By Dan Weiss
Single Again is a column on Radio.com where Dan Weiss investigates chart hits of the past and present, their stories and what they meant and how good they really are.
For this edition of Single Again, Radio.com spoke to Jim Peterik of Survivor, about “Eye of the Tiger” the theme from Rocky III and the biggest hit single of 1982. Peterik’s new book Through the Eye of the Tiger details his surprisingly clean-cut career, from his days as a member of the Ides of March (best known for the 1970 hit “Vehicle,” which Peterik wrote) on up to songwriting collaborations with Brian Wilson and others.
Radio.com: What do you think will be the most surprising revelation for people reading your book Through the Eye of the Tiger?
Jim Peterik: Well I think first of all, people are going to go ‘Who’s Jim Peterik?’ [laughs] And then the revelation might be that he’s involved with a lot of songs that are still on the radio that they may even like. And not even just the obvious stuff like “Eye of the Tiger” but also .38 Special and [“Vehicle” by] the Ides of March, which was my first hit record.
What about for the people who were already familiar?
I guess it’s the fact that—I don’t want to moralize in any way, shape or form—that I never really fell into the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. I’d like to at least shatter some of the stereotypes that you have to do to make it. They really fell into the huge pitfalls that a lot of rockers did.
Was that difficult with people around you falling into that?
It was almost easier—I saw what it did to them and what idiots they were when they were high. And I just wanted to go into the next room and write the next hit song.
Was “Eye of the Tiger” the first time you ever wrote a song to order?
Well, it was the first time we really specifically set out to go “OK, we’ve got to write the most amazing song ever for this movie called Rocky III.” We had a great script to work from and the rough cut of the movie right in front of us, so if we messed up we’d have no one to blame but ourselves.
Were you a big fan of the prior Rocky movies or boxing before Stallone approached you?
Huge fan of Rocky I, and II was good, too, my wife and I were really into it. So when I got home that fateful day in early 1982, I had a message on my answering machine that went: “Jim, nice answering machine you got there, give me a call, it’s Sylvester Stallone.” So I thought, yeah, right, c’mon. Stallone would have a handler or an agent…it’s not every day you get a message from Stallone. So I thought somebody was pranking me. I called my buddy Sal who did an imitation of him: “Come on, don’t do this to me.” He’s like “Do what?” So I called him back and Stallone answers, “Yo.” And I said, “Is this Sylvester Stallone?” And he goes [affects Stallone voice], “Yeah, call me Sly.” So I go, “Hi Sly, how you doing?” And he goes, “Yeah, I like the sound of your band. I want that sound for my new movie, can you help me out?” And I said, “Is the pope Catholic?” I knew this was the chance of a lifetime.
He sent us a rough cut of the movie, the first three and a half minutes of a montage. So me and [Survivor guitarist] Frankie Sullivan just watch this thing, and he’s got a Les Paul and starts playing the “chugga, chugga, chugga” thing. I see the punches, you know, Mr. T knocking the daylights out of Stallone, and I go “bom…bom bom bom.” Literally syncing the guitar part to the punches we see onscreen. So we had a really good start, and then we begged Stallone to send us the whole movie, which he finally did the next day. Begrudgingly, because he wasn’t supposed to. But that’s when everything took shape, because that’s when we see Burgess Meredith‘s character going “Roc, you’re losing the eye of the tiger!” And we go, “There’s our song.”
How did Stallone shape the song? Were all of his suggestions good ones?
They weren’t really specific. He said, “I want something with a pulse, something for the kids, something you can pump your fists to.” He just shaped us into what he wanted, and we delivered. We demoed the song the day after we wrote it, and he heard it and goes, “You guys really did it, that’s what I’m looking for. But you got lazy on me and didn’t write a third verse.” And I’m glad we wrote that verse, it made it better.
Was there anything he wanted that didn’t get in?
I think he recommended timpani drums. And I think once we got it done, we didn’t need timpani drums.
