Journey’s Jonathan Cain on the story of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’

The Clintons, The Sopranos, the wholesome rock revolution and the true story behind "the biggest song of all time"

Maybe it’s the redemptive power of our multimedia world; an ability to exhume the forgotten and exalt the under-celebrated. You never quite know when a song might bounce back thanks to a TV soundtrack or a viral video. Just ask Louis Theroux about TikTok’s revival of that rap from a two-decades old Weird Weekends episode. Or Kate Bush, who ran up that hill all over again some thirty-plus years later thanks to Stranger Things.

On that note, you could blame Glee or The Sopranos (or both), but ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ – Journey’s 1981 power ballad – is now ubiquitous. For a single that never charted beyond number nine in the US upon release (No.62 in the UK), it has seen the most remarkable second life. Even Lazarus would gasp.

From across Zoom, Jonathan Cain, principal songwriter of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, and Journey’s keyboardist, joins us to discuss its phenomenal success. What follows is unusual. For the first thirty minutes of our forty-minute interview, he speaks without pause or interruption, lost in a reverie of memories and accolades. He’s wistful and grateful. There’s a steely undertone too – more of that later. 

Journey - Don't Stop Believin' (Official Audio)

“With ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ we wanted to reach anybody that had a dream, anybody that felt like they were stuck someplace, and they couldn’t get out,” he tells us affectionately. “The resolve was ‘you have permission to dream’. As corny as it sounds, it somehow worked.”

That’s putting it mildly. In January, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) confirmed ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ is now 18-times platinum-certified, leading Forbes to declare the anthem to be the “biggest” song of all time. To date, it has 1.8bn-plus Spotify streams and was recently included in the Library of Congress. It’s quite mindboggling.

“[The chord structure is] I–V–vi–IV. That’s all it is,” Cain humbly states. “This Australian comedy trio (Axis of Awesome) met me in Germany years ago and said, ‘you know where you got your chords, John? The Beatles. ‘Let it Be’. You just hold the chords for two beats longer’. I had no idea. I told them, ‘Well, when you steal, you steal from the best!’ They went on to show me how my sequence ended up in over 70 hit songs. It’s the little chord change that could, right?

“I think it was the song that got us into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” he continues. “There was a charity event where Elton [John], Bruce, and Lady Gaga sang Don’t Stop Believin’. I heard that Bruce looked at Elton at the end and said, ‘That’s a great song’.” 

Lady Gaga Sting Elton John Debbie Harry Shirley Bassey Bruce Springsteen - Don't Stop Believing

Whether apocryphal or not, Cain claims that The Boss subsequently pushed for Journey’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. Sitting on the committee that year, his fond memories of performing ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ with Elton and co combined with the band’s eye-watering sales compelled him to “put his foot down” and get them in. 

“We waited 35 years [to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame],” Cain adds. “People would say to me, ‘does it bother you?’. No, because sooner or later people will figure out that’s where we belong.”

Although well-known, the origins of ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ are worth recounting once more. Cain moved from Chicago to Sunset Boulevard in ’72 to further his fledgling music career. Despite the fertile creative milieu in LA at the time, the gifted pianist struggled to make a dent.

He was on the verge of packing it all in when his father imparted advice and encouragement. “He said to me, ‘Don’t stop believing. You’ve always had a vision, so hang in there’,” he recalls. The phrase resonated, and he doodled it on the back page of his lyric book, closed it again and forgot about it. 

Fast-forward five years and Cain was Journey’s new keyboardist following Gregg Rolie’s departure. They were readying their seventh studio album, Escape, when Steve Perry looked to their new recruit for input. “At the end of our last rehearsal he said, ‘you know, there’s something in that lyric book that you haven’t gotten to yet. I want you to look tonight and see if you can bring something back. We need a great title. We need one more song”.

Cain returned home, flicked to the end of his book and saw three poignant words staring back at him. “I think the Holy Spirit downloaded the chorus to me,” says Cain now. “I heard Steve’s voice in my head, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna bring this chorus and hope for the best’. I didn’t know what they were gonna think.”

The next day, the band weren’t merely receptive, they were inspired. They composed their parts in real-time and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ quickly fell into place. “It was one of those magical afternoons where five guys in a room did something pretty special.” 

“We broke all the rules of songwriting,” he adds. “Everybody stayed out of the way and allowed the song to become what it was.” The experience was instructive on the art of songwriting (“You’ve got to let the magic happen,” he says), yet even Cain needed reassurance when it came to Perry’s approach for the chorus. Perry was intent on holding back those cathartic, hopeful words back until the final 50 seconds. 

