How Survivor’s Jim Peterik Helped .38 Special + Sammy Hagar Write Big Hits
The liner notes for 1976's ‘Don’t Fight the Feeling’ branded Jim Peterik as a “survivor,” a name he would borrow for his next group only a couple of years later. Even before Survivor, however, Peterik had tasted success with the Ides of March and ‘Vehicle,’ which peaked at number two in 1970.
Survivor had no problem finding their way back to that side of the charts, placing seven singles inside the Top 20 including a defining No. 1 single, ‘Eye of the Tiger.’ But he was also writing hit records for a number of other artists in the ‘80s, notably .38 Special and Sammy Hagar, among others.
Yet, Peterik remains a songwriter who doesn’t get nearly enough credit. As his friend Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon writes in the foreword for Peterik’s new autobiography ‘Through the Eye of the Tiger,’ “he knows everything there is to know about writing a hit song and has a whole bunch of ‘em under his silver-studded leather belt to prove it.”
Five decades into his career, Peterik continues to help others find magic in the melody and lyrics of the song. As Brian Wilson relates, he and Peterik shared a spaghetti dinner and wrote a song called ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ which became the title track of “the Beach Boys highest-debuting record in over forty years.”
‘Through the Eye of the Tiger’ takes a look at Peterik’s story, from the start to the present day and reveals an artist and songwriter who is still looking for new challenges. Ultimate Classic Rock spoke with Peterik about his new book, even as he prepared to perform at a memorial service for his friend and former bandmate, Survivor vocalist Jimi Jamison. That led to stories about some of his favorite moments from the Jamison era of the group, as well as some of his other songwriting collaborations.
How are things on that end?
It’s a beautiful sunny day and I had the Lamborghini out this morning, which means life is good. You know, I’m obviously reeling from the 'Jamo' thing, but getting ready to go to Memphis for his tribute memorial on the 23rd. So, I really want my voice to be in shape, because I’m going to sing for that. I’m going to do ‘Streets of Heaven,’ which is kind of like a Japanese bonus track from his ‘Crossroads Moment’ album that I wrote for his stepfather when he passed away in 2009. It was always one of Jimi and the family’s favorites, but it’s a tough song to sing. Of course, I’ll never sing it as good as Jimi, but I’m going to give it my best.
I think I saw either you or [Survivor associate] Jeremy Holiday post that song in the recent days. I don’t know that I had heard that one, and it really is a beautiful tune.
Well, you know what I just found out, which is kind of cool? A friend of Jimi Jamison’s that used to play in his first band Target, he was very tight with Jimi’s stepfather Jack. I didn’t know it, but Jack was a huge New York Yankees fan -- and I don’t know how, you know, the spirit works through us, but when I was writing that lyric, I mentioned “and Babe Ruth plays just one more game,” not knowing anything. I just found out that he was a huge fan and I got a message from a good friend of Jack’s saying, “How did you know?” and I said that “I didn’t know.” It was pretty spooky, in a good way.
That once again illustrates the magical things that happen with songwriting sometimes.
Man, you just open up the shaft and you let it come in.
We made a list recently of the Top Ten Jimi Jamison-era Survivor tracks and with the hits alone, it’s not difficult to map that out. What are some of songs that you’re particularly proud of from that period?
Well, first of all, it’s probably -- you know, it is my favorite era, starting with ‘Vital Signs’ all the way through ‘Too Hot To Sleep.’ I love [earlier Survivor singer] Dave [Bickler] and the stellar moments there, but when I was able to work with Jimi, it really found a voice after my own, where I was able to really create the kind of songs and melodies that I really wanted to. I guess for me, ‘The Search Is Over’ is probably my top song.
I say that, because I got a link from Jeremy and I had never seen it. I guess it was from 2009 and it was a Rock Meets Classic concert in Germany, organized by Ian Gillan. It had this huge orchestra and choir, and an amazing rock band and Steve Lukather, and they were doing ‘The Search Is Over,’ with the lights and the crowd. Jimi was on his game, and I just had tears in my eyes. He nailed it. I couldn’t believe how good it was.
