Don’t Stop Believin’ is a classic American rock song by the band Journey. Originally released in 1981, this mid-tempo rock anthem has continued to resonate to this day. The track was released as the second single on the band’s seventh studio album, Escape, with Columbia Records. It achieved number nine on Billboard’s Hot 100, but in the UK Singles chart, it only ranked number 62. And it would have to wait over 20 years before it became a full-fledged American classic.
Now, it is considered one of the best songs of all time. But it actually has a more complex history than it first appears.
The Composing of a Classic
The song was written by multiple band members: keyboardist Jonathan Cain, vocalist Steve Perry, and guitarist Neal Schon. Don’t Stop Believin’ is notable for its unique opening keyboard riff and chorus. It is interpreted as a penetrating perspective on individual human beings and society and how the two interact. It focuses on how the workaday world is boring, monotonous, and suffocating. Nevertheless, the track encourages feelings of hope, positivity, and endurance in its listeners.
Journey was fast becoming one of the world’s most prominent rock groups in the early 1980s. The band had achieved high success before adding Cain on the keyboard. He joined them before they entered the studio to record their seventh album.
The composing of Don’t Stop Believin’ was not a simple process. If not for a few lucky accidents along the way, band members Cain, Perry, and Schon may never have written it. They had just left behind its progressive rock phase in search of a smoother sound, and Perry became the vocalist at this time.
Don’t Stop Believin’ Lyrics Meaning
The core of the track—its infamous words and chords—comes from Cain. These words originated and still serve for him as a personal mantra. He first heard the words that would become the song on a phone call with his father.
At the start of his career in the 1970s, aspiring musician Cain was younger and struggling when his dog was hit by a car. Unsure about his future music career in Hollywood, he called his dad. He needed $900 for his dog’s veterinarian bill and a loan. He asked his father if his music career was merely “dreaming” and whether he should go back home to Chicago. His dad told him that he’d give him the loan but to stay right there in Hollywood: “Son, don’t stop believin’.”
He was struck by the beauty in these words and wrote them in his lyric book. Naturally, he had this book with him when he joined Journey in San Francisco.
He joined the band as they began working on their seventh album, Escape. Perry told Cain that their producer wanted one more song for their new album. Having hardly played with the band before starting the album, he replied that they’d already produced 17. But the producer was dead set and Perry was insistent.
Cain went home to work on the track on his Wurlitzer piano—the same one he wrote Open Arms on. As he paged through his lyric notebook he again saw the words: “Don’t stop believin’.” Knowing Perry would love it, he immediately set to work writing a soaring chorus: “Hold on to that feelin’.” With just these two lines and the song’s chords, Cain went back to the band. Perry loved the chords, and the rest of the members joined in the work of writing a chorus.
Finding the Right Notes
Perry, in addition to being a vocalist, also played bass and drums. He brought a mechanical understanding to each part of the song. Cain listened to Perry scatting and picked out what he heard: “Lonely world” or “anywhere.” Cain suggested the names “Jack and Diane” as monikers for normal, everyday people. The “small-town girl” referenced is the first character introduced, and her world is immediately portrayed as “lonely.” He came to see the song as a sort of movie that “goes on and on.”
He also suggested that the track’s location sounded like Sunset Boulevard in the 1970s. His memories of people cruising up and down the boulevard on Friday nights came flooding back. He remembered hustlers and dreams, actors and actresses, and producers and wannabes, all looking for something.
After the lyrics were finished, the band went on to record the instruments. Initially, they had some difficulty with the song’s tempo. But amazingly, they were able to play the track through in one take after just 20 minutes of practice.
Schon recorded the song’s distinctive bass line while Cain wrote a complementary synth piece. Steve Smith drummed overtop this with a standard rock backbeat. He supplemented this with melodic, syncopated tom-toms and a ride cymbal bell that become more complex as the track progresses.
Schon also played 16th-note arpeggios over the rest of the instruments to evoke a “train” guiding the song on its way. Perry added his vocals soon after with the rest of the band singing backup in a single microphone. He finished mixing the track, and the hit was born.
What is The Real Don’t Stop Believin’ Song Meaning?
The song lyrics depict people from all different walks of life. These figures all share one theme in common: struggle in the face of challenges. These challenges are in many ways connected to what Perry went through in his personal life. Two individuals take a “midnight train going anywhere,” trying to set off into the unknown. Leaving home in search of destiny is a key theme in the track and part of its overall positivity.
The second verse begins with “a singer in a smoky room,” an itinerant entertainer or a hustler. This performer enjoys his gig but has no real clue what tomorrow holds for him.
The same is the case for the characters in the third verse. Some of these figures will win and others will lose—their fortunes are entirely uncertain. The thread that winds among them all and binds them together is their search for something more. Like the “streetlight people” of the city, they are all “livin’ just to find emotion.” Two pre-choruses interspersed build the tension until the track’s energy feels ready to blow.
Then comes the legendary chorus. Unlike most rock songs, Don’t Stop Believin’ saves its climactic chorus for the end. This makes sense since it was the most complete part at the start of composing. However, it is rare to be able to pull off such a daring power move.
The chorus not only caps the track but serves as its interpretative key. Even in the middle of the uncertainty of life and its meandering way, the song urges people to “hold on to that feelin’.” That feeling is an optimistic destiny worth striving for: the something more we are all after. If people “don’t stop believin’,” they may just achieve the fate they’re chasing.
Despite all the obstacles that are intrinsic to life, we can press on through them together. This is true even for those internal struggles we all face. This timeless inspiration of faith in humanity is what gives Don’t Stop Believin’ the power to reach across the decades. Regardless of what lies ahead, people still seem to be holding on to what matters most.
The message of this song seems to have been prophetic for the track itself. It became a top 10 worldwide hit upon release and became the band’s signature song. It hit new heights after being cataloged on iTunes in 2008, where it sold more than seven million copies. The 2009 cover by the cast of Glee actually outperformed the original track internationally. Today, there are few people who don’t know the words to this powerfully hopeful rock song.
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