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Top 11 Survival Songs
“See, they say it’s ‘survival of the fittest’, but you and I really know that it’s ‘survival of the most heavily armed.”
— Lia Habel, Dearly, Departed
Whether it’s the brutality of street life, the oppression of racism or just a bad relationship, songs of survival encourage us to persevere. Rock and rollers, always defiant, have addressed political, social and spiritual issues through their music.
Maybe one of our Top 11 Survival Songs has helped you. If we’ve missed any of your favorites, please let us know in the comments below.
11. Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees
The Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive opens the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, played over the opening credits as John Travolta swaggers down the street. The song was written by brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb while the film was still in development. In 1978 it would become one of a string of No. 1 hits for the Bee Gees.
“The subject matter of Stayin’ Alive is actually quite a serious one,” Robin asserted in The Bee Gees: Tales of the Brothers Gibb. “It’s about survival in the streets of New York, and the lyrics actually say that.”
Barry added, “People crying out for help. Desperate songs. Those are the ones that become giants. The minute you capture that on record, it’s gold. Stayin’ Alive is the epitome of that. Everybody struggles against the world, fighting all the bullshit and things that can drag you down. And it really is a victory just to survive. But when you climb back on top and win bigger than ever before — well, that’s something everybody reacts to. Everybody.”
10. Carry On by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 LP Déjà vu was the second album by the supergroup that had recently added Neil Young to the lineup. Déjà vu opens with Carry On, written by guitarist Stephen Stills. “Getting that second album out of us was like pulling teeth,” Stills recalled in 4 Way Street: The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Reader. “That’s why it took 800 hours to produce, and why the first album took 600 hours. There was song after song that didn’t make it. Others had to be worked on an awful lot. The track, Déjà vu, must have meant 100 takes in the studio. But Carry On happened in a grand total of eight hours from conception to finished master. So you never know.”
“We didn’t quite have an opener for that one,” Graham Nash continued. “We said, ‘When you tear the shrink wrap off the LP, what’s the first thing you want to hear?’ We told Stephen we didn’t have it. The next day he came in and said, ‘What about this?’ and played Carry On. David [Crosby] and I got a bit wide-eyed and said: ‘OK, Stephen, I think we hear it now. Thanks very much.’”
9. The Show Must Go On by Three Dog Night
The Show Must Go On was a No. 4 hit in 1974 for Three Dog Night. The song was co-written and first recorded by Leo Sayer with the lyric “I won’t let the show go on.” Singer Chuck Negron first heard Sayer’s original while recording in London. Negron told antiMusic that he transformed Sayer’s tune into “an anthem to the band.”
“So I see a record by this guy and the producer, Jimmy Ienner says, ‘You know, I have that as one of the things that I was going to play for you but I thought it was just so bizarre I didn’t play it.’ I said, ‘Let me hear it.’
“So he plays it and I go, ‘It’s NOT our story. Our story is the show MUST go on.’ And I changed some words and he said, ‘Let me run this by Leo and his people.’ And I said, ‘No, don’t run it by him. I’m not asking for anything. Let’s just do it. I’m not asking for any writing … any publishing.’ Then I found out Leo was pissed off and to this day doesn’t talk to me. Well, he actually called my house when he was in L.A. and he said, ‘Look, I know you’ve heard some things and I’ve said some things. But you’ve changed my life and given me a hit record.’ So he was very kind. But even now, we did a show with him and I looked at him and he was embarrassed and looked away. Because he bad-rapped me for changing his lyric.’”
8. I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive became a No. 1 hit in 1979. The song of female empowerment was written by two men, former Motown producers Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. The disco diva told JazzWax that the song has become her “mantra.”
“My husband and I divorced in 2005. It was a hard time. My hit I Will Survive helped me through it. The song has been my mantra for years. Back in 1977, a year before I recorded it, I fell off the stage at the Beacon Theater in New York. I jumped back up, finished my concert and went out to eat with the band. But when I woke up the next morning, I was paralyzed from the waist down. I had to have a back operation and my record company wasn’t going to renew my contract.
“When you hear me sing on my recording of I Will Survive, I was actually at the mic in a back brace, believing the song would save my career — and it did. I still love singing it in concert, and on tour I save it for last. Even at home, I sing the song to myself every time I face a problem. It works.”
7. Let It Be by the Beatles
The Beatles’ Let It Be has been a source of spiritual strength “in times of trouble” since it reached No. 1 in 1970. It was written by Paul McCartney during the 1969 White Album sessions as the band was disintegrating.
“One night during this tense time I had a dream I saw my mum, who’d been dead 10 years or so,” McCartney recalled in Many Years From Now. “It was so wonderful for me and she was very reassuring. In the dream she said, ‘It’ll be all right.’ I’m not sure if she used the words ‘Let it be’ but that was the gist of her advice, it was, ‘Don’t worry too much, it will turn out OK.’
“So that got me writing the song Let It Be. I literally started off ‘Mother Mary’, which was her name, ‘When I find myself in times of trouble,’ which I certainly found myself in. The song was based on that dream.”
Fans are often surprised to learn that Mother Mary is not a reference to the Virgin Mary.
“Mother Mary makes it a quasi-religious thing, so you can take it that way,’” said McCartney. “I don’t mind. I’m quite happy if people want to use it to shore up their faith. I have no problem with that. I think it’s a great thing to have faith of any sort, particularly in the world we live in.”
