Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Wheels Keep Turnin' For REO Speedwagon

 Having been launched into the pop stratosphere via the recorded rocket that was ‘Hi Infidelity’, REO Speedwagon had become the darlings of the ‘AOR’ (adult/arena oriented rock) FM set, thanks to their glossy production and hook laden soft rock and power ballads, which populated FM radio play lists from coast to coast.  Sure to a degree it was formulaic, but it was high quality and millions liked it, so why change a winning formula?  Of course it proved to be a rhetorical question, as REO Speedwagon set about reproducing the lightning in a bottle that was ‘Hi Infidelity’ - no easy ask, but they had the same song writing team, the same production team, the same musicians, so hopes were riding high.

First cab off the rank in the new supergroup era of REO Speedwagon was the 1982 album ‘Good Trouble’ (is there any other kind?).  Vocalist Kevin Cronin himself described the album as “half-baked”, so it seemed that even internally there were doubts over matching the critical and commercial acclaim of its predecessor.  The lead out single ‘Keep The Fire Burnin’ was a high intensity rocker that possessed enough heat to reach #7 on the U.S. Hot 100.  The core song writing cylinders were joined in the song writing stakes by bassist Bruce Hall, but it was the chirpy, harmony laden track ‘Sweet Time’ (US#26) that helped
push album sales along (US#7/ UK#29), though all in all ‘Good Trouble’ experienced some musically mechanical issues compared to the hi-octane performance of ‘Hi Infidelity’.  After nearly fifteen years of relentless touring, and year-in, year-out album releases, REO Speedwagon decided to pit for a while, and ended up taking a two year sabbatical.

With instruments washed and polished, and every bell and whistle tested, REO Speedwagon rolled out of the firehouse in late ‘84 to test the waters as it were, on a record buying public that hadn’t seen anything new emerge from the quintet in over two years.  The band had initially spent two months working in the studio in preparation and laying down of base tracks.  The core song writing duo of Richrath and Cronin had between them penned 25 songs, in addition to material from Hall and Doughty, but the group could only agree on a handful that they felt worthy of inclusion on the new album.  So the studio sessions were canned whilst the band went away in search of enough artistic inspiration to fuel a new REO Speedwagon album.  The band reconvened in studio during the latter part of ‘84, and the first result of their creative efforts surfaced in the form of the catchy, rockabilly inflected single ‘I Do’Wanna Know’ (US#29), but that was but an aperitif for what would prove to be the biggest hit of the band’s career.

Vocalist Kevin Cronin had a tune that he’d started writing a decade earlier, but could never seem to join the creative dots to finish it.  In essence it was a ballad, the subject matter of which addressed facing up to a

change that was fearful, but a change that nonetheless was necessary.  The rumour goes that Cronin had tried to introduce this particular ballad so many times over the years that the other members of REO Speedwagon just referred to it as ‘that stupid ballad’.  However, during the sessions for the ‘Wheels Are Turnin’ album, Cronin had found said needed inspiration to finish his long derided ballad which took the form of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’.  The other band members, who were initially less than enamoured with the song,  recognised the finished studio product as another potential power ballad bonanza.

Soon after its release, ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ was placed on heavy rotation on FM stations across the U.S., and the video was a regular on MTV and the like.  The band’s previous concerns over the power ballad were consigned to ancient history, as record buyers couldn’t fight the feeling that they should buy this single.  Cronin’s compelling and emotive power ballad entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #46 in January of ‘85, and just seven weeks later sat at the pinnacle (OZ#2/UK#16), from which it surveyed the competition for three weeks during March.  ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ supplanted George Michael’s ballad ‘Careless Whisper’, and in turn was replaced by another ballad (less the potent power churned out by REO Speedwagon) in the form of Phil Collins’ ‘One More Night’. 
The single went on to achieve double platinum status Stateside, and became the 12th biggest selling single in the U.S. for 1985.  Not bad for a ‘stupid ballad’ that had been sitting unfinished for a decade.

