'Eye of the Tiger' by Survivor: The making of the inspirational sports anthem

25 March 2022, 13:15

By Mayer Nissim

"Rising up, back on the street / Did my time, took my chances..."

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Chicago rockers Survivor were already a couple of albums in when they got a gig that would change the path of their career.

The group were tasked with writing the theme to Sylvester Stallone boxing movie sequel Rocky III.

It was absolutely massive. It was by far the band's biggest song, and one of the biggest songs of the decade.

The song approaches its 40th anniversary in May this year, which makes this a perfect time to take a look back at this stone-cold classic.

Who wrote the song? How did it end up on Rocky III? And which band (NOT Survivor) performed the song at the Oscars? Here's everything you need to know about 'Eye of the Tiger'.

Who wrote 'Eye of the Tiger'?

While many hit movie themes are written (or at least co-written) by expert guns for hire, 'Eye Of The Tiger' was actually composed by two members of Survivor.

Those musicians were guitarist/keyboard player Jim Peterik, and guitarist Frankie Sullivan. Frank is the only member of the band who has been in the group from its inception in 1977 to the present day, making him the ultimate Survivor.

"Frankie came in with the lines, 'Back on the street, doin' time, taking chances'. I loved those lines immediately and suggested, 'Rising up, back on the street, did my time, took my chances'," Jim told Songfacts.

"The next two hours flew by in a flash as we jammed, cassette recorder running nonstop to catch anything good we did."

How did Survivor get the job of writing 'Eye of the Tiger' for Rocky III?

In another universe where Queen were a bit easier with their licensing, 'Eye Of The Tiger' may never have existed.

Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in Rocky, before writing, starring AND directing Rocky II and Rocky III, wanted to use 'Another One Bites the Dust' as his theme.

"I came home from shopping one day and heard a message on the answering machine from Sylvester Stallone," Jim told Guitar World.

"At first, I thought it was a joke, but I called the number and sure enough, Stallone answered. He told me that he loved the band and had heard 'Poor Man's Son' and 'Take You On A Saturday' from our Premonition album and wanted that same kind of 'street' sound for his new movie, Rocky III."

Stallone sent the band a rough cut of the soon-to-be-iconic montage of Rocky living la vida loca and Mr T getting into shape, and he'd used Queen's already-classic anthem as a backdrop,

"I remember asking Stallone why he just didn’t use that song for the movie and he said it was because they couldn’t get the publishing rights for it," Jim said.

He later told The Guardian: 'I said, 'Frankie, we got our work cut out for us. Because 'Another One Bites the Dust' is f**king perfect."

Frankie also told Classic Rock: “When one of my idols, Brian May, attended one of our shows in Los Angeles in 1984, he brought up that subject. I offered to send him a copy of the tape, which I still own."

How did did Survivor get that 'Eye of the Tiger' riff to fit so perfectly with those punches in the movie?

So what came first, the iconic 'Eye of the Tiger' riff or those perfectly-choreographed punches? And did the song take its name from a famous line in the movie, or did they add that in because of the song?

Well, when they got that rough cut vid from Sly, the group started playing along with a tiny amp, trying to get the rhythm just right.

"I added to it when I saw the punches being thrown, trying to score the chords in time with the punches," Jim explained.

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III. Picture: Alamy

The only problem? They needed more footage to finish the song. Frankie and Jim got an early copy of the whole film for one night only and fell in love with it.

"Then we heard that phrase.... 'You had that eye of the tiger, man," Jim later told The Guardian. "That had to be the hook."

They got into the Chicago Recording Company, tasked drummer Marc Droubay with doing his best John Bonham, and ended up with a slice of movie and rock history.

When was 'Eye of the Tiger' released and how did it do in the charts?

Survivor – Eye of the Tiger
Survivor – Eye of the Tiger. Picture: Alamy

The version of 'Eye of the Tiger' in the theatrical and original VHS home video release was actually a demo.

"We went into the studio and demoed it," Frankie told Tennessean. "Stallone absolutely flipped. But he said, 'You got a little lazy on me. You didn’t write me a third verse'.

"Busted. So we went back to the drawing board... and that demo version was the one that went in the film. That’s how tight the schedule was. That's the demo."

He added to The Guardian that they told Stallone it was only a demo, but he didn't care: "Sly said, 'I don't give a f**k what it is'. That’s his attitude. He’s a really cool guy."

The finished studio version of 'Eye of the Tiger' (which has since replaced the demo on DVD and Blu-ray) was released on May 31, 1982, around the time Rocky III hit screens.

