Do we really need yet another music subgenre? No, absolutely not, but this is not so much the formation of a new classification than a clarification of one we lived with for a short period…one unlikely to have any kind of unironic cultural resurgence any time soon.
What is Stallone Rock?
The early-1980s were known for two things, both exemplifying “bigness” – it’s action movies and it’s guitar rock. The action movies were unchained and unhinged, often trading in racial stereotypes and insensitivities, living by its mantra of “biceps, bimbos, and bullets.” Guitar rock had two variants, being “hard rock” and “metal.” The former inched closer to the pop charts than the latter, but both took great pride in volume.
Both forms of entertainment played into desire for vicarious machismo for sheltered suburbanites. The movies presented carnage with little to no consequences. Hard rock oozed a measured danger that whispered “I’m a bad boy,” where metal signified a darker attitude.
Hard rock and metal existed before the 1980s, of course, but they were experiencing peaks with commercial viability. At the same time, the synthesizers of new wave music were making chart moves of their own. Into this came Sylvester Stallone, and he had a problem.
Eye of the Tiger
It was 1982, and Stallone was prepping the release of Rocky III. The movie was to be a kind of soft reboot of the franchise, less realistic than the first two films in the series, more testosterone and adrenaline, he needed a song for it, and he needed it fast.
“So, in 1982, I come home to a message on our answering machine. I hear, ‘Yo, Jim, call me back…you got a nice answering machine there,’” said Jim Peterik from the band Survivor, in a MusicTAP interview from 2020. “It’s Sylvester Stallone, or rather, it sounds like Sylvester Stallone. I listened to it three or four times to determine if someone was playing a joke on me, but finally I gave in and called the number that was left. Now remember, this is like where Stallone is at the height of his fame, and you just don’t get calls like that from out of the blue. I asked, is this really Sylvester Stallone? He responds, ‘Jimbo, just call me Sly. We love your band and want that sound for our new movie.’
“Stallone sent out a rough cut of the movie, so Frankie Sullivan and I rented a Betamax Pro machine to watch the tape. We watched that movie and got so inspired. But again, if you told me that song would still be so ingrained in popular culture, even today, I have said, well…shut the door!
“The movie fully informed what ‘Eye of the Tiger’ became. It was written by watching the action on screen. Take that main riff. I was trying to match the punches onscreen. ‘Bum — bum-bum-bum.’ Those are synchronized to the punches, but it wasn’t a conscious act. Frankie and I are watching the movie and I grab my guitar, and those chords just came when I saw the punches happen, I’m just repeating that.
“Stallone gave us four days to write ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ and a fifth day to record it. I remember that first playback and getting goosebumps hearing it.”
Peterik and company had approached the song with honest intention. What other bands did afterward? That’s for you to decide.
Music and hit songs have always been a part of the Hollywood marketing strategy, but “Eye of the Tiger” was different, a bona fide phenomenon. Curiously, while it could be misconstrued as a hard rock song, as illustrated by those opening guitar punches, the song is mainly driven by piano. This is crucial to its success.
AM radio was still a viable market in the early-’80s. You couldn’t get metal on AM radio. Too over-the-top, too angry. But you could get hard rock, especially if the instrumentation of the song toned down the guitar attack and dialed up other virtues. Take a step back and look at the 1970s. You could get Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” on AM radio, but you were not getting Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” This is precisely why producer Bob Ezrin pushed hard for “Beth” on KISS’ breakout Destroyer album, because “Detroit Rock City” was never going to get that nod.
“Eye of the Tiger” pointed the way for Hollywood to seed its movies with plenty of attitude while keeping things in check enough for drive-time radio, virtually an additional ad for the movie played every hour on the hour, nearly everywhere. Seeing how well the track worked in turning Rocky III from a very hard gear-shift into a new direction to a full pop culture turning point, the way was cleared for other bands and moviemakers to emulate that success.
More and more, movies brought about songs that had rockin’ guitars, but these played a secondary role to the main melodic lines now being fronted by synthesizers. These became a regular part of Stallone’s post Rocky III output, but more than that, they became part of the zeitgeist. You had songs that fixated on “the heat out in the street,” “playin’ the game and playing to win,” and so on.
Outside of the confines of movies, the sound found a home with bands like Journey (“Be Good To Yourself”), continued successful runs for Survivor (“High On You”), and if you squint, you can see yourself making the case for Eddie Van Halen adding the dominant keys to “Jump” to say on-trend with the music world. Singers like Joe Lynn Turner (Rainbow, Deep Purple) and Jimi Jameson (“Theme from Baywatch“) would be caught up in this as well.
