SURVIVOR

Can an Irish hard rock singer resurrect of an AOR legend?
Find out in our exclusive interview with Robin McAuley.

Also included is our review of their September, 29th 2007
show at Harrah’s Casino Ballroom, Lake Tahoe, NV

by Todd K Smith

Honestly, the first time I saw Survivor was in northwest Chicago (1981) at a local guitar store. They were doing an in store appearance to promote their second record Premonition. WLUP (97.9 The Loop) had been playing the single “Poor Man’s Son” every hour so it was no surprise their hometown crowd lined up around the corner to support them. At the time it was a very young Jim Peterik (guitar), Frankie Sullivan (guitar), David Bickler (vocals), Stephan Ellis (bass) and Marc Droubay (drums) who pushed their way into a crammed DJ booth to play the newly pressed album. It was a mix of classic American AOR and pumped out of the shop speakers at full volume. The band’s sound had a tougher edge than others of the day with Bickler’s melodic voice a nice contrast against the Peterik/Sullivan axe show. After autographs the band stepped out on a makeshift stage and proceeded to play the whole record, front to back, highlighting “Summer Nights”, “Take You On A Saturday”, “Heart’s A Lonely Hunter” and closing with “Poor Man’s Son” to a rousing reception.

Fundamentally a hard rock band it was no surprise to hear “Eye of the Tiger” tearing up the charts a year later.  However, the real surprise came when it was linked to Rocky III and suddenly the band went from a local town favorite to an overnight sensation. In a matter of weeks, the song and the movie became international hits that stretched over several months. Fame did a lot for Survivor. It brought them world tours and prestige - it even garnered them a Grammy for “best song” that year, but after all the hype, the next album Caught In The Act tanked only rising to #82 on the Billboard chart. It was a wakeup call of sorts. Bickler, suffering from voice trouble and exhaustion, was eventually dismissed and replaced with Target/Cobra singer Jimi Jamison. A Memphis native, Jamison had a smooth husky voice that gave the band a more bluesy edge. His first platter with the band Vital Signs put to use his organic southern soul with “I Can’t Hold Back”, “High on You” and “The Search Is Over” putting the group back on American top-40.

Stallone was sold on the new singer and “Burning Heart” led the band to their second foray into the Rocky franchise. Rarely repeated in the music industry the band hit a second time in the late ‘80s with platinum sales and chart toppers. Like many of that decade success was followed by breakups, personal changes and lean times. It’s been 20 years since those heady days and Survivor is now living up to its namesake. Led by Sullivan, they are still touring as a seminal unit. Most the band has been replaced including Jamison but the energy and vitality of the early years are still very much alive in their current incarnation. We recently caught up with newly hired vocalist Robin McAuley (Grand Prix, McAuley Schenker Band) to get his take on the awakening of the AOR legend. “First off, I had no bearing on the demise of Jimi Jamison with Survivor,” says McAuley. “In fact, I’m a big fan of his and admire his vocal chops. In 1994 I cut a solo record with Frankie Sullivan and Curt Cuomo called Business As Usual. It was a Japanese release only and meant to be just collaboration between friends. After we finished mixing, Frankie invited me to join Survivor back then - but I didn’t think I was right for the job.”

Survivor had a rough go during the ‘90s. Their brand of AOR was out of favor with the times and a number of lawsuits between members not only confused fans but sent record labels running the other direction. “Frankie and Jim Peterik tried to put the band together in the mid-nineties first with Dave Bickler then with Jimi,” says McAuley. “It was just a weird time for all of us.” Jamison, who was touring under the name Jimi Jamison’s Survivor eventually reunited with Sullivan and reformed the band. In 2004, a Starbucks TV commercial debuted their Double Shot espresso beverage featuring Survivor following a man named Glen, singing a modified version of "Eye of the Tiger" while he did his day job. The comedic commercial was nominated for a Grammy and heightened interest in the band. Italian record label Frontiers signed the group and recorded their first album of original material in over a decade calling it Reach. In an ironic twist, Bickler began collaborating on the successful Bud Light Real Men of Genius radio ads, which have became widely popular include TV spots aired in the 2006 Super Bowl. Many Survivor fans think it is Jamison’s voice in the ads.

“My voice is very different than both David (Bickler) and Jimi,” says McAuley as he explains his involvement with the band. “I come from a different background – more hard rock and I didn’t think it would fit at first, but Sullivan was very persistent. We exchanged a couple emails last July (’06) and he invited me out to Chicago for the weekend. We went through the set list and it sounded pretty good. My history as the replacement guy has put me in odd situations in the past but in Survivor’s case you’re talking about six plus radio hits including ‘Eye of the Tiger’. The pressure was definitely on.” McAuley recalled the first time he sang with the band at a fair in the Chicago suburbs just days after he accepted the job. “There was something like 16,000 people there - hometown crowd,” he says. “We had no time for a rehearsal so I asked the keyboard player to feed me the first line of each song to get me going. It actually went pretty well and the crowd got into it.”

McAuley admits that there is plenty of work for ‘80s bands these days. “People love to come out and hear the hits. For me as a singer I add my own style to the songs and give the audience something unique. I’m scratchier than the previous singers but I can be equally as clean depending on the song and what is needed. So far, the audience response has been phenomenal and very welcoming – but we do rock it a bit harder than the past few years.” McAuley’s history both with UK legends Grand Prix and MSG icon Michael Schenker bring fans of multiple eras together. He prides himself on crossing over and suggests that there might be room for his MSG hits like “Anytime” or “Love Is Not a Game” to work into a future set. “Fans of my MSG years want to hear me and as long as the promoter and fans are happy we’ll consider them.” An admirer himself of bands like Foreigner, Bad Company and Journey, the singer understands the legacy and spirit that is an integral part to Survivor. “We are hoping to start writing new material and focusing on the elements that make this band and their songs great, so we are anxious and excited about working together to create our own stamp on the music.”

McAuley pauses,” I can’t help but wonder what the audience thinks when I walk out on stage – I’m sure they’re going, “who’s this guy – he doesn’t look like the guy on the album cover.” Yet that didn’t stop him from winning over the crowd at Harrah’s Casino in Lake Tahoe as Survivor stormed the stage with “Burning Heart.” The set hovered around the singer’s favorite album Premonition (’81) and Eye Of The Tiger (’82) as they ran “Take You On A Saturday”, “Poor Man’s Son” and “High On You” without a break. Sullivan introduced “Summer Nights” allowing keyboardist Chris Grove to stretch out while McAuley nailed down the vocal. “Burning Bridges” has been reworked to showcase the power of bassist Billy Ozzello and veteran drummer Marc Droubay. It is the heaviest moment of the night strutting a new-found density for the quintet. Additional track “Fire Makes Steel” echoes back to the day FM ruled the airwaves while “The Search Is Over” and “Can’t Hold Back” proved McAuley right for the job as he effortlessly captured the emotion of the lyrics. On their feet with fists in the air, the crowd demanded the band’s signature song “Eye of the Tiger” to close the night. Its driving bass line and urgent guitar riff are an instant adrenaline rush that will carry the band way past their expiration date.

Website: Survivor, Robin McAuley