It was a giant, instant hit.

The song went to number one in the UK and the US, as well as a smattering of other countries around the globe.

More than that, it was the second biggest selling single of the whole year, just behind Olivia Newton-John's equally energetic 'Physical'.

As well as opening the Rocky III soundtrack album, it was also the first song on Survivor's third album called, of course, Eye of the Tiger.

Who performed 'Eye of the Tiger' at the Academy Awards?

As well its stunning chart success, 'Eye of the Tiger' was also an awards darling.

It won the 1982 Grammy for Best Rock Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal, though it did miss out on Song of the Year to Willie Nelson's cover of 'Always on My Mind'.

It was also nominated for Best Original Song at the 1982 Academy Awards, where it was pipped to the win by 'Up Where We Belong' from An Officer and a Gentleman – and there's no shame in that.

What was especially striking about that 1982 Oscars nod is that Survivor didn't perform the song at the ceremony.

Instead, The Temptations gave their own inimitable spin on the song, and as you can hear for yourself, it's every bit as special as the original.

What happened to Survivor after 'Eye Of The Tiger'?

Survivor in 1984
Survivor in 1984. Picture: Getty

Survivor's career has been something of a rollercoaster after 'Eye of the Tiger', which is the only song many people may know them for.

The year after the breakthrough, lead singer Bickler left Survivor, partly as a result of needing a break following surgery on his vocal cords, and partly over a dispute over royalties for Eye of the Tiger album.

He was replaced in the lineup by Jimi Jamison, and in the years that followed the group flitted between the two men.

Bickler rejoined the group in 1993, but was fired again in 2000 and replaced with Jamison once more. Then Bickler rejoined once more in 2013, and the group toured with both Bickler and Jamison in the lineup.

Jamison died of a drug-induced stroke in 2014, leaving Bickler as the sole lead singer, but in 2016 he was again fired from the group, who are now fronted by Cameron Barton.

Going back to the mid-1980s, Survivor initially surfed a wave of success, with follow-up 'American Heartbeat' going top 20.

After a few less-successful singles, the top-20 album Vital Signs spawned three big hits: 'I Can't Hold Back' went to number 13, followed by 'High On You' at 8, and 'The Search is Over' at number 4.

After the success of their first collaboration, Sylvester Stallone sought to repeat the trick with the Jamison-fronted Survivor for Rocky IV.

While it was no 'Eye of the Tiger', 'Burning Heart' was still a massive hit, reaching number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Follow-up 'Is This Love' reached number 9, and while the hits dried up after that and the band eventually shed all its original members (bar Frankie), they continue to record and perform to this day.

Why does 'Eye Of The Tiger' keep sparking lawsuits with Republican politicians in the US?

'Eye of the Tiger' is a massive sporting anthem, used to gee up all sorts of teams, and used in more inspirational montage themes (and parodies of inspirational montage themes) than we could even begin to list here.

It's also been used by politicians wanting to nab some of that feel-good emotion, and the band aren't all that happy about that.

In 2012, Survivor sued Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich over his unauthorised use of the song as his walk-on music at his rallies, with the matter eventually being settled out of court.

Fellow Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney also agreed to remove the track from his campaign playlist the same year after complaints from the band.

And in 2015, Republican Mike Huckabee's campaign had to pay a reported $25,000 after using the song at a rally without permission.

You'd hope that Republican presidential candidates of the future will:

  • Get permission before using songs
  • Try to be a bit more original, anyway

Who has covered 'Eye Of The Tiger'?

We've already mentioned the absolutely incredible version by The Temptations from the Academy Awards, and we're not sure any other cover can touch that performance.

A few others have given it a try, and we should make a special mention of Gloria Gaynor's take, which opened her 1986 album The Power and is much more faithful to the original.

Paul Anka gave a very different spin on the rock classic for his 2005 Rock Swings album, but perhaps the most odd cover is "by" British boxing legend Frank Bruno.

The 1996 single is credited to the True Brit, and it went all the way to number 28 in the UK singles charts, riding the wave between his WBC Heavyweight Title win against Oliver McCall and before his career-ending loss to Mike Tyson.

The only thing is, despite the Bruno-related boxing commentary mixed into the song, we absolutely don't believe that it's Frank Bruno singing on this strange hit single, which was produced by SAW duo Mike Stock and Matt Aitken.

As for who does sing on it... well, we don't actually know, as there's no singer credited on the sleeve or label.