Let’s be clear: there were keys-led hard rock/pop songs before “Eye of the Tiger.” Just look at any ’70s Deep Purple song featuring Jon Lord’s Hammond organ, or Ken Hensley of Uriah Heep for that matter, but neither of these bands toned down their content the way the ’80s artists did.
This is when cracks in the Stallone Rock wall started to show.
Preferred to Pariah
In 1982, another song bowed but did not do nearly the same numbers that “Eye of the Tiger.” Arriving on the Saints & Sinners album, Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” didn’t initially make waves but did help get the band its contract with Geffen Records. The first album of the deal, Slide It In, did respectably but did not light the sky on fire. As part of the arrangement for the follow-up, “Here I Go Again” was re-recorded for the self-titled 1987 album. It was further remixed as a pop hard-lean which did the trick. For the first time since his break from Deep Purple, David Coverdale’s Whitesnake was not the weird, bluesy side project, but instead the eight-times-platinum selling international superstars.
However, Whitesnake would now have competition that was previously not part of the territory. AM radio was giving ground back to daytime talk. FM radio was flexing as the dominant broadcast medium in travel, music video redefined popular music altogether, and with it came the bad boys of rock, the hair metallers, the glam metallers, and more. The likes of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” (found in that other subgenre of Stripper Rock) had as much airtime as previous stars, and that diminished the measured “tuffness” of the Stallone Rockers. Tracks like Stan Bush’s “The Touch” went straight to unintentional self-parody, and that was codified in stinging fashion with it’s inclusion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Meanwhile, bands like Guns ‘n Roses were bringing a real sense of danger and degradation back.
And in only a couple more years, it would practically be over for all of them.
The prevailing belief that the dour self-reflection of ’90s alternative rock, or “grunge,” was the meteor that killed rock’s reigning dinosaurs is only partially true. Yes, the crush that was Pearl Jam’s Ten or Nirvana’s Nevermind or Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger made the party ethos of both the Stallone Rockers and the Sunset Strip sound seem juvenile by contrast, but the new music was a reflection of the times, not the transformer of the times themselves.
Looking back to action movies, the examples from the ’90s came with something new: consequences. The biggest of the decade was Terminator 2. Gone was the relentless, wanton destruction alone of the original, running headlong to its thrilling conclusion. Instead, the movie’s subtext was about parental figures both successful and failed, sacrifice, and the ever-present specter of dystopia and how we are directly responsible for its rise.
It’s no surprise that the two songs that accompany it – George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” and Guns ‘n Roses’ “You Could Be Mine” – act like sarcastic commentary against the movie itself. In other words, all of pop culture was changing. Our heroes now had feet of clay. Those movies that didn’t pair the gunshot with some degree of scorn were viewed as relics of a regrettable time. Look at 1995’s Se7en. Only ten years’ before the actions at the end of the movie would have been portrayed as triumphal, with the police figures walking away from the wreckage with sunglasses and quips.
As the decade progressed, even the grunge acts started wearing out, no longer packing the danger that made teens feel powerful and parents nervous and angry. The mantle of masculinity would start shifting toward hip-hop – mainly with the gritty narratives of gangsta rap – and what we once knew as Stallone Rock seemed ever more dated and irrelevant.
So here’s the thing: There’s plenty to like from the Stallone Rock era. There were good and bad in that camp just as there were good and bad in the Glam Rock sound, then the Alt Rock sound. We pick and choose according to where we were at the moments we heard the songs, who we were with, the people we loved who may no longer be with us. The best soundtracks our memories, and the rest we let go into the shopping mall Muzak ether.
The sound of Stallone Rock is likely one that will never have a mass-appeal level of resurgence. Its tropes now firmly anchor it to the metatextual. The songs no longer simply come from the ’80s, they run commentary on the ’80s, for both good and bad. See the band Haken’s take on it with the track “1985” for details. There is an enjoyable mindlessness to some of it that never fails to make one smile, but also never quite causes the listener to forget it is, indeed, mindless. Then again, most songs are, and one day, the Tik Tok pop of the now will be both a source of joy and embarrassment for another generation. Gear up, Gen Z-ers because one day – sooner than you expect – that $#** will not be bussin’. Sheeeeeeeeeesh!!
You could say that we are back in the era of “big, dumb action” with The Fast and The Furious, but we also have the balletic bloodletting of John Wick and its legion of imitators.
Stallone Rock is as legitimate as any contrived category of music we choose to knock into existence. It represents in compact form the lifecycle of every kind of art, from its borrowing of other forms to its sincere inception, to a level of profitability that encourages flattering and not-so-flattering duplication, to a giant hand of God sweeping across the table, knocking it all off its pedestal to make way for the new. It’s like life, I guess.