“I kept saying, ‘When is the chorus coming?’, and Steve said to me, ‘We’re gonna save it for the end. You’re gonna want to play this over and over again’.” Record-breaking sales and streams prove that Perry’s instincts were on the money. The song’s addictive qualities are somehow enhanced by the tease and restraint.  

Journey - Don't Stop Believin' (Live 2009) [Official Video]

The band’s disregard of the rulebook extended to the lyrics. The female protagonist hails from South Detroit: a place that doesn’t exist. “We didn’t have Google,” Cain protests. “We didn’t know there wasn’t a city called ‘South Detroit’! When journalists would bash me on it later, I’d tell them it’s an imaginary place: a city of possibility, hopes and dreams, and a place where opportunities happen.” He sits back for a moment. “That shut them right up.” 

Journey’s music has often struggled to find the critically acclaim it deserves, with detractors often finding their songs too soft. Cain couldn’t care less. “Rolling Stone called it ‘safe sex rock’,” he sighs, “but we stayed away from sexual innuendos because that wasn’t who Steve [Perry – Journey’s lead singer from ’77-’87, and ’95-‘98] was. He was a wholesome kid from San Joaquin Valley. 

“And these songs have served us well,” he continues. “As we get older, we’re able to sing them because they’re age appropriate. I don’t feel creepy. I can’t imagine Led Zeppelin doing ‘Whole Lotta Love’ now. Robert Plant stepped out at the right time. And, quite frankly, he writes great songs on his own.”

Cain co-credits poodle-haired rockers Foreigner – whom he is stunned haven’t also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – for embracing balladry amid the testosterone-fuelled, pissing contest that was 80s rock. Both these bands, he believes, broke new ground through their willingness to explore a glossier, more commercial sound. One that welcomed casual listeners and devotees alike. 

“There wasn’t light rock before [1981 Journey single] ‘Who’s Crying Now’ and Foreigner’s ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’,” he asserts. “Rock bands stayed away from ballads because [the culture was] if you had a hit, you were considered dead. Between us, we invented a new genre: AOR rock.” 

With great success comes the risk of parody and unauthorised use. When it comes to Journey, those that tread such a path do so at their own peril. “We had to shut down the Clintons,” Cain shares, referencing Hillary Clinton’s 2007 advert for her ill-fated presidential campaign. The ad spoofed The Sopranos’ climactic scene with Hillary starring opposite her husband, Bill.

“They fiddled through the Seeburg [jukebox] to [the sound of] ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’, he continues. “Well, it ran for one time, and we caught it. We made ‘em shut it down.” There’s a palpable frustration to his tone. “They didn’t even ask us for a sync licence.” 

This no-nonsense political take(down) makes Jonathan Cain’s choice in 2022 to perform solo under the Journey name at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida more than puzzling. It was a move that resulted in a cease-and-desist order from founding member Neal Schon, who cited harm to Journey’s brand and their apolitical reputation. The latter being a position that Cain is on record as espousing. 

Granting a licence to The Sopranos in 2007 for ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ was an easier sell, and certainly less controversial – although Steve Perry still refused to consent without prior sight of the script. “Steve had to make sure it wasn’t going to be anything derogatory. He was always that way. I didn’t really care,” Cain says matter-of-factly.

“[The Sopranos’ creator] David Chase had decided a year before the final episode was filmed that that was the song,” he reveals. “The producers [reportedly] raised their eyebrows, like, ‘Journey? Are you kidding? Really?’. And he said, ‘It’s gotta be Journey. Tony is going to play that song at the end. That’s the one he goes out on’. 

“So, they sent me [a paper] to sign off on it. I was thrilled.” Cain kept the song’s usage a secret all the way until broadcast. “When it aired, it was so important. We had just lost Steve Augeri (Journey’s singer, ’98-’06) and were looking for another guy to replace him. The Sopranos created a buzz for Journey and the song for about two or three months afterwards. It gave us a new life when we needed it most.”

The Sopranos - Final Scene [Complete] [HD]

The song continues to serve them ridiculously well. When they hit the road these days, they like to surprise gig-goers by dropping it early in the set. “We were playing it at the end and that’s very predictable. So, now, when they hear it right at the beginning, they lose their minds, and we then play all the other hits that they forgot about!” he smiles.When all is said and done, Cain is grateful for the song’s enduring appeal. He doesn’t take it for granted. “With ‘Don’t Stop Believin”,” he concludes, “every band wishes they had one, and that’s ours. It’s the song that defines our band. That’s our calling card.” And what a calling card it is. 

Journey start their UK tour in October, playing dates around the country and culminating with a show at London’s O2 on 17 November. Find tickets here

Photo credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images