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REO Speedwagon’s Big Breakout

Wooing a national audience with ‘Hi Infidelity’

Musicians, Neal Doughty, Alan Gratzer, Gary Richrath, Kevin Cronin, Bruce Hall, rock band, REO Speedwagon, Jou Louis Arena

Musicians Neal Doughty, Alan Gratzer, Gary Richrath, Kevin Cronin and Bruce Hall of the rock band REO Speedwagon backstage at their show at Jou Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan on March 27th, 1981.

Michael Marks/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

LOS ANGELES

The nerve of those hostages. I mean, who do those guys think they are, anyway? Some kind of heroes or something? Here we are doing our first live TV show, and they have to be released from Iran, so our show is delayed. Can you imagine that?”

Kevin Cronin plops down on a brown leather sofa, takes a sip of Gatorade, runs a hand through his curly, shoulder-length brown locks, leans forward and continues his tirade. “I mean, why couldn’t they delay someone else’s show? I mean, I wanna know: Who do those guys think they are?

Cronin, of course, is not really serious. In fact, he’s mimicking the accent John Belushi made famous on Saturday Night Live. Tonight, though, Cronin is backstage at another live comedy show, Fridays, and his band, REO Speedwagon, is waiting to go on.

The group members have been in a celebratory mood most of the evening: not only will this be their first appearance on live television, but their new album, Hi Infidelity, sold a million copies just five weeks after its release in late November, and their single, “Keep on Loving You,” is in the Top Ten. Now, however, they are beginning to feel a bit anxious about the show, and it isn’t helping matters that Fridays has been delayed half an hour for a news update about the hostages.

“I’m almost never nervous before a regular concert,” Cronin says, no longer joking. “But tonight, I’m really nervous. We’ve done lots of TV before, but never live. And we’ve been waiting around here since ten a.m.

“I hope they get the name right this time,” he adds. “During dress rehearsal, they introduced us as Reo Speedwagon.” He pauses. “It’s R-dot-E-dot-O-dot Speed-wagon — REO Speedwagon!”

At that point, the guests are asked to leave the dressing room–the program is finally about to begin. The band does two songs, and afterward, the emcee thanks “REO Speedway.

It comes down to the concept of being a family band,” keyboardist Neal Doughty says. “In fact, we’re almost as corny as Donny and Marie.”

“The Osmonds?” Alan Gratzer, REO’s drummer, stares at Doughty in disbelief. “I never quite compared us to the Osmonds. I’m not ready to start going to church.”

“But it’s the same sort of deal,” Doughty says. “It’s kind of a family operation.”

“Well, I think we take more drugs than they do,” Gratzer says.

“According to them,” Doughty replies. “Who knows what they’re really like.…”

It’s four days after the Fridays airing, and the two members of REO are seated in the living room of Gratzer’s blue-and-white frame house in smog-infested Sherman Oaks, a suburb just north of the Hollywood Hills. “My wife, who’s an interior designer, and I bought the place because it’s like the houses back home,” Gratzer says. “It’s a real Midwestern house.”

Gratzer and Doughty founded REO Speedwagon nearly fourteen years ago at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Named by Doughty after a high-speed truck he learned about in a History of Transportation class, the group was managed back then by an ex-chemistry and mathematics major named Irving Azoff. And a young singer named Dan Fogelberg used to open some of their shows.

“Dan used to live about two houses down from me,” Gratzer explains. “It was real funny: Here we were, this hard-rock band, and Fogelberg would come out before us with an acoustic guitar and play all the songs off his first album. No one knew who he was, but he was good enough so that people didn’t boo him offstage.”

After playing for a couple of years at clubs like the Brown Jug, Ted’s Warehouse and the Red Lion, and after going through numerous personnel changes (“There actually are quite a few people who can say they were members of REO,” says Gratzer), the band signed with Epic Records in 1970. With the exception of Jeff Beck, REO has been on the label longer than any other artist.

Over the next six years, the band — the core consisting of Doughty, Gratzer, guitarist Gary Richrath and bassist Gregg Philbin — recorded six albums, went through three lead singers (including current vocalist Kevin Cronin, who sang on the second album, left, then rejoined for the sixth) and established a reputation for being a hard-working hard-rock band. It was the kind of group, in other words, that could sell out 12,000-seat halls in St. Louis, Cleveland or Chicago, but went virtually unnoticed by people on either coast, not to mention the critics.

