How Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” took its own advice
Journey was well on its way to becoming a household name in 1981. They were approaching superstardom and working on their seventh studio album, Escape.
Little did they know at the time that a recent lineup change would lead to the creation of their most iconic song.
Answering the call
Rather than try to talk about a number of songs in one go, I thought I’d change it up a bit and just research the history of one song from my birth year, 1981. And when you look at a list of hits from 41 years ago, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is the one that has had by far the most staying power and cultural influence.
In 1980, Journey needed to find a new keyboardist. The band’s original keyboard player was Gregg Rolie (who, amazingly, founded both Santana and Journey!), but he left the band amicably to start a family and work on solo projects.
It was Rolie himself who suggested the band hire Jonathan Cain as his replacement. The band agreed, and Cain came on board.
As the band worked through creating new music for their upcoming record, lead singer Steve Perry turned to their new bandmate and asked if he had any ideas, as the album was still one song short. Cain flipped through his notebook full of ideas and found nothing until he closed it. Scrawled down on the back of the notebook was the phrase “don’t stop believing.”
Can had gotten this phrase from his father. When he had moved to California a few years earlier to pursue a music career, things had been rough for him. Like so many before and after him, he struggled to find his big break.
One of the biggest setbacks occurred when his dog was hit by a car. He raced his beloved canine to the vet, who managed to save the animal’s life, but he didn’t have the money to pay the bill. He called his dad back in his hometown of Chicago for a loan, and asked him over the phone if he should just give up and move back home.
His father answered him, saying, “No, no, don’t come home. Stick to your guns. Don’t stop believing.” Cain jotted the words down on the back of his notebook and took his dad’s advice to heart.
Shortly after that conversation, Cain started to see success, first joining the Babys and then Journey.
The phrase stood out to Cain, Perry, and the other band members, and together they crafted the song in their rehearsal space — a warehouse in Oakland. Every band member pitched in, and Cain himself later remarked how surprised he was that the band supported him so much as such a new member.
When they had finished writing, recording, and mixing the song, they knew they had a hit on their hands. It became the first track on the new album, with Cain saying, “With that piano line, it just sounds like a book opening up.”
And a hit it was. “Don’t Stop Believin’” topped out at number eight on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and sold over a million copies. It was also the first song the band wrote with the idea of bringing the audience into the experience — playing with the crowd instead of for them.
While they knew they had a hit at the time, there was no way they — or anyone else — could forecast the song’s massive resurgence in the 2000s.
The song’s first use in the 2000s came in the 2003 movie, Monster. Although not many people saw the movie, it did draw high praise from critics and resulted in an Oscar for Charlize Theron.
The song was also featured in the series finale of The Sopranos in 2007. And just two years later, the TV show Glee covered the song in their pilot episode.
It has since been used in many other shows and movies, from South Park to King of the Hill to Laguna Beach. Multiple sports teams also make use of the song during games, perhaps the most famous being the San Francisco Giants — Steve Perry’s favorite team. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is played during the eighth inning of home games, and Steve himself led the crowd in singing it during the 2014 World Series.
Journey’s iconic song has bridged the gap between classic and modern. It’s a staple at weddings, parties, and karaoke bars. In addition to selling over a million copies on vinyl, it’s also the most digitally downloaded song released in the 20th century. The song was even added to the US National Recording Registry for being “culturally significant.”
Don’t stop believing, indeed.