Revisiting Survivor’s Knockout Punch to ‘Rocky III,’ ‘Eye of the Tiger’
Survivor tasted their first Top 40 success with their second album, 1981's Premonition, but they were still waiting for their big break when they started working on their third LP.
It arrived courtesy of an assist from Sylvester Stallone.
While Premonition raised Survivor's profile, it didn't do enough to really set them apart from the mid-tier pack of similar-sounding bands at the time — many of whom had been their tour partners. But as co-founder Jim Peterik recalled during an exclusive interview with Ultimate Classic Rock's Matt Wardlaw, the members of the group weren't really worried about losing their deal; like a lot of imprints during that more patient era, Survivor's Scotti Brothers label took a long-term approach with their artists.
"I give Scotti Brothers a lot of credit, because obviously nowadays, a record company will stay with you as long as you have a hit and if you don’t have a hit, you’re dropped," said Peterik. "The Scottis were behind us and there was no question [about if] there would be a third record."
It was while they were assembling material for that next LP that they got the fateful call from Stallone, who'd heard Survivor's "Poor Man's Son" single from Premonition and decided they had the sound he wanted for the Rocky III soundtrack. Eager to give his saga's third installment a fresh anthem to stand alongside the franchise theme "Gonna Fly Now," Stallone reached out to Peterik and guitarist Frankie Sullivan, sending them a sample edit of footage set to Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."
"We begged Stallone to send us the whole movie, which he finally begrudgingly did. It came FedEx the next day and that’s when the story all made sense," said Peterik. "We hear the trainer, Mickey, going, 'Hey, Rocky, you’re losing the eye of the tiger.' Frankie and I looked at each other and said, 'There it is.' The following day, we got together and Frankie actually threw out a couple of lines that really set the wheels in motion. He goes, 'Back on the street, doing time, takin’ chances.' I said, 'Man, that sounds good.' And I said, 'How about this? 'Risin’ up, back on the street, did my time, took my chances.' We were off to the races."
Watch Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger' Video
That session marked the start of what would become the band's first and only No. 1 hit, "Eye of the Tiger" — a soundtrack smash that fueled their first Top 5 platinum LP when it was released in early June as the lead-off track from Survivor's Eye of the Tiger album. The film sparked something extra in the songwriting partners too: after supplying Stallone with his uptempo anthem, they followed it up with a ballad, "Ever Since the World Began," that they'd also earmarked for the movie. To Peterik's lasting regret, it didn't end up making the cut.
"'Ever Since The World Began' was supposed to be for Rocky III," he told UCR. "Stallone absolutely loved the song. We submitted that just after 'Eye of the Tiger' and he said, 'Oh, you’ve got another one.' He couldn’t find a place for the song, which was a killer."
"Eye of the Tiger" made an enormous impact all on its own — so much so, in fact, that it quickly became Survivor's defining single even as the group continued churning out Top 40 hits for much of the remainder of the decade. Despite the fact that they released their most radio-friendly album in 1984 with Vital Signs, it still felt like an attempt to manufacture a second lightning strike when they saddled up with Stallone again for the Rocky IV soundtrack. Fittingly, their song for that movie, "Burning Heart," peaked at No. 2.
Watch Survivor's 'Burning Heart' Video
By the end of the '80s, Survivor had, like many of their peers, fallen prey to the vagaries of changing trends, and the band's early '90s hiatus meant they'd forever be associated with their string of '80s successes — led and overshadowed by "Eye of the Tiger." It remains a required part of the current lineup's live set list, but as far as Sullivan is concerned, performing it for the rest of his career is the furthest thing from a burden.
"Trying to compete with the past is for fools. But I’ll never, ever tire of playing 'Eye of the Tiger,'" Sullivan laughed years later. "That song still kicks butt, man."