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How Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin'' Became The Greatest Song Of The 20th Century

Music | November 13, 2020

Steve Perry of Journey performs at the Rosemont Horizon in Rosemont, Illinois, May 27, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

There are some songs that just make entire crowds belt out the entire lyrics together in unison, and Journey’s 1981 classic "Don’t Stop Believin'" always is definitely one of those tunes that ignites a massive sing-along. Ironically, when the song was first released it wasn’t nearly the hit it has become today as it only reached #9 on the US charts and didn’t even crack the Top 40 in the UK. With its exposure in a couple of television shows during recent decades, the tune is now the “best-selling track from the 20th Century” and over 7 million copies have been sold in the United States. It is pretty safe to say "Don’t Stop Believin'" has aged decently well. 

'Don’t Stop Believin'' Was Inspired By Jonathan Cain’s Father

Prior to Journey, keyboardist Jonathan Cain was a member of British band The Babys from 1979-1980. During his tenure with The Babys, their singer John Waite injured his knee during a concert forcing The Babys to disband leaving Cain unemployed. Depressed and ready to give up, Cain called his encouraging father who told him the words he would never forget, “Don’t stop believing or you’re done dude.” Cain wrote his father’s advice in his notebook, not realizing they would change his career forever. After taking Gregg Rolie’s place as keyboardist of Journey in 1980, Cain brought the title of "Don’t Stop Believin'" to singer Steve Perry and guitarist Neal Schon, and they were both hooked on the idea. 

Schon’s guitar parts sounded to Cain like a train rolling down a track, reminding him of Gladys Knight and The Pips’ hit "Midnight Train To Georgia," so they added the line “the midnight train goin’ anywhere” and built the rest of the lyrics upon that notion. They also loved a typical story about young people with big dreams setting out to achieve them as it reminded the band of themselves. That is how they created the two main characters, the city boy and small-town girl. South Detroit is actually a fictional location, but Perry tried singing North, West, and East, but nothing had quite a ring to it as “South Detroit.” The line, “A singer in a smoky room, the smell of wine and cheap perfume,” was a description of Cain’s first live performance with The Babys at Los Angeles' Whisky A Go Go.   

The Sopranos Bring 'Don’t Stop Believin'' Into The 21st Century

After "Don’t Stop Believin'" was released on Journey's seventh album Escape in 1981, it became a hit but it wasn’t until the next century that it really skyrocketed into the anthem it is today. The song’s use in the 2007 finale of The Sopranos (regarded by critics as one of the greatest shows of all time) can be credited for sparking its revival in the 21st century. The song plays in the very last scene as the show cuts out to black, leaving viewers to interpret their own meaning of the ending. The song created an emotional impact on the audience that fits so well over big dramatic scenes causing it to be remembered forever by fans along with the scene itself. The fusion of music with visuals often produces a strong connection between the audience and a television show. Soon, the song was back at the charts finally becoming a Top 10 hit in the UK and was soaring in digital downloads. Not only was the song climbing the charts once again, but it also inspired Journey to find a replacement for Perry and hit the road again after their lead singer had quit.    

The Journey Song Reached Its Peak After Being Used In Glee

After The Sopranos gave a reboot to the tune, "Don’t Stop Believin'" was still not finished growing. Soon to be a massive hit-TV series, Glee featured the cast’s musical-theater rendition of the song in their 2009 pilot. This version was even more popular than the original as it reached No. 4 in the US Top 100, and was certified gold selling over 500,000 copies. Audiences loved Glee’s poppy adaptation of the rock song so much that the cast performed it on six different episodes and by 2011, the song reached over a million digital sales. The song continued to impact television as it was also played on Family Guy, Scrubs, South Park, Just Shoot Me, My Name Is Earl, and numerous other series that caught on to the trend.

'Don’t Stop Believin'' Never Died

Today, "Don’t Stop Believin'" is one of the most well-known rock songs for every generation. It is believed that the song’s inspiring message, while seemingly cheesy, is what grasps the attention of listeners worldwide. The feel-good tune’s meaning is timeless and applicable to all scenarios for people of any age to relate to. It is a heartfelt story of hope from two people with different backgrounds following their dreams no matter how impossible they seem. The opening keys captivate listeners who can tell that the drama is building up to something grand, and that is exactly what happens by the end. Journey created a unique arrangement as the chorus with the title line "Don’t Stop Believin’" does not even occur until the last fifty seconds of the song, which causes audiences to keep listening as they wait for the intense climax. The larger-than-life sound and stadium appeal of the song has made it a perfect rock staple to be sung at sporting events. At least The Detroit Red Wings feel this way as "Don’t Stop Believin'" is often played during their home games especially during the intensity of the final minutes. “Born and raised in South Detroit” sure is a fun line to scream out for people actually from the city  

The Lyrics Of 'Don't Stop Believin''

Just a small town girl

Livin' in a lonely world

She took the midnight train goin' anywhere

Just a city boy

Born and raised in south Detroit

He took the midnight train goin' anywhere

A singer in a smoky room

A smell of wine and cheap perfume

For a smile they can share the night

It goes on and on, and on, and on

Strangers waiting

Up and down the boulevard

Their shadows searching in the night

Streetlights, people

Living just to find emotion

Hiding somewhere in the night

Working hard to get my fill

Everybody wants a thrill

Payin' anything to roll the dice

Just one more time

Some will win, some will lose

Some were born to sing the blues

Oh, the movie never ends

It goes on and on, and on, and on

Strangers waiting

Up and down the boulevard

Their shadows searching in the night

Streetlights, people

Living just to find emotion

Hiding somewhere in the night

Don't stop believin'

Hold on to the feelin'

Streetlights, people

Don't stop believin'

Hold on

Streetlights, people

Don't stop believin'

Hold on to the feelin'

Streetlights, people

Tags: Dont Stop Believin | Journey | Steve Perry

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.