I said to Jeremy, “This could not have been done in America. There’s too much attention to detail.” You know, the fanatics in Germany and Switzerland, they’re the only the people, to me, that revere that kind of music to give it that kind of special attention. Europe is amazing. So that would probably be my very top Jimi Jamison performance, followed closely by ‘I Can’t Hold Back,’ which just rings like a champ.
You know, there are so many moments on that album, ‘I See You In Everyone’ comes to mind, a perfect pairing of song and vocal, ‘It’s the Singer, Not the Song,’ and they just keep coming. As far as the next album [‘When Seconds Count’], you know, ‘Man Against the World’ is epic to me. ‘Is This Love’ is epic and ‘Burning Heart’ [from the ‘Rocky IV’ movie] is epic. I just mentioned about seven songs that just really stand out to me.
I talk about this a lot with people, but it really was a perfect pair of albums when you look at ‘Vital Signs’ and ‘When Seconds Count.’ I think that out of the two, ‘When Seconds Count’ kind of ends up being the underappreciated of the two albums a lot of times. One of the songs that I go back to a lot from that record is ‘Backstreet Love Affair.’
[Laughs.] You’re probably the first person that’s ever singled that one out. I love it. I really love that tune. You know, it’s got that rock edge to it. ‘Rebel Son’ to me is epic too.
I thought that ‘Backstreet Love Affair’ and ‘Desperate Dreams’ were really good examples of the power of the emotion that Jamison could really communicate with his performance.
Oh, ‘Desperate Dreams,’ you just mentioned one of my all-time favorites. It’s certainly my favorite from ‘Too Hot To Sleep,’ that and the title track are just, wow. And in a rock sense, ‘She’s A Star’ just kicks ass.
Let’s talk about your new book. One could imagine that the first draft of this book might have been a lot longer. Having talked to you before and heard your stories, I certainly wondered that.
Yeah, and a lot was left on the cutting-room floor. You know, they wanted a book that was manageable and sellable and they felt that anything over 350 pages was just too much. I said all I could in the amount of pages I had. If I had to do it again, I’d write it again and write it different. But at some point, you’ve got to freeze time and say, “Okay, this is me today,” and write your book and try to put the extra stories in when you’re doing your in-stores or talking to people like yourself or whatever. It’s a starting point more than a finishing point.
How did Lisa Torem, your co-author, help you pull it all together? What was the process?
Well, what it started with isn’t the way it ended up. You know, I pictured myself dictating reams of material to Lisa and she’d put it [together], and it would be easy. We did a lot of interviews and then she would transcribe it, and I didn’t like the way I sounded when I spoke. I realized that I’m a better writer. I could write it in a better voice than I could speak it. We trashed all of that, and she became more or less my rudder in terms of keeping me on track. I wrote every word of the book and she would say, “Why don’t you spend more time on this,” or “Do you really need that,” so she was more of an editor than a co-writer. But if I hadn’t spilled my guts to her day after day in this other process, I probably wouldn’t have written such a good book -- because it really unveils a lot of things that I needed to say.
As you know, there’s a lot of people who regard Survivor as “that band that did ‘Eye of the Tiger.'” It is certainly not a bad legacy to have, but the band had a lot of legitimate radio hits beyond that. Are you surprised that it kind of gets glossed over like that?
I’m not surprised. It bums me out. You know, I don’t think we ever had quite the publicity campaign and the visual image that some other bands had. We didn’t have the obvious controversies that surrounded Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. I guess in a way, we just didn’t have enough drama. Even though I knew the drama that went on behind the scenes, it didn’t really come forward that way. Also, having Top 40 hits is kind of a two-edged sword, you know, being on ‘Solid Gold’ instead of a more prestigious TV show didn’t help our image. So sometimes that disguises the depth of the music that we did have to offer.
