By Jeb Wright
By 1980, REO Speedwagon had nearly worn out its welcome at Epic Records.
The label waited 10 years for REO to hit the big time, and while things looked up two years earlier, when the album “You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tune A Fish” spit out a couple of FM album staples in “Time For Me To Fly” and “Roll With The Changes,” the following years “Nine Lives” failed to build on the band’s momentum. When it peaked at No. 33 on the Billboard charts, three spots lower than Tuna Fish, it seemed the end was near.
While the band had not become superstars, the label had not lost money on REO, either. The decision was made to give them one more chance, though expectations remained low. One can only imagine the shock that the industry, the band and even their hard-core fans felt when “Hi Infidelity,” released in the fall of 1980, reached the top spot on the charts, not once, but three times in 1981. The album gave REO a new lease on life.
REO Speedwagon continues to sell out concerts coast to coast and will be featured on Direct TV. The band will release a DVD of their performance at Moondance Jam in November.
In the interview that follows, vocalist, rhythm guitarist and songwriter, Kevin Cronin, looks back at the making of the classic album. He reveals the stories behind the albums biggest hits and shares the highs and lows of “Hi Infidelity.” Kevin also discusses the inevitable split with founding guitarist Gary Richrath and why he talks so much on stage.
The fall of 2010 will mark three decades since “Hi Infidelity” was released. I heard you guys finally discovered the album demos.
Kevin Cronin: Thirty years ago, we were in the studio making the Crystal demos, which were lost for 28 years. I found them in our manager’s garage. We took them to a mastering lab, and we baked the tapes and restored everything.
I would like to release a package for the 30th anniversary of “Hi Infidelity” that includes the Crystal Studio demos. Those tapes were 50 percent of what ended up on the master recording. It all came from three days of recording in that dilapidated room. There was the smell of vomit from 1965 in that place; it was a shit hole, but it was all we could afford at the time.
The band’s personal lives were a mess when that album was recorded.
KC: The record is almost like a concept record but the truth is that we were all equally f**ked up. The best songs come from trying to figure out the mess you find yourself in. There is usually an equal and opposite reaction where the more dire your circumstances are, the better the songs turn out.
Tell me whom “Don’t Let Him Go” was about.
KC: I usually write autobiographically and there is usually some type of emotional therapy involved in it.
That song was different for me because I created a character. If you took all five of the band members and rolled them into one, then that was our hero in “Don’t Let Him Go.”
This character was saying to the woman that he loved that he knew he was immature and he was trying to be the best man he could be and not to give up on him. The chorus says, “Don’t let him go/Give him a chance to grow/Take it easy, take it slow/And don’t let him go.”
It was not my deepest lyric, but it was heartfelt and it was what all five of us were going through.
Tell me about “Keep On Loving You.”
KC: I wrote the verses in the middle of the night; it was really one of those cathartic moments. I knew it was extremely honest, maybe honest to a fault. I went into the rehearsal studio and started playing it and the band looked at me like I was nuts.
Rock bands like rock songs; they do not necessarily like love songs. A few days into it, I carved out the chorus and Richrath was just sick of hearing the song. One day, he just took out a Les Paul guitar, plugged it into a Marshall amp, turned it up to 11 and started playing along to the chorus.
You would have to ask him, but my theory is that he thought if he could drown me out, then I would stop playing, but the exact opposite happened.
He thought he was going to piss me off, but it totally sounded cool. That was really the birth of the REO Speedwagon power balled; it was totally by accident. It was Richrath trying to piss me off, which really does characterize the relationship that Gary and I had. The best things we wrote were when one was trying to piss the other off.
What do you remember about “Take It On The Run?”
KC: I went out to Gary’s ranch, and we had been working all day. I said, “Gary, is there anything else?”
He said, “Well, there is kind of this slow song called ‘Don’t Let Me Down.’” I said, “Let me hear what you’ve got.”
He starts out, “Heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who heard it from another you’ve been messing around.”
