The Greatest Songs Ever! Livin’ on a Prayer
How mulleted dreamboats Bon Jovi wrote the biggest singalong of the ’80s — and finally moved out of their parents’ houses.
Blender, December 2005
Richie Sambora remembers exactly how rough things were for his band before “Livin’ on a Prayer.” “We were all living at home, all broke,” he tells Blender. But that wasn’t the worst part. “My guitar roadie,” Sambora grimaces, “was making twice as much as me.”
In January of 1986, Bon Jovi were a long way from stadium tours and Oprah specials. Formed three years earlier, the New Jersey hair-metal quintet already had a pair of golden albums under their glittery belts. But they were stuck opening arena-rock also-rans like Ratt and the Scorpions in places like the Des Moines Civic Center. They’d seen a million faces, and rocked … maybe half of them. Tired from touring and still in debt to their label, Sambora and singer Jon Bon Jovi sat down to write their third album, knowing they faced a make-or-break situation. “If it failed, the band wouldn’t have continued,” Sambora says.
“We knew we had to deliver something that was going to be big at pop radio,” Bon Jovi says. The solution: Desmond Child, a hired-gun songsmith who had already penned hits for Kiss and power-ballad queen Bonnie Tyler. The three of them met at Sambora’s parents’ house, where he still lived, cranking out ideas in a dark, damp basement with just a single space heater to keep them warm. But it was at a borrowed apartment in New York City that they struck on what would become their biggest hit.
“I was sick as a dog,” Sambora recalls. “Driving to the city, I was literally opening my car door and throwing up.” When the guitarist arrived, Child and Bon Jovi were kicking around an idea: the Springsteenian story of a down-and-out couple fighting to make ends meet.
They took turns shouting out lines, and soon they had their heroes: Tommy, an unemployed dockworker, and Gina, a waitress working double shifts. The principals differ on their inspiration — Child claims it was himself and his girlfriend, Bon Jovi says two of his pals — but in the end it didn’t matter: It was a blue-collar fairy tale (the opening line is “Once upon a time”) starring two Everykids fans couldn’t help rooting for.
Finally, Child snuck in a secret weapon: a sudden soaring key change in the final chorus, the kind that gives songs like “Mandy” and “I Will Always Love You” their dramatic, lump-in-your-throat payoffs. “I thought right then it was the best song we had ever written,” Sambora says.
Jon wasn’t so sure. “He said it was too wimpy — too feminine,” Child recalls. “Richie and I were scratching our heads, saying ’This sounds like a smash!’” On the ride back to Jersey, the singer suggested that they could put it on a soundtrack.
But Sambora eventually won; when the band flew to Vancouver later that spring to record the new album with producer Bruce Fairbairn, “Prayer” was on the schedule. They set up shop in Little Mountain, a tiny studio, and marveled at the city’s snowcapped mountain peaks and real-life Eskimos. “It was a beautiful, undiscovered little town,” Bon Jovi says. “Very innocent.”
Sambora laughs. “Until we showed up.”
“They were like a gang,” recalls Bob Rock, a then-unknown recording engineer now famous for producing Metallica and Motley Crue. “They dressed very flashy, they did speed, they were completely insane in terms of the women. Their whole eight weeks there was just strippers and debauchery.”
A club called No. 5 Orange quickly became the band’s favorite. “We walked in and next thing we know we’re looking at complete nakedness,” Sambora says. The girls would actually descend from a pole into this shower and soap themselves up, right in the middle of the stage.
“Needless to say, we proceeded to enjoy the town immensely.”
They also managed to spend a few days working. According to Rock, the basic track for “Livin’ on a Prayer” took only two hours to record. By the next afternoon the song was finished, complete with all the flourishes that would help make it a smash — including Sambora’s talkbox, a gadget that hadn’t been popular since Peter Frampton’s ’70s heyday. “Everyone thought it sounded like duck,” the guitarist says. “But it worked.”
For Bon Jovi, the toughest part turned out to be the most important: hitting that climactic key change. “He only got it once,” says Rock. “I think somebody must have squeezed his balls or something.”
Once the rest of the songs were done — and after the band had been evicted from their condo for an incident involving a steak knife and a neighbor’s plastic flamingos — Bon Jovi returned to the states, opening for southern rockers .38 Special. But they wouldn’t be a warm-up act for long.
Slippery When Wet — its title an homage to the showering girls of No. 5 Orange — was released in August and went platinum by October, thanks to “You Give Love a Bad Name,” the band’s first No. 1. But, as Bob Rick says: “‘Bad Name’ was big — but ’Prayer’ was mega.” A perfect Reagan-era blend of desperation and hope, the song hit No. 1 on Valentine’s Day 1987 and stayed on top for four weeks. For a while, Slippery was selling over a million copies a month. “Every day we broke another record,” Bon Jovi says. “It was our Thriller — our Born in the U.S.A.”
“Prayer” also helped pave the way for a generation of acid-washed, blow-dried MTV bad boys. “That song opened the floodgates for so many bands,” says Child. “Poison, Motley, Skid Row — even Aerosmith rode on it for their second wave.”
And though the stripclub-loving Jersey boys might blush to admit it, the song also signaled the rise of warmer, fuzzier hard rock. “Instead of metal just being about bimbos and red Corvettes,” Child says, “all of a sudden there were story songs. And that’s when the girls started coming around.”
Today, “Prayer” continues to loom large in that real Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the karaoke bar … even if the high note isn’t any easier 20 years on.
“Goddammit,” Bon Jovi laughs. “I’ve been grabbing my nuts ever since.”