It's the Journey song of Journey songs. It's among the greatest rock radio anthems ever recorded. The tune's timeless resonance and eternal singalong status is like the Killers' "Mr. Brightside" for the Classic Rockers generation. It's the third single from the band's 1981 album, Escape: "Don't Stop Believin'."
While the song will surely outlive us all, it also generated an equally timeless controversy that can start a fight in most any self-respecting bar in Southeastern Michigan. The words "South Detroit."
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While there is no section of the city that's formally known as "South Detroit," the genesis of the song's lyrics came from a very sincere place. Journey singer Steve Perry was singing about the city's border, which is just a river away from the city of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. Back in May 1980, Journey set up shop for a massive five-night stand in Detroit during the band's tour in support of the Departure album. With the Motor City showing the group so much love, Perry wanted to give some of it back. Up late one night after a show unable to sleep, inspiration struck.
“I was digging the idea of how the lights were facing down, so that you couldn’t see anything,” Perry told Vulture in 2012. “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. I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit. The syntax just sounded right. I fell in love with the line. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve learned that there is no South Detroit. But it doesn’t matter.” He elaborated on the story during a 2018 interview on FM radio show "Jonesy's Jukebox." Watch it below.
There it is: "But it doesn't matter." While "South Detroit" may not be a well-traveled Detroit tourist destination like Jack White's impressive Third Man Records pressing plant, or the legendary Motown Museum. South Detroit, as any true Journey fan (or hardcore Detroiter, for that matter) will tell you, the spirit of South Detroit exists in your heart (and to be fair, the southern end of the city).
Released as a single in October 1981, "Don't Stop Believin'" was, at the time, just another monster radio hit for the band from the city by the Bay. On the charts, the track made a strong run, peaking at #9 for three weeks in a row.
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