6. Break My Stride by Matthew Wilder
Clive Davis may be a legendary producer but he failed to see the potential in singer-songwriter Matthew Wilder. “Stylistically I was casting my pole in every conceivable pond of what was going on in pop music at that point,” Wilder told Songfacts. “Clive even had me record a song he found for me, three times with three different producers. But he wasn’t getting the results he wanted and I wasn’t getting results I wanted. I was in the circular bin, so to speak.”
Wilder thought he had a hit with Break My Stride, but Davis shrugged it off as an “interesting song, but not a hit.” Wilder was soon released by Arista Records. “My relationship with Clive Davis was precisely the impetus for my writing the song,” said Wilder.
Wilder later released Break My Stride on Private I Records. When the song reached the Top 5 in 1984, Wilder felt the label should produce a music video. “I was a big fan of Harry Nilsson and the Beatles and my vision for Stride was to do something that was visually creative, because it was such a fantastical lyric. I wanted it to be an animation/live action thing. And they just kind of laughed at me and said, ‘Animation? You’re not even getting a video.’”
5. Eye of the Tiger by Survivor
Eye of the Tiger by Survivor was the main theme of the 1982 Sylvester Stallone film Rocky III. In the film, Rocky has become complacent, a victim of his own success. Eye of the Tiger illustrates Rocky’s need to regain his focus and rise to the challenge of the younger, stronger “Clubber” Lang (Mr. T).
Written by Survivor guitarists Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan, the song topped the charts in 1982. Peterik told Smashing Interviews Magazine how they came to write the hit.
“Apparently Stallone had caught wind of Survivor and liked our sound. One day I got a message on my answering machine. This sounds like a story one would make up but I pressed the button and heard, ‘Hey, yo Jim, give me a call. It’s Sylvester Stallone.’ I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ He wanted something new, ‘something with a pulse and for the kids.’ Stallone said, ‘I’m going to send you the movie.’ Frankie came over and we watched the film. Frankie said, ‘This is going to be enormous.’ I had my electric guitar in my hand, the punches were being thrown in the movie, and I was feeling the pulse. I just started doing that bap-bap-bap-bap on the guitar, not knowing that riff would become pretty much etched in American consciousness to this day.”
4. Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey
Journey’s anthem of perseverance through hardship, Don’t Stop Believin’, was a Top 10 hit in 1981. The song’s popularity grew as it repeatedly appeared in television shows, most prominently in The Sopranos’ final scene in 2007.
Singer Steve Perry co-wrote the tale of “just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit” late one night during a tour stop in Motown. As Perry looked out of his hotel room window, he was inspired to write about “Streetlights people, living just to find emotion / Hiding, somewhere in the night.”
“I was digging the idea of how the lights were facing down, so that you couldn’t see anything,” he told Vulture. “All of a sudden I’d see people walking out of the dark, and into the light. And the term ‘streetlight people’ came to me. So Detroit was very much in my consciousness when we started writing.”
3. Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas
Carry On Wayward Son was written by Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren for the 1976 album Leftoverture. Livgren is an evangelical Christian whose songwriting reflected his spiritual search. “My goal was inaccessible but I felt a profound urge to ‘carry on’ and continue the search,” Livgren recalled in Classic Rock Stories. “I saw myself as the ‘wayward son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him.
“It almost didn’t make it on the record,” drummer Phil Ehart told Classic Rock Revisited. “We had already worked up, chosen, and rehearsed all of the songs that were going on the record. We were packing up all of our gear and Kerry said, ‘I have another song that I wasn’t going to play for you when we get down to the studio.’ If he hadn’t have been persistent, and not believed in the song himself, then it might not have happened. Of course, as soon as we all heard it, we worked it up immediately.”
2. Keep On Pushing by the Impressions
On its release in 1964, the Impressions’ Keep On Pushing became an anthem of black pride during the civil rights movement. Lead singer Curtis Mayfield wrote the song with an overt political message but African Americans understood its meaning. Tenor Fred Cash recalled that Keep On Pushing and other Mayfield compositions resonated with civil rights activists like Andrew Young.
“You realize that songs like Keep on Pushing, We’re a Winner and Choice of Colors inspired people, even today,” Cash told the Chicago Tribune. “I was talking to Andy Young and he told me how they would sing Amen and Keep on Pushing during the freedom marches. It gave them inspiration to keep on doing what they were doing. It’s great to know we had a role in that.”
Mayfield left the Impressions in 1970. He continued to write and perform music steeped in social and political commentary. “He became the voice of a generation,” baritone Sam Gooden told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “He was telling you the way things should be.”
1. I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty
I Won’t Back Down is Tom Petty’s 1989 anthem of defiance from his first solo album Full Moon Fever. Though the song is a favorite of political candidates who want to convey an image of toughness, I Won’t Back Down has a more personal meaning for Petty. The singer’s Los Angeles home was set fire by an arsonist in 1987. As he rebuilt the house, Petty reconnected with his friend Jeff Lynne. The pair would become writing partners on I Won’t Back Down.
Petty told Mojo magazine that he had other all-star help on the tune. “At the session George Harrison sang and played the guitar. “I had a terrible cold that day, and George went to the store and bought a ginger root, boiled it and had me stick my head in the pot to get the ginger steam to open up my sinuses, and then I ran in and did the take.”