“Sly Stallone asked me about why AC/DC records sounded so powerful – I told him about tape compression...”: Survivor's The Eye of the Tiger beat out Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust for use in Rocky III – here's how the '80s smash came together

 Jimi Jamison (left) and Frankie Sullivan perform onstage with Survivor.
Jimi Jamison (left) and Frankie Sullivan perform onstage with Survivor.

No song is a guaranteed smash, but when it serves as the theme for a hit movie, its odds increase dramatically. That’s what Survivor learned when they were asked to write the signature tune for Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III sequel in 1982. The result was The Eye of the Tiger, which went on to become a worldwide chart topper. But the song’s co-writers – Survivor guitarist Frankie Sullivan and guitarist/keyboardist Jim Peterik – faced a daunting task.

Stallone had already chosen Queen’s 1980 monster hit Another One Bites the Dust for an early cut of the movie, but the song got axed – either United Artists (which produced the film) nixed it for being too old, or Queen denied permission for its use.

“I actually saw it on the film at the studio when I was there with Sly,” Sullivan confirms. Whatever the reason, the result was a make-or-break opportunity for Survivor, whose first two albums had charted at just 169 and 82, respectively.

A Fight to the Finish

As Sullivan explains, the deal was instigated by Tony and Ben Scotti – owners of Survivor’s label, Scotti Brothers Records – over dinner at Rao’s Italian-American restaurant in Los Angeles.

“They were all good friends,” he says. “Tony was real smart, and he said to Sly, ‘I’ve got this band, maybe we could help each other.’ Tony asked Sly to call me, which he did. That dinner was probably the best thing that ever happened to my career.”

Stallone sent Sullivan a videotape of the film, but out of caution he included only its first 10 minutes. “I called him up and said I needed to see the whole film to write the song,” Sullivan says. “Which wasn’t true – I just wanted to see what happened in the movie. I reassured him, ‘Dude, I’m not going to make bootleg copies in my garage!’ He laughed and had a copy of the movie hand-delivered.”

Sullivan admits he and Peterik felt pressure writing the song, knowing that the potential reward was immense.

“It was tense, and we were struggling to complete it,” he says. “The music took about 10 minutes, but it took three days to get the lyrics right. We had 90 percent of them, but we couldn’t come up with a title.” He found what they needed while browsing a copy of the script. “There was the part where Apollo Creed says Rocky used to have the eye of the tiger. And that was our title.”

Pump up the Volume

The recording session itself took very little time. “We recorded the demo for it really quick,” Sullivan says. “I used a Les Paul into a 50-watt Marshall JMP.” As Sullivan told The Guardian in 2020, the Les Paul had a headstock break that he had repaired himself out of necessity. “I couldn’t afford another one, so I glued it back together.”

I was driving home afterward, and three rock radio stations were playing our song. I mean, we had Rocky III for our MTV video. How could we fail?

The completed demo was soon delivered to Stallone, who assumed it was the final recording. “I told him that what we had given him was the demo version, and he said, ‘What the fuck is a demo?’” Sullivan recalls with a laugh. “He said that’s the version he’s using.”

Even so, Stallone wasn’t happy with one aspect of the recording. “He asked me about the sound of the song and why old AC/DC records sounded so powerful,” the guitarist says. “And I told him about tape compression – how great it sounds when you slam it into the red.”

To demonstrate, Sullivan ran the tape and pushed the faders higher until Stallone liked what he heard. “Sly said, ‘That’s it right there.’ I was worried that it would be too distorted, but he said ‘Print it,’ and that was the version that he used in the film.”

Survivor perform live on television in 1982
Survivor perform live on television in 1982

Rocky Road

The global success of The Eye of the Tiger gave Survivor the fame they needed, and brought its writers huge financial rewards.

“I had a great manager,” Sullivan says. “He was way ahead of the game with publishing, and he made sure that I got everything that was due to me. I bought a Porsche 911 and a whole load of great old guitars, including a few ’50s Les Pauls, an original Flying V and a lot of ’50s Strats. I’ve got over 200 blue-chip guitars.”

The memory of seeing the movie in a theater for the first time still stirs up strong feelings for Sullivan. “I actually got goosebumps. It just slammed. I was driving home afterward, and three rock radio stations were playing our song. I mean, we had Rocky III for our MTV video. How could we fail?”