It seems like the success for Survivor came in interesting waves. The ‘Eye of the Tiger’ album coming after those first two albums and then disappointing commercial results from the follow-up. A big-time comeback with ‘Vital Signs,’ but then commercial disappointment with ‘When Seconds Count.’ In the moment, did it ever feel like you had found the proper balance as a band?
Well, I think the stride was really ‘Vital Signs.’ We were clicking on all cylinders and I remember checking in with John Baruck, our manager, every week and he says, “How’s it going?” and I’d go, “John, order the Porsche.” That’s how sure I was that this album was going to be a big success. I remember doing Music Tennis Festival in that year, right before the album was to come out, and Jimi Jamison and I were singing and playing tennis and having a blast. Jimi and I walked outside of the hotel just to get some air, and there’s a Harley rumbling by and from the speakers was blasting ‘I Can’t Hold Back.’ Well, that was the first time we had even known it was on the radio -- and that’s how we heard it, echoing against the cars in San Francisco and it sounded like magic.
We just kind of hugged each other and went, “You know, I think we’ve got it.” That was just a big moment and that whole album felt -- the only thing that marred that whole record was that the mixes were bass-shy. When I got the mixes, I’m going, “What happened to the bottom?” I was so beside myself with grief. I said to [Survivor co-founder] Frankie [Sullivan], “Frankie, there’s no bottom,” and he was there with Ron Nevison mixing it, I went back to Chicago, and he said, “Oh, there’s plenty of bottom.” Well, there wasn’t, okay? So it wasn’t until the really great reissues like Jeremy Holiday’s ‘Ultimate Survivor,’ where some low end was restored and I finally feel a lot better about it.
I picked up the Rock Candy reissues of the albums for that very reason, hoping to get a better sounding ‘Vital Signs.’
Yeah, the bottom just wasn’t there [on the original]. I don’t know what happened. I do, but I can’t talk about it.
I’ve always felt like the Peterik-Sullivan songwriting team is one of the more underrated combinations from the ‘80s. From reading your book, one learns that there were times where it wasn’t really as much of an equal partnership as many folks might have thought it was. Even knowing about some of the internal strife within the group, I was kind of surprised to learn that.
Ohm yeah. When you talk to Frankie, you’re not hearing the kind of expression that you get when you’re talking to Jim Peterik. He just doesn’t express himself that way. And yet, once in a while, he’d come up with a brilliant line that would just take you back. We were writing ‘I Can’t Hold Back’ and I said, “There’s a story in my eyes” and he goes, “Turn the pages of desire” and I go, “What the f--k, where did that come from?”
But every great writing team needs a dichotomy. I’ve written with writers that are extremely strong and we cancelled each other out. So, say what you will. Frankie, when he was sitting in a room, whether I was writing through him or with him, he was an important catalyst.
You had a lot of songwriting success outside of Survivor, particularly with .38 Special. The band first had a big hit with ‘Rockin’ Into The Night,’ a track that Survivor had initially recorded but not used on that first Survivor album. Can you talk a little bit about how that collaboration developed further in the wake of the success of ‘Rockin’ Into The Night?’
‘Rockin’ Into The Night,’ as you know, was one of our live staples with Survivor and it was a big club tune and we couldn’t wait to get with Ron and cut it. Of course, stories differ, there’s his version and my version and the stone cold truth. My version, and the one that I truly believe to be accurate, is that Ron Nevison said, “You know guys, it’s a really great song, but it’s really not you guys.” I can’t remember what he said, but [basically], it’s not what this album is about.
So one day, John Kalodner came by and said, “Oh, Ron, can you make me a cassette of that song you’re not using?” Ron did and John Kalodner immediately gave it to Mark Spector, .38 Special’s manager, and he immediately brought it down to the studio where .38 thought they had wrapped an album, but Mark Spector didn’t feel they had a hit record on it. They immediately cut it off the demo, got some of the words wrong, which I still chuckle at, and all of the sudden it came out. Now, I knew they had cut it and I heard, “New from .38 Special, ‘Rockin’ Into The Night’” and I heard it and it sounded amazing and I go, “Oh s--!” It was the contrast of elation hearing one of my songs on the radio and then going, “The band is going to have a s-- fit.”
