Sunday, January 12, 2014

It's All In The Name

One of the fascinating aspects to delving into the world of popular music (among many fascinating things), is examining the meaning behind band names (and sometimes the names of individual artists).  At times the nomenclature is quite straight forward, say for example the Steve Miller Band (see recent post), in that case the driving force behind the band is singer/guitarist Steve Miller.  On other occasions the meanings behind the names are more obscure, say for example, A Flock of Seagulls (see previous post) took their name from a lyric in the Stranglers song ‘Toiler On The Sea’, or English duo Everything But The Girl took inspiration from a furniture store on England’s Hull University campus.  Of all of the hundreds of pop group handles that I’ve come across of the past few decades, one of the most eccentric yet appealing monikers belongs to a soft rock quintet formed during 1968 (it was a good year) in Champaign, Illinois, who took their name from that of a 1911 model fire truck (designed by one Ransom Eli Olds).  REO Speedwagon didn’t exactly conquer the pop rock world in record time, but twelve years after they were rolled off the assembly line, Kevin Cronin (vocals/rhythm guitar), Gary Richrath (lead guitar), Neal Doughty (keyboards), Bruce Hall (bass), and Alan Gratzer (drums) took the U.S. charts by storm with the power ballad ‘Keep On Loving You’, and remained parked on the charts for most of the 80s.  But there had been a long road travelled to reach the pinnacle of the pop music mountain.

During 1968, University of Illinois students Neal Doughty (keyboards) and Alan Grazer (drums), sketched the blueprint for a new rock band, and soon after had recruited guitarist Gary Richrath, bassist Greg Philbin, and vocalist/guitarist Terry Luttrell.  The ignition was turned over on REO Speedwagon soon after, and
initially the band developed their live act in front of audiences in and around their native Illinios.  By 1970, the band had built up a repertoire of original material and were stretching their touring itinerary nationally.  With a steadily growing live act profile, soon to be Steely Dan and Eagles’ manager Irving Azoff helped to negotiate a recording contract with Epic Records.  The band’s eponymous debut album was released in July of ‘72, but neither album or the three accompanying singles (‘Prison Women’/ ‘157  Riverside Avenue’/‘Gypsy Woman’s Passion’) made a tyre mark on the U.S. charts.  Soon after Terry Luttrell was replaced in the driver’s seat by 21 year old Kevin Cronin.  Cronin answered an inquiry from the band which came via his own musician referral service, promptly staged a successful audition with an Elton John song, and went on to contributed lead vocals (rhythm guitar) for REO Speedwagon’s second album, released in December of ’72, and imaginatively titled ‘R.E.O.T.W.O.’.

Gassed up with new material, REO Speedwagon hit the touring road throughout 1973, supporting the likes of Aerosmith, Kansas and Bob Seger, and further augmented an already substantive national audience, but all was not well within the cabin of this particular Speedwagon.  Lead vocalist Kevin Cronin, who had been with the band little more than a year, hit the brakes and ground the band to a temporary halt, during which he
advised his fellow crew that due to artistic differences (there’s a rarity) he wished to pursue a solo career (it turned out to little avail).  REO Speedwagon recruited vocalist Mike Murphy and parked themselves back in the recording studio for the January ‘74 release ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’.  A hectic touring schedule ensued, before the quintet returned once more to the studio resulting in the November ‘74 album release ‘Lost In A Dream’, the album being somewhat of a landmark moment for REO Speedwagon, when it crept into the U.S. Top 100 album chart at 98.

In April of ‘75, vocalist Kevin Cronin was welcomed back to the fold with open arms.  He and guitarist Gary Richrath then struck up a fruitful song writing partnership in the engine room which soon produced sufficient creative horsepower to propel the REO Speedwagon brand to #74 on the U.S. album chart with ‘This Time We Mean It’ (featuring contributions from Sly Stone).  The 1976 set ‘R.E.O.’ slid beneath the speed gun, but another live album, ‘You Get What You Play For’ peaked at #72 in late ‘77, adding further to the band’s burgeoning national profile, though critical acclaim was still short - the band often
being labelled as formulaic for its melodic rockers and power ballads (but hey what artist isn’t in their own way).  Soon after bassist Greg Philbin was replaced by Bruce Hall, who was on board for REO Speedwagon’s lap record to date, 1978’s album ‘You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish’ (US#29/OZ#98), arguably one of the worst album title puns in popular music history, but a title that spawned two minor hit singles, ‘Roll With The Changes’ (US#58), and ‘Time For Me To Fly’ (US#56).  Cronin and Richrath in particular were entering a rich vein of high octane hit making song writing, and also assisting in production to further finely hone the band’s sound, but 1979’s album ‘Nine Lives’ (US#33) was but an entrĂ©e to the main course just around the corner.

The aptly titled live album ‘A Decade Of Rock ‘N Roll: 1970 - 1980’ rounded out ten years of straight edged album oriented rock from REO Speedwagon, but the next studio release in April of 1981 would be brimming with hook laden pop rock and power ballads.  The lead out single was the shimmering power
ballad ‘Keep On Loving You’.  The immaculate, glistening instrumentation proved a perfect marriage to Kevin Cronin’s impassioned vocals resulting in a pristine song throughout.  It was the hook laden pop rock classic that REO Speedwagon had bean searching for over more than a decade, and after entering the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1980, it ascended steadily to #1 for one week during March of ‘81 (OZ#3/UK#7 - replaced the following week by Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ - now there’s a contrast), going on to spend 20 weeks inside the Hot 100.

The source album would redefine the profile of REO Speedwagon, and the quintet of rock journeyman within, and place the band firmly in the headlining pantheon of U.S. album oriented rock, jostling for supremacy alongside the likes of Styx, Toto, Heart, Starship, Foreigner (see future posts), Journey, Asia, and Survivor (see previous posts).  The cleverly titled ‘Hi Infidelity’ was released in the U.S. during late 1980 (Britain/Australia - early ‘81), in line with ‘Keep On Loving You’ dominating the singles charts.  Incidentally
‘Hi Infidelity’ was released on the (then) highest fidelity audio format - the compact disc - as one of the first 100 albums to ever be released on the format.  Featuring ten tracks of crystal clear, sublime soft rock, and a cover which gave a clear indication as to the lyrical ambience within, ‘Hi Infidelity’ peaked at #1 on the U.S. charts (ascending to top spot no fewer than three times - OZ#6/UK#6), during the first half of ‘81, and had three more hit singles in store, which would see REO Speedwagon remain strong chart competitors for most of the year. The single ‘Take It On The Run’ was less ornate than its predecessor but no less easy on the ear.   The stripped bare soft rock ballad, a lyrical tale of infidelity, reached a peak of #5 in the U.S. (UK#19/OZ#30), and contained the memorable lyric “heard it from a friend, who heard it from a friend, who heard it from another” - in this case that ‘Take It On The Run’ was a melodically magnificent track.  The emotionally laden soft rock formula wasn’t exactly fashionable in many circa early 80s quarters, but the melodic hooks, and relatable lyrics proved irresistible to both the FM radio scene, and countless
listeners, and record buyers. The bubbling rocker ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ (US#24), and the pure vocal harmonies of ‘In Your Letter’ (US#20/OZ#100) rounded out an impressive quartet of hit singles (two of which were in the top 30 selling in the U.S. for 1981), from a seven million selling album that would prove a tough act to follow.

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