REO Speedwagon ‘The Classic Years: 1978-1990’ (2019)
REO Speedwagon ‘The Classic Years: 1978-1990’ (Cherry Red Records 2019)
On the heels of their eight disc ‘The Early Years 1971-1977’ Cherry Red Records, UK completes the story of REO Speedwagon’s Epic Records’ years with the incredible nine disc, one hundred twenty nine track box set ‘The Classic Years 1978-1990’ which contains the seven studio albums released by the band during this period, supplemented by a disc of demos and live promo recordings from 1980 and a disc of selected live recordings from the period, including all of the band’s best known and loved songs. During the “classic” years, six of the band’s seven albums hit the Top 40, three making the Top 10 and one reaching #1. In addition, the band registered thirteen Top 40 singles, four reaching the Top 10, with two hitting #1, making them one of the most successful bands of the period.
‘The Classic Years’ opens with 1978’s ‘You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish’ the first recorded by REO’s classic lineup of Kevin Cronin on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Gary Richrath on lead guitar, Neal Doughty on keyboards, Bruce Hall on bass and Alan Gratzer on drums. The album is a great mix of rock tunes written by guitarist Richrath and more pop influenced numbers penned by Cronin. The LP opens with two Cronin songs, ‘Roll With The Changes’ and ‘Time For Me To Fly’ which when released as singles failed to crack the Top 40, but were harbingers of the hits which would follow. These commercially appealing tunes are joined by Richrath rockers such as ‘Runnin’ Blind’ and the amusingly near title track titled ‘The Unidentified Flying Tuna Trot.’ ‘You Can Tune A Piano’ became REO’s first LP to reach the Top 40, topping out at #29 and selling more than two million copies. This double platinum offering was, in reality, the album that marked the beginning of REO’s glory days as both an incredible live act, which they have always been and continue to be, and multi-million record selling rock superstars. The nine tracks of ‘You Can Tune A Piano’ are joined by long and short versions of ‘Roll With The Changes’ and the single edit of ‘Time For Me To Fly’ as well as seven live tracks including such early classics as ‘157 Riverside Avenue’, the Gary Richrath autobiographical ‘Son Of A Poor Man’ and the Richrath penned title track from the group’s third album ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ in addition to the Cronin penned Speedwagon staples ‘(I Believe) Our Time Is Gonna Come’ and ‘Keep Pushin’’.
1979 brought ‘Nine Lives’ the ninth album by REO which served up nine tracks of the band at its hard rocking best. The LP was again a mix of Cronin and Richrath songs, but also included a collaboration by the two, the album opener ‘Heavy On Your Love’ as well as a Bruce Hall track, the aptly titled ‘Back On The Road Again’ which indeed described the hard working nature of the band. ‘Nine Lives’ also features the group’s cover of the Chuck Berry classic ‘Rock & Roll Music’ something the quintet knew a lot about. Despite the quality of its material ‘Nine Lives’ did not fare as well as its predecessor peaking at only #33 on the charts and attaining only gold record status. The LP also marked a transition period in the group’s sound, being the last to rely on edgy hard rock tunes as REO moved toward a mix of pop rock influenced songs, mainly written by Kevin Cronin, mixed with Richrath penned rock numbers. Highlights of the album include the Richrath rockers ‘Only The Strong Survive’ and ‘Easy Money’ which were paired as the album’s lone single that sadly failed to chart, and the gentler Cronin tracks ‘Drop It (An Old Disguise)’ and ‘I Need Your Love Tonight’ which hinted at REO’s more pop rock oriented hits which were soon to follow. Three bonus tracks are added on this set, the single edit of ‘Easy Money’ as well as extended live takes on two REO classics, an epic twelve and a half minute take on ‘157 Riverside Avenue’ credited to the REO lineup which released their self titled 1971 debut, vocalist Terry Luttrell and bassist Gregg Philbin, as well as Richrath, Doughty and Gratzer, and a six minute version of Richrath’s ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ which has been a staple of the band’s live set since its original release in 1973.
