It was a whole different musical universe three decades years ago. MTV had just flickered into existence. The punk movement, in turn, was influencing the same sludge-thick heavy metal it originally hoped to destroy, launching faster outfits like Saxon, Krokus and Iron Maiden. But — believe it or not — one old-school-minded group totally ruled the charts in 1981: REO Speedwagon.
Its breakthrough “Hi Infidelity” set occupied the No. 1 album chart position for 15 weeks, remained on Billboard’s Top 20 for 101 weeks and went on to sell ten million copies.
The melodic, keyboard-enhanced sound on smash hits like “Keep on Loving You” and “Take it on the Run” was something that velvet-voiced frontman Kevin Cronin and fiery guitarist Gary Richrath had been trying to get across since the early ’70s — it took this, their eleventh album to finally hammer their hook-happy message home around the world.
Epic/Legacy just released a 30th Anniversary edition of “Hi Infidelity,” complete with a bonus disc of previously unreleased live-in-studio “Crystal Demos” of nine of the album’s ten tracks, recently unearthed in their manager’s garage. Kevin Cronin who, sans Richrath, still tours/records with REO checked in with us on this auspicious occasion.
Click the picture at right for a gallery of REO Speedwagon past and present.
Every rocking Midwest teenager in the ’70s probably owned a copy of your definitive live album “Live: You Get What You Play For.” No party was complete without it. Well, it was different for us because we were making the records. But there are a lot of people that I know who really responded to that record. We had six studio albums before then, but no one ever captured the energy of our band in the studio — all those early records just sounded kind of dull, and they didn’t rock. So the live album was the first time where we made a record that actually sounded like the band. It was live, there was an audience, and it was at our best, in concert. So there’s no explaining it. I just feel so fortunate that we were there and people took us into their lives and made our music a part of their summer time partying in high school back in those days. It’s pretty amazing, I’m humbled by it, and I don’t take it for granted for a second.
But then the album that followed “Live” in ’78, “You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tunafish” still holds up today as arguably your most definitive statement. It’s funny. You make the records and you listen to ’em so much when you’re making ’em, I don’t remember the last time I’ve actually sat down and listened to a record like “You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tunafish.” I should really get a copy and some day when I’m taking a long road trip just stick it in and listen to it from this perspective. Just to see what it sounds like.
But if you listen to “Tunafish” tracks like “Time For Me To Fly” and “Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight,” you can hear the breakup-themed “Hi Infidelity” galloping down the pike. For sure. Back in those days, it was just tour, come home, go in the studio, finish the record, then go on tour. It was kind of foolish to even expect that you could maintain any sort of personal life outside the band. And by the time the “Hi Infidelity” record came along, everybody’s lives were in such states of dysfunction. And the thing is, there was a kind of misery-loves-company vibe among the bandmembers in the studio, because everything was falling apart all around us. And really, all we had was one another and the band. So it was really like we were on the last lifeboat, with the Titanic sinking in the distance — it was just us. And I think the music and the vibe of “Hi Infidelity” was really the result of the bond that we had. It was really strong, and the fact that we were all writing about the same thing was not by design — it was only because [breakups] were what we were all going through. So the record came out sounding like a concept album, but it was not planned that way.
And its monster hit “Keep On Loving You” put the last coffin nail in your first marriage, right? Yep. It kind of did. But who would’ve known that that record was gonna be a No. 1 single? It was just another song that I wrote, and I didn’t expect that anyone would really hear it. So I definitely learned a lesson. But it was mostly a good lesson. I mean, obviously my personal life was affected in a difficult way. But what I learned is that the more of yourself that you expose in your songs, the more people will respond to that. Emotions are universal, and I think that’s what makes songs stick with people.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when you came up that strange, immortal line “Instead you laid still in the grass/All coiled up and hissin.” Did you shout “Eureka!”? Ha! Well, it was “Eureka!” on one hand, and it was also “See ya later!” on the other. That was a pretty strong line, but that’s what it felt like. And I wrote “Keep On Loving You” in the middle of the night, and I was barely conscious when I wrote it, but it came from a real pure place. And I knew that it was gonna be trouble. I mean, hey — when you call an album “Hi Infidelity,” you’re asking for trouble. But I couldn’t possibly not write that song — I had to do it. And then I had to deal with the consequences, which were not all that pleasant, on a personal level. But that song has sure meant a lot to a lot of people. And it is kind of funny that people use that song as their wedding theme. They must only be listening to the lyrics in the chorus!
So every other ’70s/’80s band has reunited with all surviving members. Where, exactly, is Gary Richrath? And what happened to him? That’s a tough one. I think about Gary all the time. He was my big brother I never had — he pretty much taught me everything I know about being in a rock and roll band. When I joined REO Speedwagon, I was a folk singer, wearing Hush Puppy shoes and corduroy pants. And when I met Gary, he was a rock star already, and he really took me under his wing. He saw something in me that maybe I wasn’t even aware of. Or that other people hadn’t seen yet — let’s put it that way. So it was because of him that I got into the band — a lot of people really didn’t want that to happen. But Gary saw the future, and he saw that if you wanna keep making records, you need songs. So the relationship that Gary and I had was one of those love/hate things, but it was the friction between us that really made things happen. Like when I wrote “Keep On Loving You,” I was playing it on piano in the rehearsal hall, and nobody in the band was jumping in to play along with it — they thought I was crazy. But Richrath, after a couple of days of ignoring me, finally plugged in his guitar, cranked it up, and got the nastiest guitar tone you could possibly get and started playing along. And I think he was trying to drown me out, just f—— with me. But when I heard it, I was like “Yeah!” Because that’s what the song needed — a tough edge to it. So it was a very complex relationship — we were like sandpaper in a way. We’d rub against each other, and sparks would fly. But at some point in the late ’80s, the sparks just stopped flying. It wasn’t like we didn’t get along — we just stopped not getting along, and Gary was going along with me too much. I need someone to bounce off of, and so does he, so that’s what happened — it just kind of burned out.
Well, how many bands can claim a song that’s essentially a vocalist/guitarist duel, like “157 Riverside Avenue” in concert? And again, one night I did this little scat at the end of “157,” and Richrath was like “Oh, yeah? Watch this!” And he tried to top me. So I said “Oh, yeah? Watch this!” And I tried to top him. So it really came from us trying to one-up each other — it just happened accidentally one night, and then it became part of the show, a part that people really looked forward to. So many of those things — the great things that happen in bands — very few of them are planned. And certainly in REO Speedwagon’s case, nothing great that we ever did was ever planned. It was all just happy accidents!