I said, “We have to work on this. I don’t think ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ should be the title of this song. Gary, this song is called ‘Take It On The Run.” Gary is a country guy; he’s from Peoria. “Take It On The Run” is a country song. We just cranked up the Les Paul and made it a rock song.
After 10 years of struggling to make it, the success must have been exciting. After the initial excitement was there a lot of pressure on you?
KC: It took us by surprise and there was pressure by the record company to follow it up right away. The follow-up, “Good Trouble,” was released while “Hi Infidelity” was still in the Top 100.
I don’t have a whole lot of regrets, but the decision to go ahead and release the “Good Trouble” album is one time where I feel that I let myself down and I let the band down. I had the feeling in my gut that I hadn’t written the best songs for the album yet. I folded to the peer pressure, and I paid the price for it in a lot of ways. If we had waited just a little bit longer, then we would have had “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” as the follow up.
With songs like “Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” and “Keep On Loving You” REO got the reputation as a soft rock band.
KC: That was the frustration for the band for years and I took the brunt of it because people said, “They were a rock band before they got him.” I think the experience we had with “Keep On Loving You” iced it. We got a lot of shit.
Age allows us to look back and see things more clearly. Do you ever look back and wish that things ended differently with Gary?
KC: I wish things would have never ended with Gary. I am not taking anything away from Dave Amato, as he is one of my best friends, and I love him. He has been an amazing addition to the band because of his guitar playing and his singing ability, but it was the friction between Gary and I that made the sparks fly.
It wasn’t like we stopped getting along so we broke up. We always had a love-hate relationship. I was a city boy from Chicago and he was a country boy from Peoria. There were two kinds of energies that when rubbed together made the sparks fly. What happened is that the sparks stopped flying.
REO Speedwagon was best when there was a good balance between Gary’s energy and my energy. Believe me, it wasn’t a rash decision. It was a situation that had been going on for years until finally it was just not working anymore. There was no question that Gary and I were no longer functional as a songwriting team or a production team and something needed to change. The question was, ‘What are we going to do?”
The choices were for the band to carry on without either me or without Gary, or the band could just stop because without both of us in the band we were not REO Speedwagon anymore. There was a moment where we were going to hang it up. Our management said to us, “If that is what is going to happen then we should put the equipment up for sale and sell our rehearsal space.” That hit me hard. I was not ready to let it go. I felt the spirit of REO Speedwagon, and what it meant to our fans, was bigger than any of us.
Honestly, my thought was that when Gary got wind that I was going to keep it going that it would piss him off and that he was going to come back the same way that I came back in the early ’70s. I left, and I came back way stronger than when I left. In my mind, that is what was going to happen with Gary, too.
That didn’t happen. I wonder if I would have disbanded the whole thing, then would that have been the thing that pissed him off and got him back in the band? I will never know. I just did what I thought was the right thing to do at the time. You have got to live with your decisions, and that was a tough one.
I really thought in a year or two, or maybe three, that Gary would be back. It’s sad that it never happened.
My last one is not serious because I don’t want to end on a bad note…
KC: It is not a bad note; it is just a true note. Hey, listen, I love Gary.
I learned everything I know about rock ’n’ roll from Gary Richrath. I don’t know if he realizes that. Maybe if you write this article and he reads it, then he will get to hear how much I appreciate everything he did for me.
He believed in me at a time where I was nowhere. Everything I know about rock n’ roll I owe to him. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my relationship with Gary Richrath, and I love the man. I hope he reads this article, and I hope it maybe explains to him what happened.
Last One: The great debate among REO fans is that Kevin Cronin talks too much on stage.
KC: You have got to understand that I started out as a solo performer in coffee houses. I learned to talk to the audiences because I was by myself. I know it pisses people off, and I know they would just as soon have me shut the f**k up. I know the band probably feels that way to a degree, too.
I’ve tried to find a balance lately. I think I am yakking a little bit less between songs than I used to. I can’t totally shut up, though, because it is just too much a part of who I am.
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