REO’s next release would catapult them into rock super stardom, with 1980’s ‘Hi Infidelity’ spending an incredible sixty five weeks on the Billboard charts, thirty two of them in the Top 20 and an amazing fifteen at #1. The album also marked the first time the band had a single reach the Top 40, with four of its tracks making the top 25. The first single taken from the LP paired the Cronin ballad ‘Keep On Loving You’ with Richrath’s rocker ‘Follow My Heart’ and was the band’s first #1 single, selling more than a million copies to attain platinum record status. The follow up single, Richrath’s hard rocking ‘Take It On The Run’ featuring a memorable lead guitar line and solo by its writer, backed by bassist Hall’s ‘Someone Tonight’ was a Top 10 seller, peaking at #5 and achieving gold record status. The third single from ‘Hi Infidelity’ was another Cronin pop influenced track ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ which backed by the heavier Richrath composition ‘Follow My Heart’ crested at #24 and gave REO even more AM radio airplay, but the band was not finished as the LP’s final single featured a toned down Richrath number ‘In Your Letter’ paired with a harder edged track also written by the guitarist ‘’Shakin’ It Loose’ which reached #20 on the charts and was featured in a light hearted video which received lots of air time on MTV. In the end, eight of the ten tracks included on ‘Hi Infidelity’ were included on 45’s with only two Cronin tracks, the rocking ‘Tough Guys’ and the more restrained ‘I Wish You Were There’ being the exceptions. ‘Hi Infidelity’ sold an amazing ten million copies and opened doors making REO Speedwagon the toast of the record industry and furthered their already huge draw as a live act. Not only did the LP mark the band’s high water mark sales wise, but it remains the favorite of the band members to this day as they knew they had captured a magical moment in the rock music period.
Disc four of ‘The Classic Years 1978-1990’ titled ‘Hi Infidelity Bonus Tracks’ opens with demo versions of nine of the ten tracks included on ‘Hi Infidelity.’ The band has always said that the released album tracks are virtual duplications of the LP’s demos as they were unable to top the spontaneity and creativity of the original versions, with Cronin’s ‘Out Of Season’ the sole track not included in its demo take. Also included on this incredible set are live promos of the four single a-sides which present the band in an intimate setting and are a most welcome addition. The disc closes with a 1989 reggae version of ‘Keep On Loving You’ recorded live and providing a most interesting contrast to the band’s biggest hit.
How to follow up the incredible success of ‘Hi Infedility’ presented a challenge to the band whose management and label were anxious for the band to do as quickly as possible. The group felt pressured to release not just another solid album, but also to continue their presence on the AM radio airwaves with hit singles. The finished product, 1982’s ‘Good Trouble’ felt rushed by the band as the members of REO would like to have had more time to work on the arrangements and to polish the performances of the song’s included, with Kevin Cronin especially in favor of holding off the album’s release. But in the end he was overruled and the LP hit record shops on June 11th. The LP is a fine piece of work in its on right and reached #7 on the charts, selling more than two million copies, becoming their second biggest selling long player. ‘Good Trouble’ followed the now familiar mix of Richrath’s heavier, guitar dominated rockers with Cronin’s more balladish pop influenced songs, with each contributing four tracks while bassist Bruce Hall wrote the album’s other two tunes. A telling fact is that only one of the LP’s songs has ever been performed live by the band, that being an acoustic version of Cronin’s ‘Keep The Fire Burnin’’ which when released as a single, backed by Richrath’s heavier ‘I’ll Follow You’ hit #7 and gave the band plenty of radio and MTV airtime. The album’s second single paired Cronin’s ‘Sweet Time’ with Richrath’s rockier ‘Stillness Of The Night’ and reached #26. However, the Cronin track ‘The Key’ backed by the Richrath/Hall tune ‘Let’s Be-Bop’ failed to crack Hot 100 chart as did the Richrath penned ‘Stillness Of The Night’ when released as an a-side as did the album’s title track, a Cronin composition One could argue it was a case of the label trying too hard to keep the hits rolling, rather than the quality of the tunes that was responsible for the failure of the releases. As had been the case with ‘Hi Infidelity’ only two tracks from the LP did not see single release, as the band’s commercial viability had become apparent to Epic, which was happy to exploit the situation. This in turn kept the pressure on the band, especially Cronin and Richrath to keep writing and recording commercially accessible tunes, a challenge that the band, to their credit, was able to meet for some time, as REO became a hit making machine, while not losing their edge as a high powered live attraction, something few bands are capable of.
