Dissecting Vital Signs

Ask any teenage music lover who grew up in the 80’s and they’ll tell you: the choice of which album to spend your hard-earned allowance on was a difficult one.

With artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, RUSH and some up and coming band called U2 all vying for attention, it definitely was a time of great consideration as to where to put your money.

But not for me. For me there was no doubt.

The first album I ever purchased was Vital Signs, the fifth studio album from the band Survivor. Nine killer songs written by guitarist Frankie Sullivan and keyboardist Jim Peterik. Nine songs sung by Jimi Jamison, one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time.

I spent many months in guitar lessons eagerly dissecting this record with my teacher learning all the nuances and theory behind the music contained on it. In the end, I wound up learning most of the album note for note.

Frequent readers of my blog no doubt already know about my love for this record but might not know why. So, to fill in the gaps I’ve decided to again dissect the record track by track to show you why this was such an influential record for me. An album that today is now framed and holds a coveted spot on my wall. Right alongside the very first Beatles record.

Track 1: I Can’t Hold Back: This was first song I heard Jimi Jamison’s voice on.  Actually, it was the video for it if you really want to know. Back when MTV was in its infancy and actually played videos.

I remember watching the guys standing around in the library as the intro played and thinking, “Oh that’s cool”. But once Jimi started singing “There’s a story in my eyes” that was all it took.

This one song is the single reason I wanted the album. And that was without even hearing anything else. It just goes to show you how big a deal the first single released from an album is.

I especially love it when Jimi sings “This Love Affair Can’t Wait” for the final time. You really feel the emotion of what the song is trying to convey. It’s the final powerful exclamation: You know what girl?…I Can’t Hold Back.

From a technical perspective one of the things that really hooked me in on this song was guitarist Frankie Sullivan’s use of feedback. Right when the song starts picking up in the first verse you hear it.

Most of the time feedback is annoying but in this case its controlled and it actually brings the whole song together.

Oh, and looking cool in the video helps too.

Track 2: High on You: Ah, the black and white video with the blue light bulbs. And another love interest for Jimi to sing to. This song hooked me with the cool keyboard sound and the little guitar lick in between verses. Of course, the powerful chord change to minor in the pre-chorus also was killer:

“Now I’m higher than a kite, I know I’m getting hooked on your love”.


Track 3
: First Night: This beautiful song begins with nothing more than piano and Jimi singing: “We will remember this first night forever, after all the songs fade away and the stage fades to gray”. Then just as you think the song is heading one way it kicks into high gear.

After still being on a high from the last song (no pun intended) this track was a refreshing change of pace. It settled things down for what was to come.

“Emotions run wild, are we on the verge?
We’ve got a hotline to satisfaction.
I’ve got the answer if you’ve got the urge”.


Track 4
: The Search is Over: Taking on the world was just his style. Hey, wasn’t this the third different girl Jimi Jamison had in as many videos? That guy gets around.

After Eye of The Tiger, this song was the one that really put Survivor back on the map. And fortunately for me, it’s a song that was just reaching its peak when I saw them on tour with REO Speedwagon back in 1985.

“Now at last I hold you, now all is said and done
The search has come full circle
Our destinies are one.”

As a hormone raging teenager, this song and I Can’t Hold Back were my refuge when the days of school and girls were tough.


Track 5
: Broken Promises:  Again, the lyrics in this song. The imagery. Magic. “Summer and smoke, diamonds and dust.”

I still remember all the weekend nights I’d spend up in my room in silence just listening. This song made me think: “Is it really written in stone that we wind up alone?”…

Or how about these lyrics:

I remember those songs on the radio
The jasmine, the wind in your hair
And how it hurts to remember those
Broken Promises

Track 6: Popular Girl: Another great track and the opening one to Side B of the album. I swear, every time I listen to this song I hear something new.

Just the other day I gave a listen to it again and really caught for the first time the moving guitar part in the chorus. A whole lot is going on there and yet out of the hundreds of times I’ve heard the song I somehow over looked it.

There’s so much more to music than just three chords.

She walks down the street, knocks ‘em dead on their feet
With a casual nonchalance
When she’s breaking your heart, she’s the state of the art
With license to take what she wants

Here’s another thing I love about the Peterik/Sullivan songwriting combination: They always take obscure words you’d probably never use and some how find a way to make them work. Like “nonchalance” from this song, “Spire” from Burning Heart, “Reverie” from Desperate Dreams…. the list goes on.