“That used to bother us a lot,” admits Gratzer, who is handling the lion’s share of the conversation while Doughty, who resembles actor Michael J. Pollard, sits silently in a chair, his legs crossed and his arms folded. “Whenever we would be reviewed,” Gratzer continues, “we’d almost immediately be lumped into this ‘Midwestern’ genre: ‘Midwestern rockers, no substance, no this, no that.’ When we’d play a live show, and it was a great show, sold out, people storming the stage, four encores, we’d read the next day that we didn’t do so well, and we just had to take it with a grain of salt.”

That began to be a little easier to do after 1977. The group, which had moved to Los Angeles two years earlier, recruited bassist Bruce Hall, another veteran of the Champaign circuit; his addition, plus Cronin’s decision to rejoin the band, finally gave REO a stable lineup. The band also changed management: Irving Azoff, who by this time was enjoying monumental success with a roster that included the Eagles, Fogelberg, Boz Scaggs, Jimmy Buffett and others, dropped REO, and John Baruck, Azoff’s assistant during the days in Illinois, took over.

(“I was spending most of my time with the Eagles and devoting less and less to REO,” Azoff says. “It was John Baruck who was really doing it, even then. But there were no hard feelings or anything. I have always believed in them. Their music was always, as I call it, on the edge, very competent, and it’s just been a matter of time. Nothing makes me feel more vindicated than what’s happening now.”)

The crucial event for the band in 1977, though, was the release of You Get What You Play For, a two-record live set. Up to that point, REO had been dissatisfied with the sound of their studio albums, all of which had been recorded using outside producers; R.E.O., their sixth LP, had been their biggest commercial failure, selling, in Richrath’s words, “about five or six copies.”

So they decided to try a live record. “We cut the songs and had a producer, John Stronach, who was going to mix it,” says Cronin, who has arrived at Gratzer’s house and is busy making a mint-chocolate-chip milkshake. “We thought, ‘Mixing a live album; that can’t be too hard.’ But then we got a tape of it, and there was no audience on it; it sounded like a studio album: real clean, real thin, real wimpy. It was the final blow.”

After an all-night strategy session, REO decided to fire Stronach and produce the LP themselves. Epic and Baruck agreed, and the result was the band’s first million-selling album. Since then, the group (mainly Cronin and Richrath) has produced all its records, and every one has gone either gold or platinum.

“A producer is only as good as his relationship with the band,” Cronin says, talking, as usual, so rapidly that it’s often difficult to understand him. “Producers are supposed to do things like help the band arrange its songs, but we do that ourselves, so we don’t really need anybody from the outside. It just took us six albums to figure that out.”

By now, Bruce Hall has shown up, just in time for lunch. “Boy, it’s really dreary out there,” he says as Gratzer serves hamburgers and artichokes. “I was gonna have the burgers out by the pool,” Gratzer says. “You know, real L.A. And what happens? It rains. Just like in the Midwest.”

Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump! Thump!

“That must be Richrath,” Kevin Cronin says.

Thump! Thump! Thump!

“I got Legionnaire’s Disease just driving to this place again,” Gary Richrath moans. Richrath is dribbling a basketball down the corridor at Kendun Recorders in Burbank, where some of Hi Infidelity was recorded last fall.

Legionnaire’s Disease? “Yeah,” Richrath says, still dribbling. “It’s what you get when you spend fourteen hours a day here for four months and drink six-packs of wine and do various other things that we won’t mention.” He drops the basketball and joins the other band members in the lounge.

REO is back at the studio to edit a few songs from Hi Infidelity, for possible release as singles. In many ways, the album is surprising, especially for those people who think of REO as primarily a hard-rock, even heavy-metal, band. The LP has three or four midtempo ballads and lots of vocal harmonies; in fact, Hi Infidelity would be more accurately described as a pop-rock record.

“REO has always been a rock & roll band,” Cronin says. “But we learned we could play ballads and still have them be real powerful.”

“Yeah,” agrees Richrath, “like what Led Zeppelin did with ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ which starts out acoustic and then builds up.”

