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A 1987 photo of Journey, from left, Steve Perry, Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon. The song Don't Stop Believing was very popular in live performances, but didn't get radio play, Perry says. ((Associated Press))

With its re-emergence in a version by the cast of the TV series Glee, the Journey song Don't Stop Believing is gaining a reputation as the song that won't go away.

Its famous appearance in the final episode of The Sopranos is just one of a series of uses of the song on TV and in film that has reintroduced it to successive generations of listeners.

The 1981 rock power ballad is the top-selling digital download of a track not originally released in this century, according to Nielsen SoundScan, selling 2.8 million units since 2003.

It is sung by Steve Perry, lead singer of Journey from 1978-1987 and 1995-1998, and one of Rolling Stone magazine's 100 top rock singers of all time.  

Perry, now working on a solo album in Los Angeles, said he always thought Don't Stop Believing had potential as a single. It was always a hit with live audiences, though it didn't get great radio play at the time it was issued, he said.

"When we were doing the song in 1981, I knew something was happening, but honestly, when I saw it in the film Monster with Patty Jenkins, I started think, 'Oh my goodness there's really something,'" he said in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show aired Monday.

The scene in 2003's Monster with Charlize Therone was just the beginning. The song also turned up in TV series Orange County, Family Guy (with the cast singing), Scrubs and Laguna Beach, and the films The Comebacks and Bedtime Stories.

Don't Stop Believing is also a popular group song on the current American Idols tour that comes to Hamilton, Ont., next month, and just played Vancouver. It's also banged out during Detroit Red Wings NHL games.

'I didn't want to have a Scorsese moment'

Perry said he held back permission for using the song in the famous last episode of The Sopranos because he was afraid he had heard the rumours someone was going to be killed.

"I wanted to know how it was used. I didn't wanted to have a [director Martin] Scorsese moment at the end of the film and someone being whacked with an Uzi with the song playing," he said.

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Steve Perry, former lead singer in the rock band Journey, signs autographs in Los Angeles in January 2005. He says he always thought Don't Stop Believing, which is enjoying massive popularity today, had potential as a single. ((Jim Ruymen/Reuters))

The producers, who had been keeping a tight lock on the final storyline for fear it would be leaked, finally told Perry what would happen on the TV series.

The result was a surge of iTunes sales the following day.

"One of the things that did happen is that people did get interested in hearing Journey again," Perry said.

Steve Spears, entertainment editor of the Florida newspaper the St. Petersburg Times, and the blogger behind Stuck in the 80s, said there are several elements that are making the song a cultural touchstone for successive generations of listeners.

"First of all it starts off with probably the most distinctive two or three notes on a piano that have ever been played. As soon as you hear those piano notes, you know it's Don't Stop Believing," he told Q.

"It's a song that continues to build throughout. It's got excellent guitar work by Neil Schon, it's got the legendary voice of Steve Perry and its one of the very first songs that was composed with Jonathan Cain when he joined the band. There's something about that magical combination that gives this song this eternal quality," Spears said.

'South Detroit' is Canadian neighbour

Even Perry admits to getting choked up over the song, with its powerful chorus.

"The lyric is a strong lyric about not giving up, but it's also about being young, it's also about hanging out, not giving up and looking for that emotion hiding somewhere in the dark that we're all looking for. It's about having hope and not quitting when things get tough, because I'm telling you things get tough for everybody," Perry said.

He recalls writing the song with Cain — combining his own memories of smoky nightclubs with an image he had of Detroit from a hotel window after a concert in 1980.

He only found out later there is no such place as the "south Detroit" he sings about —that south of the U.S. city is the Ontario city of Windsor.

"I tried north Detroit, I tried east and west and it didn't sing, but south Detroit sounded so beautiful. I loved the way it sounded, only to find out later it's actually Canada," Perry said.