Track 7
: Everlasting: The message in the song says it all. Something I was really looking for in 1984 even if I didn’t fully understand what love was at the time.

“I’m looking for a love that’s everlasting, I wonder if the feeling’s strong enough?”.

This is the one song from the record that in my opinion best showcases the vocal combination of Jimi and Frankie. When you hear the chorus it’s hard not to sing along with it.


Track 8
: It’s The Singer Not The Song: Take a message from me and I promise not to come on strong: this song kicks. It’s raw and in your face as soon as it begins.

This is the one song on the record where I think producer Ron Nevison just told Frankie to shred on guitar. And shred he does. I can just imagine Ron sitting back in the studio, pushing record on the console and listening to this tasty outro solo that goes on for at least 45 seconds.

Yet another example of a Survivor song containing positive messages about looking inside yourself and never giving up. Sure, sometimes it’s all about love but on a track like this it’s more about self-contemplation. It poses the question: Am I good enough?

And the answer of course is YES.

Track 9: See You In Everyone: For me it was bittersweet when this track came on. First, it was the final song on the record so I knew the journey I was on with Survivor was almost over.

Secondly, it had a guitar solo at the end that I needed to learn…and immediately.

This was the first song from the album I learned at guitar lesson. I had no problem learning the chord changes, it was that damn two-part guitar solo that gave me fits.

 

Thankfully, there’s a keyboard solo before the final chorus so I had a enough time to get my bearings together before tackling it.

It took this young guitarist weeks to learn how to play the final song from Vital Signs correctly but it was well worth it.

Because I’ll never forget the first time I placed the needle down on vinyl for this song and played the whole solo along with Frankie. It was one of the first real accomplishments I had as a new guitarist.

The day I mastered See You In Everyone.

About James Wood

Influenced by life, love and the pursuit of the perfect song is what best describes my passion. I’m a closeted classic rock/metal-head from the 80′s who loves to write.

Posted on February 24, 2012, in Music, Survivor and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. well, kinda got distracted by the “see you in everyone” video, (like that hasn’t happened before…we were all so much younger and…ok i’m gonna stop there)…just like you, i was an mtv junkie back in those days. remember all those vids from vital signs, especially the ‘risky business’ take-off in ‘i can’t hold back” and yes, that man did get around.

    you also said it so well about the phrasing. as a fellow writer, it’s what gets me first. “the skyline wears a shroud” really…don’t think i’ve heard that before. i think you and i could go for days on that subject. “hiding in my shadows, you’re with me always.”

    nicely done.

    kath

    • They always wrote songs with those kinds of phrases. “One girl, lost in a reverie”….”Rising like a spire”….””Skyline wears a shroud”…..Good stuff.

      Loved the Can’t Hold Back Video. Stephan as the nun and Marc as the hob. And I wonder what ever became of the girl from that video?

      There’s a good trivia question for Frankie although he probably has no idea either.. haha.

  2. Great reading! I find that on every album there always seems to be one song that has me scratching my head in wonder – but this is NOT the case with Survivor! Every song on Vital Signs or any of their albums is a true testament to the gifts of this band.

    • Thanks Denise – I couldn’t agree more. When it first came out i spent the entire winter playing video games in my friend’s basement with this record on an endless loop. Good Stuff! :)

  3. Saw Survivor in 1985 with Reo, also. I Can’t Hold Back is the reason I bought the album and still have it. Best video! Funny to listen now I hear something different than before. The meanings of the song changed with more life experience. I See You In Everyone was a love lost before, a couple who broke up. Now it’s a child who’s father passed away when he was young and now he’s a grown man. “Have you seen what I’ve become?”.Search Is Over caught my attention then and made me stop and listen. Played that album more than other. Jimi Jamison is still my favorite and he sound the same. Just incredible. Great Blog James!!

    • Thanks Cat. That REO/Survivor show still resonates with me. Both of them were at the top of their game.

      I agree with you how the meanings of the songs have changed. You know it’s a great song when it has new meanings as the years go by.

  4. Yes, I agree. They evolve as we do making them timeless.

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