The source album, ‘Wheels Are Turnin’ (US#7/OZ#54) was proving to have nearly as much kinetic energy as 1981’s ‘Hi Fidelity’, and yielded two more US Top 40 singles.  Pristine production values and vocal arrangements shone through in the quality throughout the album, including the brooding ballad ‘One Lonely Night (US#19), and the vibrant pop of ‘Live Every Moment’ (US#34).  A greatest hits album soon followed, ‘Best Foot Forward’, before REO Speedwagon once more parked in the garage and waited to accumulate enough creative fuel to launch once more onto the charts.

In early ‘87, a decidedly dishevelled REO Speedwagon pulled out of the studio drive way and cautiously entered the main stream of popular music traffic.  The lead out single for a new album was the uninspiring ‘That Ain’t Love’ (US#16), which though it found a space inside the Top 20, had the air of a tired reworking

of an old formula.  As it began it’s slide down the grid, or charts (take your pick), REO’s 12th studio album hit the shelves (yes new albums once did hit the shelves of record stores).  ‘Life As We Know It’ did at least have a pulse and managed to notch up some modest sales (US#28), in relative terms.  But the album overall lacked the zest and spark of earlier sets.  Critics were universally lukewarm toward the latest offering, citing a rehash of old ideas, with little regard toward adding a fresh approach.  The album’s biggest selling single ‘In My Dreams’ (US#19) was at best ordinary and uninspiring, though the Neal Doughty penned ‘Variety Tonight’ (US#60) stands out in an otherwise lacklustre track listing.

The 1988 best of compilation ‘The Hits’ managed only #56 on the U.S. album charts, reflective of the increasing disinterest in REO Speedwagon’s music.  That same year the stand alone single ‘Here With Me’
did touch the rev limiter at #20 in the U.S., and it was a single I purchased myself at the time (which clearly indicates it was of unquestionable quality).  All in all as the 80s drew to a close there was a general apathy among even long time fans for REO Speedwagon’s latest work.  And as so often happens, internal rumblings from under the hood signalled disharmony with the crew of REO Speedwagon.  Long time drummer Alan Gratzer departed the group during 1988, and was replaced initially by former Santana sticks man Graham Lear.  During the first half of 1990 original guitarist and key song writing man Gary Richrath left in acrimonious circumstances to be replaced initially by Miles Joseph (ex-Player - see previous post), but soon thereafter REO Speedwagon underwent a major personnel overhaul.  The long time trio of Kevin Cronin, Neal Doughty, and Bruce Hall were joined by Dave Amato (ex Ted Nugent Band) in place of Joseph, Bryan Hitt (ex Wang Chung - see previous post) in place of Lear, and the quintet broadened to a sextet with the inclusion of Jesse Harms (keyboards/vocals).  And so it was that a revamped REO
Speedwagon recorded the eccentrically entitled album ‘The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog, And A Chicken’, released during the latter half of 1990.  Though the single ‘Love Is A Rock’ (US#65) flirted with the outer reaches of the Billboard galaxy, the album remained little more than a curiosity in the songbook of REO Speedwagon.  A second ‘celebration of a decade’ live set was released in 1991 - ‘The Second Decade Of Rock ‘N Roll 1981-1991’, but soon after the band decided to take an indefinite sojourn.

With a resurgence in interest for the good ole 1980s, a plethora of one time arena acts dusted off the gear and set sail for a nostalgia show near you.  REO Speedwagon soon found themselves once more sharing a bill alongside some of the all time great arena rock acts; Styx, Foreigner, Journey, Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company et al.  It was a chance to deliver the same power ballad punch they’d unleashed on fans all those years before, albeit at smaller venues. 
Sadly, throughout the 90s and 00s, the ongoing creative riff between long time band mates Cronin and Richrath couldn’t be bridged, though a clear message was evident in the title to their 1996 album ‘Building A Bridge’.  However, Cronin once more took the wheel of REO Speedwagon in the late 00s, alongside long time cohorts Neal Doughty and Bruce Hall, and 90s recruits Dave Amato and Bryan Hitt, with the album release ‘Find Your Own Way Home’ and yet more touring.

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