'Livin' on a Prayer' by Bon Jovi: The making of the '80s working class anthem

5 October 2021, 12:40

Bon Jovi - Livin' on a Prayer
Bon Jovi - Livin' on a Prayer. Picture: Bon Jovi

By Mayer Nissim

Bon Jovi made steady progress on their first two albums before Slippery When Wet made them international superstars.

Bon Jovi's lead single from Slippery When Wet was the storming 'You Give Love a Bad Name', which not only won them their first top 30 single, but went all the way to number one of the Billboard 100.

Proving that was no fluke, the band followed it up with 'Livin' on a Prayer', which repeated the feat and has remained the band's best-known song ever since.

But who wrote the song? And were Tommy and Gina real people? Read on for everything you need to know.

Who wrote 'Livin' on a Prayer'?

Bon Jovi's self-titled 1984 debut was mainly written by the band, with a couple of assists from songwriters George Karak and Mark Avsec. Their second album was almost entirely self-penned, with the only outsider Bill Grabowski nabbing just one co-write.

But for Slippery When Wet, the band joined forces with Desmond Child (who had co-written Kiss hit 'I Was Made for Lovin' You' and songs for Cher and Bonnie Tyler), and the results would be explosive.

He co-wrote four songs on the new album, sparking a relationship that's stretched into the 2010s, and covering over 25 songs, including many of the band's biggest hits.

'Livin' on a Prayer' was one of those hits, being credited to singer Jon Bon Jovi, guitarist Richie Sambora and Desmond Child.

On the label, the performance is credited to Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Tico Torres, David Bryan and bass player Alec John Such.

But the band weren't overjoyed with the original recording, and drafted in session player and future Bon Jovi member Hugh McDonald to write and re-record a new bassline uncredited.

When was 'Livin' on a Prayer' released?

The first place you could have heard 'Livin' on a Prayer' on record was on the Slippery When Wet album, which was released on August 18, 1986.

It got a standalone release as the second single from the album on October 31, 1986, with 'Wild in the Streets' on the B-side.

The original demo of the song was eventually released as a hidden track on the 2004 box set 100,000,000 Bon Jovi Fans Can't Be Wrong.

2008 video game Guitar Hero World Tour featured an extra-long version of the song including the song's original 'talk box solo' ending, while a 2005 reissue of Slippery When Wet featured a different extended outro, with a different talkbox solo.

A very different re-recorded version of the song, called 'Prayer '94', appeared on the US version of that year's Cross Road compilation.

What is 'Livin' on a Prayer' about?

Bon Jovi - Livin' on a Prayer lyrics
Bon Jovi - Livin' on a Prayer lyrics. Picture: Getty

Written with the backdrop of the second Ronald Reagan presidential term and the economic problems that brought the working class, 'Livin' on a Prayer' tells the story of a couple whose love pulls them through their financial hardship.

Tommy is a dockworker who isn't getting paid while his union's on strike ("he's down on his luck it's tough"), so the couple scrape to pay the bills with Gina's work as a waitress in a diner ("she brings home her pay for love").

Despite it all though, the couple have each other and take turns in supporting one another keeping their love and dreams alive ("She says, we've got to hold on to what we've got" / "When she cries in the night, Tommy whispers / Baby, it's okay, someday").

"It deals with the way that two kids – Tommy and Gina – face life's struggles, and how their love and ambitions get them through the hard times." Bon Jovi later said. "It's working class and it's real."

Are Tommy and Gina in 'Livin' on a Prayer' real people?

"Tommy and Gina aren't two specific people; they represent a lifestyle," Bon Jovi said, but maybe the reason for the pure emotional power of 'Livin' on a Prayer' was that Jon Bon Jovi and Desmond Child were absolutely writing from life experience.

Like Tommy, whose rockstar dreams were frustrated by the struggles of real-life ("Tommy's got his six-string in hock"), Jon had a pal who was a high school baseball star, but had to give up his dreams after he got his girlfriend pregnant, having to go and work in a factory.

As for Gina, when Desmond's girlfriend and fellow singer-songwriter Maria Vidal worked at the Once Upon A Stove diner, she got the nickname Gina because of how much she looked like Italian star Gina Lollobrigida.

And Tommy and Gina got another appearance in the massive 2000 comeback hit 'It's My Life' ("Yeah, this is for the ones who stood their ground / For Tommy and Gina, who never backed down").

How did 'Livin' on a Prayer' do in the charts?

After 'You Give Love A Bad Name' changed everything for Bon Jovi by going to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, the band had to follow it up with something big to prove it wasn't a fluke.

They did that and more with 'Livin' on a Prayer', which also topped the Mainstream Rock and Cash Box Charts.

It went to number four in the official UK chart, and topped the UK Rock and Metal Chart, too.

It's gone on to be triple platinum in the US and double platinum in the UK, as well as racking up 840 million YouTube views and 820 million Spotify listens (and counting).

Who has covered 'Livin' on a Prayer'?

Only a few major artists have considered taking on a classic like 'Livin' on a Prayer', and even fewer have pulled it off successfully.

English dance-pop singer Hazel Dean gave the song a Hi-NRG sheen in 1999 with her quirky cover, while Tori Amos has performed the song on stage.

And of course the cast of Glee performed it as a medley with The Rolling Stones' 'Start Me Up'.

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