“Another One Bites the Dust” was the original placeholder for that montage but Stallone couldn’t get the rights to use it. Did you ever find out why Queen refused?
Cuz Stallone’s cheap! [laughs] I mean, we got 15 grand to do that, OK. Which is not a lot of money in Hollywood, right? But we knew this is our shot now. Queen’s management…I’m sure Freddie knew nothing about it. They were probably like, “15 grand? Come on, 100 grand!” And I’m going, “Are you kidding? We’ll take it.”
I’m a guitarist so I want to know every nerdy thing that went into writing that guitar riff, the palm-muting, everything. Is that a technique you’d used before?
Actually, yeah. The predecessor in our band, on our very first album, just called Survivor, there’s a song called “Youngblood.” You listen to that, it’s that very same palm-muted thing I did, only in a different time signature. I used a 1979 Les Paul custom-equipped with high-gain pickups. Then I meticulously—if I may say so—doubled it, and it becomes that telegraphic kind of sound that we got. The Les Paul was stolen from me a few years later. Whoever stole it, I hope they…you know, whatever. You don’t steal Rocky’s guitar.
I feel like “Eye of the Tiger” should get more credit for the quiet-to-loud dynamics that dominated music like, a decade later, with Nirvana, metal and alternative rock. It’s a genuine shock when that first chord comes in.
Yeah, I created the idea of a backwards cymbal combined with the low note on the piano, it was very dramatic. I realized the intro was 30 seconds—that’s a hell of a long intro! But it’s an important part of the song.
It’s probably the most recognizable part of the song.
I got a check the other day for a movie trailer that the song wasn’t even in. They’re using it to get people’s attention!
Have you ever refused to let the song be used for anything?
For a while there, I was refusing one a week. They’re usually rap songs, where they would sample the sound—and it’s OK if they pay me. But then the lyrics got filthy, real anti-women. Me and Frankie weren’t united on a lot of things, but we weren’t going to let that happen.
What rappers did you turn down?
This was before he cleaned his act up, you know? Back then he was kind of blue.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever heard “Eye of the Tiger”?
[laughs] I think walking down the supermarket aisle is probably as weird as anything, when people are buying their meats and stuff, housewives dancing around to “Eye of the Tiger.”
That’s so weird because of the Weird Al version.
In 1982, my publisher gets a request from Weird Al to do “Rye or the Kaiser,” and I didn’t know if he was gonna approve it because it pokes fun at the whole thing. And then that same week, Michael Jackson’s people approved “Eat It.” And I go, look, if Michael Jackson can approve it, I think we can, too. And I’m glad I did. When you turn 8, you become a Weird Al fan. It’s part of the fabric of America.
Was 1982 the best year of your life or the most exhausting?
You know, a little of both. The highs of that year were incredible, and I don’t mean drugs.
Since you mention it, who’s the most famous person you’ve turned down an offer to get high with?
A lot of them. There’s a story in the book when the Ides of March opened for Led Zeppelin in Winnipeg, 1970. After the show, Robert Plant says, “Would you guys like to meet us at the penthouse? We have a big party going on at the penthouse suite.” So of course, we showed up, and it’s not like we’re expecting milk and cookies, but we’re 19, and we had no idea what we were going to find. So Robert Plant answers the door in his paisley briefs and says, “Come on in lads!” And we look past him and we’re like, this isn’t a party, it’s an orgy! They were doing all sorts of substances, the groupies were all naked or half-naked, Bonham’s in the bathtub with a particularly pretty girl. They offered all this stuff and we go, “Hey Robert, thank you so much, we’re out of here.” And then we went to the Dunkin Donuts across the street.
Read more Single Again stories on Radio.com:
- The Best of Single Again
- Single Again: Adele – ‘Someone Like You’/Dixie Chicks – ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’
- Single Again: Electric Six – ‘Gay Bar’
- Single Again: Survivor – ‘Eye of the Tiger’
- Single Again: Alien Ant Farm – ‘Smooth Criminal’