Of course, Frankie did. Frankie kind of led the way emotionally, you know. If Frankie wasn’t happy, none of the guys were happy. So, everybody was pissed and suddenly I was the bad guy. It was just a real weird thing. I remember driving down the road with the group to a gig and I’m praying they wouldn’t play ‘Rockin Into The Night’ on the radio -- and sure enough, they played it. That really was a deal-breaker that night. It was just very awkward.
It’s interesting to hear that it started there, because that’s a song that you and Frankie both had writing credits on it. It seems like everybody would win with that one.
Well, you would think that. I had the lion’s share of the percentage, but I gave Frankie credit for that very cool defining guitar riff -- and I gave Gary Smith a credit, because he gave me a beat that, [sings] “Waiting ... anticipating,” his drum beat made me sing that, so I gave him credit on that. So, I was pretty liberal with the credits.
It seems like it was really easy for you to write with the .38 Special guys. How easily did that chemistry develop?
For the next album, John Kalodner said, “Well, you did so good with that one, we’re going to get you guys together.” Don Barnes and Jeff Carlisi came up to Chicago and as I tell the story in the book, we sat around the kitchen counter, just kind of awkwardly. Like I say, “it’s like trying to make love without knowing the person.” It was very awkward, so we just started telling rock and roll stories and Jeff Carlisi noticed a picture of me on the wall with my Les Paul and he said, “What’s that?” and I said, “Oh, it’s just me with the Ides of March.” He says, “Ides of March? You were a part of that?” and I said, “Yeah, ‘Vehicle.’” He goes, “What? You sang ‘Vehicle’? It’s my favorite song!”
So that broke the ice and then finally, you know, it’s always tough to just throw out the first idea. Don Barnes says, “Well, I’ve got a title” and I go, “What is it?” and he goes, “Hold on loosely” and I go, "But don’t let go" -- I like that. Okay, what do you have, Jeff?” “I’ve got this riff,” [Peterik imitates famous opening riff from ‘Hold On Loosely’], you know, like the Cars meets Lynyrd Skynyrd or something, and I said, “Holy s--.”
So, suddenly, I became the alchemist, bringing together all of those different ideas and in an hour and a half, we had three-quarters of the song and it was just magical. We just went from there and [later wrote] ‘Caught Up In You’ and [I had] ‘Wild Eyed Southern Boys,’ which I originally wrote for Molly Hatchet, but they turned it down.
[Laughs] Yeah, and I’m glad they did! It was just a great run of songs.
I think it’s interesting because, as you know, some bands and artists would be really threatened by letting that outside guy in. They want to write the hit songs themselves, but with .38 it never felt like a case of songs written with the outside guy. It definitely felt like you were just as much of a part of that brotherhood.
Yeah, good call. I think we created something that wasn’t quite there before, which was the Southern mentality meets the pop mentality -- and I don’t think that was really there quite before that.
It was cool to see you get back with .38 Special to write more songs around the time of ‘Bone Against Steel.’ I really loved the ‘Resolution’ album that you guys collaborated on a few years later.
God bless you. I love that record. You know, ‘Fade To Blue,’ to me, there’s a lot of big songs on there and that’s still my favorite. ‘Saving Grace,’ I think Don just really sings that one. I was there, you know, I produced the vocals on that. I don’t think I was credited, but I didn’t need to be.
It’s really a great record, and it’s funny how stupid I am. I got the mixes -- Joe Hardy sent me a copy of the mixes and I hated the mixes, because I was used to ‘80s sonic values, echo, reverb and big drums. Here was this record that was dry, and I wasn’t used to that. I called Don and I said, “Man, these mixes suck!” It got back to Joe Hardy and Joe called me, reading me the riot act, and he said, “Just live with it for a week.” Then I got it, but I went kicking and screaming into the new sounds of dry recordings. Now I love it, of course.