Richrath and Cronin are REO’s main songwriters, and they coproduced Hi Infidelity with engineer Kevin Beamish. “We’ve just been kind of zeroing in on it,” Cronin says of the album’s sound. “The Tuna album [You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish, the band’s eighth LP] was maybe too soft — not enough rock & roll — and the next album, Nine Lives, was real rock & roll. On this album, we kinda put together what we learned on those two records and what we’ve learned in the studio since we started producing. We also had more time to write songs. As a result, it all just kind of fell together.”

Not without a hitch, though. After recording demos at Crystal Sound Studios in Hollywood, REO entered Kendun to start laying down the tracks for the album. “Everybody froze up,” Cronin says. “We were trying to top the demos, and it was flipping us out. Then, one night, I had a dream that Gary and I were sitting on a beach, and this big colored bird was coming at us. It was like Jaws, and everybody started screaming. Someone yelled, ‘Jump in the water; it can’t swim.’ And I remember swimming and swimming, and when I turned around, it was right there. I woke up and was freaked.

“The next day, we decided to put on a demo tape, and it was, like, ‘Wait a minute, this is great.’ It ended up that seven of the ten songs on the album are from that demo tape.”

One track on Hi Infidelity, “Tough Guys,” opens with a curious snippet of conversation from The Little Rascals; Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla are talking about the He Man, Woman-Haters Club. REO formed their own chapter while recording the new LP. “I was real mad at women one day,” Neal Doughty explains, “and I happened to remember that episode. That night, I fell asleep with the TV on, as I always do, and when I woke up, that episode was on the air. I thought I was dreaming, so I had to jump out of bed and record it on my Betamax just to make sure it actually happened.

“It’s not anything sexist,” he continues. “I mean, I’ve got girlfriends who have started the She Woman, Man-Haters Club. It works both ways.”

“Yeah,” Alan Gratzer adds, “we’re not as macho as we thought. It kind of evolved. Kevin came up with the title — Hi Infidelity — then we started looking at all the songs and at everybody’s lives; Hi Infidelity fit pretty well.…”

Have you gotten the invitations yet?” Neal Doughty asks. Kevin Cronin, Gary Richrath, Bruce Hall and Alan Gratzer are just returning to the studio after playing an impromptu game of basketball on a half-court they built nearby during the Hi Infidelity sessions. Doughty, who doesn’t exactly have the physique of a basketball player, stayed behind and is now greeting them in his usual droll manner.

“You’re not getting married again, are you, Neal?” Cronin responds with a laugh.

“Neal’s only been married twice,” Gratzer says.

“Yeah, every time I fall in love,” Doughty cracks.

“Every time Neal does fall in love,” Gratzer retorts, “he wants to get married. We’re trying to steer him in another direction.”

“But it’s fun,” Doughty says. “I’m real good at getting married; I’m just not any good at being married.”

Just then, Kevin Beamish walks into the room to tell the band he’s finished the alternate edits they requested for “Take It on the Run.” Beamish has been working with REO since the Nine Lives album in 1979, and he believes their current success is no accident. “There were basically three things this band had to accomplish,” he says. “First, they had to update the way their records sounded technically. One difference between Eighties records and Seventies records is that the drums are sounding better….”

“And the guitars,” interjects Richrath. “Our guitars always used to sound like horseshit.”

“Anyway,” Beamish continues, “I think we accomplished that technical skill on Nine Lives. Then we had to create some group-song identification. People have heard some of their songs before, like ‘Roll with the Changes,’ but a lot of them didn’t know it was REO. That was part of the purpose of Decade [a compilation LP released last year]. So all we needed were some songs AM radio would play, and we’ve got those on Hi Infidelity.

“But it wasn’t some master plan,” says Cronin. “The good thing is that we’re like a new band to a lot of people. It’s the first time they’re hearing about us on a nationwide scale. But we’ve also been around, so we know what it’s like to make records and play big halls and do interviews, and that helps.

“I mean, I can remember when we used to change our phone numbers just because we thought it was cool. Back then, we thought in our own heads that we were the biggest band in the world.”

“I was the biggest guitar player in Peoria,” Richrath adds. “And when I moved to Champaign, I joined the biggest band in Champaign. And then that band became the biggest band in the Midwest. So we’ve always been big — we just didn’t let anyone know about it.”

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