, this chance anthem was ready to be unveiled.
80s Hit Song for the Ages
Singles charts were started in the 1950s as a clever way to bring in more advertising dollars. But they became THE standard by which hit songs were measured. And though Don’t Stop Believin’didn’t make the esteemed Billboard Top 100 on its initial release, it would ultimately make it onto that chart’s Top 10, peaking at #9. In all, between 1981 and 2013, Don’t Stop Believin’appeared on 18 song charts around the world, reaching #2 on the Canadian Singles Chart and #4 on the Irish Singles Chart.
Despite numerous changes in the music business through the years, there is no denying that Don’t Stop Believin’is a mega hit. People of every generation can hum, strum, tap, or sing a piece of it. In fact, it is hailed as the best-selling digital track from the 20th century, with over seven million copies sold in the United States.
The Highest Form of Flattery
It’s rare that a band can replace its lead vocalist yet continue without skipping a beat. In the case of Journey’s Arnel Pineda replacing Steve Perry, Pineda’s shockingly similar voice does not explain this phenomenon. It is Pineda’s reverence of Perry that speaks volumes as to why this change has worked and has helped propel Journey from an 80s band to one of America’s greatest rock bands of all time. Pineda isn’t trying to imitate, rather he is trying to honor Perry’s incomparable singing style. As Pineda humbly explains, “I’m just trying to follow the blueprint Steve Perry left behind. Steve Perry’s is an amazing, incomparable blueprint. Nobody can top it. Nobody can touch it. I’m just paying tribute to it, and I’m so happy and grateful to be able to continue the legacy.”
A Pop Culture Staple
Journey’s legacy is continuing. Don’t Stop Believin’is the rock anthem leading the way. Aspiring musicians practice Schon’s guitar riffs and Cain’s keyboard instrumentals. In fact, Cain has admitted, “My favorite thing is when kids say, ‘I learned how to play the piano because of your song.’” The song has been an anthem for sports teams that brings entire stadiums of supporters to their feet, to sing and believe.” And the number of TV shows that have included Don’t Stop Believin’in their content is hard to keep track of (though sites like tvovermind.comare doing just that).
One of the most memorable requests, according to Schon, was when Glee producers came calling. This was before the show had made its mark as a pop culture marvel. Says, Schon, “I was afraid it was going to turn into this Mary Poppins thing. But the opportunity was there, and it’s a true blessing to look out there now [into the audience], and I see three generations, four generations. Every year it gets younger and younger and younger.”
And who can forget the last scene of the final episode of HBO series The Sopranos? Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) played Don’t Stop Believin’from his table-side jukebox, while waiting for his family to join him, in what most have determined were the final minutes of his life. “Very heavy,” says Schon. “Very meaningful.”
Don’t Stop Believin’: Timeless Music
So why has this song resonated with so many people across so many decades? There are countless theories. “It’s spiritually uplifting.” “It’s an anthem for people not to give up.” “It has a great sing-along melody.” In all likelihood, it’s all of these reasons and more. Timeless music sends a message that never goes out of style, that touches the human spirit. So many significant personal stories have been told about how this song has inspired people, some in the darkest depths of despair or illness, yet who were able to soar back on the wings of this ballad. That, my friends, is a powerful song. An unforgettable song. A timeless piece of music. Maybe Brenden Urie (Lead Vocalist of Panic! At The Disco) summed it up best, “…a super group of super humans that just made this awesome rock music anthem.”
No one could have predicted the impact of Don’t Stop Believin’. But how fitting that the love for this song (as Perry originally belted out and Pineda continues) still goes on and on and on and on.