It was two years before REO released their next album, 1984’s ‘Wheels Are Turnin’, the band’s eleventh studio album, which also peaked at #7 on the charts and sold over two million copies, but was much more to the band’s liking. Unlike previous LP’s, however, this was much more a Kevin Cronin album, as he wrote or co-wrote six of the nine tracks, while Richrath was credited on only three, with Bruce Hall contributing one track, and keyboard player Neal Doughty penned ‘One Lonely Night’ which reached #19 as a single. Three of Cronin’s tunes hit the Top 40, with the album’s first single, ‘I Do’ Wanna Know’ peaking at #29 and its last single ‘Live Every Moment’ reaching #34. It was the album’s second single, Cronin’s ballad ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling’ which gave REO their second #1 single, and definitely boosted album sales, as the band continued its move toward pop rock on their albums while remaining a powerhouse hard rocking live act. The Richrath contributions continued to be the heaviest, as evidenced by the guitar driven rockers ‘Gotta Feel More’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ co-written with Cronin, both featuring tasty lead guitar lines and fiery solos by Richrath complimented by Doughty’s fine work on keyboards, harkening back to the days of ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ released during the period when Cronin took a three album leave of absence from the band. The nine tracks of ‘Wheels Are Turnin’’ are supplemented by six bonus tracks, a short version of ‘I Do’ Wanna Know’, the single edit of ‘Live Every Moment’, a remix of ‘Wherever You’re Goin’ (It’s Alright)’, as well as the version of the same tune used in the movie ‘The Goonies OST’ along with long and short radio versions of ‘Gotta Feel More.’
The change in REO’s recorded output had become evident, and was reflected in the fact that it was three years before the band released its twelfth and final studio album to feature guitarist Gary Richrath, with the tension between he and Cronin on the band’s direction coming to a head. This would also prove to be the final album to feature founding member Alan Gratzer on drums, who retired from music to spend more time with his family. As for the music on the appropriately titled ‘Life As We Know It’ six of the ten songs were written or co-written by Kevin Cronin, with Gary Richrath involved in the writing of two, with bassist Bruce Hall and Doughty contributing one each. As with its predecessors, the Richrath tunes are the rockers, ‘Screams And Whispers’ is a haunting number with Richrath’s guitar to the fore, his lead line and solos accompanied by Doughty’s keyboards reminiscent of ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ vintage Speedwagon, and the aptly titled ‘Over The Edge’ hinting at the turmoil within the band, with Richrath’s guitar remaining rather restrained until mid-tune when he turns the heat up leading into a classic Gary Richrath solo which defined the edgy hard rock that REO Speedwagon was built upon and which has always been a centerpiece of their live shows. On this tune Richrath’s guitar is as fiery as it had ever been. Kevin Cronin contributes two of the singles taken from the album, written in his familiar pop rock ballad style, and both Top 20 hits, ‘That Ain’t Love’ and ‘In My Dreams’ which peaked at #16 and #19 respectively. Neal Doughty contributed the LP’s third single, the rocker ‘Variety Tonight’ which sadly faltered at #60 ‘Life As We Know It’ was REO Speedwagon’s last Top 40 album, topping out at #29 and achieving gold record status, a fitting finale for the classic lineup of Cronin, Richrath, Doughty, Hall and Gratzer. The albums ten tracks are supplemented by four bonus tracks, the single edit of ‘Variety Tonight’ and the radio edit of ‘Here With Me’ as well as two final tracks recorded with Richrath and Gratzer, ‘I Don’t Want To Lose You’ written by long time Speedwagon collaborators Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg and Kevin Cronin’s ‘Here With Me’ both included on the 1988 compilation ‘The Hits’ with the latter tune being Speedwagon’s last Top 40 hit to date, reaching #20 on the charts. Thus ended the seventeen year, thirteen album (12 studio and 1 live) lifespan of the definitive lineup of REO Speedwagon, and with it the end of the band’s halcyon days as perennial chart topping recording artists, although the band’s story was far from complete and they had one last chapter to add to their Epic Records period.
