Journey’s 1981 hit ‘Don’t Stop Believin” is a strange beast. No other song has had an existence quite like it. Although the band is technically a supergroup, formed by ex-members of the Steve Miller Band, Santana and Frumious Bandersnatch in San Francisco in 1973, their reputation certainly doesn’t precede them. The song is, in many ways, much larger than the band itself.
Yes, Journey clearly has legions of unseen fans, as they are able to claim a handful of platinum and diamond selling records, but it is their hit ‘Don’t Stop Believin” that is their most enduring opus. An anthem loved by people across the globe who hail from different walks of life; this is the song’s true speciality. It has an intergenerational, cross-border appeal that supersedes that of even John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ or David Bowie’s ‘Heroes‘.
Regardless of it being hailed as “the perfect rock song” by some overblown elements of the media, or of its massive sales and general refusal to fade from memory, it still doesn’t make the song a good one. A medium-sized hit upon release, coming out of that time period in which the mainstream was totally enamoured with the all-American style of stadium-rock, it is the song’s life after 1981 that is its most interesting point.
Featuring the classic keyboard intro, famous lyrics, anthemic chorus and a guitar solo that many laymen would call ‘shredding’, ‘Don’t Stop Believin” is the musical equivalent to the hydra; it just won’t die. For the best part of 15 years, it has been a regular guest on charts around the world. After its first life as a hit loved only by white bread and baby boomers, in 2007, it was given a new lease of life from the most unlikely of sources. It gained massive popularity and press coverage when it was used in the iconic final episode of the HBO series The Sopranos. The song’s inclusion in an episode entitled ‘Made in America’, says it all, really.
It would then re-enter the charts, and for a time, it became the number one paid digital download song released in the 20th century. More significantly, it was the best-selling rock song in digital history until it was overtaken by Imagine Dragons track ‘Radioactive’ in January 2014. However, this use in The Sopranos wasn’t the only revival it would receive.
At this point in time, the song had a respectable, kitsch character that was underpinned by the collective sadness and nostalgia that the end of The Sopranos had stoked. However, moving into 2009, it would get a shot of adrenaline that no song has ever had before and likely never will again. We’ve seen revivals, but this was a different level.
The first part of this bumper adrenaline shot came in May 2009, when the cast of the Fox series Glee sang it at the end of the show’s mega-hit pilot episode. The cover helped the show to become one of the biggest of the inter-decade period, and as the song was used on numerous occasions across the show’s 120 episodes, it established an intrinsic link between the track and the series for millennials. Its High School Musical style take on the original perfectly repackaged the song for the new generation. The Glee version of the song was quickly certified platinum, and it stayed on the charts for weeks, beaten to the top spot only by Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas and Jamie Foxx.
The Glee version caused a tidal wave that the band Journey would profit from in a massive way. As well as earning them millions, it also re-energised their career, and strangely, it tied the band forevermore to the song and to Glee. However, what followed, saw the song become an annoying caricature of its self. The track was such a massive hit that it led to the vultures circling.
Those of no real artistic value latched onto the song. This was a more severe form of how Birdy’s version of Bon Iver’s ‘Skinny Love’ signalled a legion of folk-pop piffle in the 2010s, or the way that Oasis hit ‘Wonderwall’ lost its original glory because of terrible cover versions. The most notable of these was when Joe McElderry performed the song on the final of the 2009 series of The X Factor. His rendition afforded the song another boost of life, sending it into the arms of those who were probably unaware of it prior to his rendition.
When you combine the effect that its use in The Sopranos, Glee, and The X Factor had, you see that they have culminated in the song having an everlasting presence in pop culture. Covered in every language and in every genre, the song is a pervasive anthem that will long continue to be played at weddings and nightclubs.
So how does it hold up 40 years after its original release? Well, you have to take it for what it is, an anthemic mega-hit that really has no quality aside from being a sing-along. There’s no escaping it. So, when you next find yourself drunk and on a dancefloor somewhere, why not let it rip along with Journey frontman Steve Perry?