It was a very different sounding record for them, just sound-wise. It also was very introspective, and I was curious what was driving that -- because it filters throughout that entire record.
Well, I think they were into that. You know, Danny [Chauncey] was a very thoughtful guy. He helped me with the lyrics. He gave me the basic stock of the song which he called ‘Suffer In Silence’ and I turned it into ‘Shatter The Silence,’ about child abuse. There’s a lot of heavy topics [on that album]. They didn’t want to necessarily recycle ‘Caught Up In You.’ They wanted to say a little bit more and I said, “Okay, let’s go.”
How well did you know Sammy Hagar prior to writing ‘Heavy Metal’ with him?
Not at all. Just was a fan of Montrose and again, it was another blind date. John Kalodner set it up. I went down to San Francisco and immediately hit it off with him like we were old friends. We wound up that very first day going down to his basement and writing ‘Heavy Metal,’ and then drinking tequila until midnight. He’s the guy that introduced me to tequila straight, and I’ll never forgive him for that.
You seem like you’re pretty content with where things are at. But in a sense, Survivor was your baby and, collectively with Sullivan, you built it up together. Does it bother you that Survivor still exists without your participation?
It really doesn’t. Because I know I wouldn’t have the power that I need to make it what I want it to be. I would have to be an indian with a chief and I don’t function well like that. I know that’s the way it would be, just the power structure would be like that -- and I can’t do that. Unless I can lead a band where I think it needs to go, I’d rather not be a part of it.
How surprised were you to see Dave Bickler and Jimi Jamison sharing the stage under the Survivor banner? For fans, it was a real unexpected treat, getting to see the singers from both eras sing those songs.
Yeah. I never saw the show, but I had that idea a few years ago and I didn’t even really even tell anybody except my wife. Then it happened and I was like, “Wow, okay, now that’s a good idea!”
A lot of your peers are still out there, touring with a lineup that, in some cases, is reduced to maybe just one original member. For the guys that are out there doing it who do have the songwriting credits, it doesn’t seem like they would necessarily need to do that. What are your feelings on that?
In one sense, I’m thankful that Frankie is doing it, because he’s offering some financial support to some of the musicians that need it and that’s important. He’s also out there broadcasting the songs that we wrote, and that keeps the catalog healthy. What his motivation is, is your guess or mine. I don’t know. But I am glad they’re out there doing it. I just wish Jimi was still alive to do it with them.
That really wasn’t a question targeted specifically at that band. There’s a lot of bands in that same situation. My follow-up thought, which you kind of hit on, it seems like a double-edged sword, because if you’re the original guy that’s out there playing the hits under the band name, you create a situation where maybe you don’t need to be out there constantly, but with the musicians and people that you hire around you, there is suddenly a group that depends on that paycheck.
Yeah, that’s true. Things have changed. For me, I was never a road dog. No matter what was out there, I don’t think I could do that anymore. With the Ides, you know, we play our 45 shows a year and I produce records and I write. I’m writing with [people like] Brian Wilson and a lot of my dreams are coming true. For me, this is where I need to be.
There’s a cool Ides package coming out soon, right?
We do. It comes out in January and it’s called ‘Last Band Standing.’ We leased the most important songs from the Warner Brothers and the RCA catalog and Jeremy helped me out getting the tapes baked from the RCA stuff. For the first time, they’re being transferred, and I just heard the disc and it’s brilliant. Then the independent stuff that we did since ‘91, and three brand new tracks -- including ‘Last Band Standing,’ which features Steve Cropper on guitar. He came to Chicago for a show and came in the studio with us and it’s just a major thrill.
There’s also a DVD that we cut in July, from the House of Blues that was a particularly good night, with 11 cameras. It’s going to be a good package.