Three more years would pass before the final REO Speedwagon album on Epic Records appeared. In 1990 with the new lineup of Kevin Cronin on lead vocals and acoustic guitar (notable in representing Speedwagon’s evolution from the hard rocking quintet of the 70’s), Neal Doughty on Hammond Organ, Bruce Hall on bass, Jesse Harms on keyboards and backing vocals, Dave Amato on lead guitar and backing vocals and Bryan Hitt on drums and percussion released the typically humorously titled ‘The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog And A Chicken.’ Not only did the band feature the new lineup, but the album is composed of an almost equal mix of Cronin and Harms tunes, with Cronin writing or co-writing seven of twelve tracks and Harms six, The LP certainly deserved a better fate than it received, as Amato contributes some very tasty guitar although the sound is dominated by the keyboards of Doughty and Harms. The first single plucked from the album, Harms’ ‘Live It Up’ failed to chart, while the second, Cronin’s ‘Love Is A Rock’ faded at #65. The album, certainly not helped by its title, and alienating long time fans by the absence of Richrath’s guitar in particular, was largely overlooked by the record buying public and stalled at #129. The album marked the end of REO Speedwagon’s two decade relationship with Epic Records, and for all intents and purposes marked the end of the band as a recording unit. It did not, however, end the band’s live appeal, and the present lineup of Cronin, Amato, Hall, Doughty and Hitt has carried on the REO speedwagon legacy for thirty years and counting, making it by far the longest running lineup. The eleven album tracks are joined by five bonus tracks, album and single versions of ‘All Hell Broke Loose’ written by Harms and Doughty, containing more guitar and more vocals respectively, the radio edit of Cronin’s ‘Just For You’ as well as the full length version of Cronin’s ‘Just For You’ and Cronin’s ‘’Til The Rivers Run Dry’ taken from the compilation ‘The Ballads.’
Disc nine is a treat indeed, consisting of seventeen specially selected live performances, 78 minutes of prime time REO Speedwagon, recorded between 1980 and 1990, the disc is appropriately titled ‘Live Again.’ The band, long considered better in concert than in the studio, drives the point home with the live documents found here. The earliest performances are a 1980 East Troy, WI run through Richrath’s ‘Say You Love Me Or Say Goodnight’ and a Denver show in 1981, with spirited renditions of Cronin’s pop rock classic ‘Roll With The Changes’ and the Richrath penned REO signature song ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out.’ There are spirited 1983 takes on ‘Roll With The Changes’ and Cronin’s ‘Keep The Fire Burnin’’ from a Rockford, IL gig. A 1984 Indianapolis rendition of the band’s biggest hit ‘Keep On Lovin’ You’ is met with sheer delight by an appreciative audience. A 1985 Kansas City concert finds the band hitting on all cylinders on four Cronin tunes, ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ ‘Tough Guys’ ‘I Do’ Wanna Know’ and the classic ballad ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling’ while Speedwagon lets it all hang out in a roaring take on Richrath’s ‘Take It On The Run’ with the composer’s guitar blazing away. Richrath in particular shines on a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ a song REO never recorded in the studio, taken from a 1985 Indianapolis show. Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis is the source of two 1987 recordings, the early REO anthem ‘Time For Me To Fly’ and Cronin’s mellow pop rocker ‘That Ain’t Love.’ The band rocks up Bruce Hall’s ‘Back On The Road Again’ taken from Honolulu in 1989, while the sole recording by the post-Richrath and Gratzer REO is a take on Jesse Harms’ ‘Live It Up’ taken from a 1990 Grand Rapids, IA, during his short tenure in the band.
‘The Classic Years 1978-1990’ comes in a clamshell box with each of the nine discs housed in cardboard mini-LP sleeves. The set is accompanied by a full color forty page booklet with full track listings, illustrated with album and single artwork as well as other band memorabilia and an informative essay by Malcolm Domes. The band has never sounded better thanks to the mastering job of Tony Dixon at Masterpiece, London. The box set contains 129 tracks, 68 from the seven studio albums released during the period supplemented by an incredible 61 bonus tracks including all the appropriate single edits, demos and alternate versions, and a plethora of live recordings, making this box set the absolute last word on REO Speedwagon’s ‘Classic Years 1978-1990’, and combined with Cherry Red’s 2018 eight disc ‘The Early Years 1971-1977’ amasses all 136 tracks taken from the thirteen studio and one live albums released between 1971 and 1990, supplemented by a total of 75 bonus cuts, a total of 211 tracks, and giving the record buyer every album track and single edit (many in mono) released by REO Speedwagon on Epic Records, supplemented by many extras, most important of which are the previously unreleased live recordings which serve as proof positive that REO was much more than a hit making machine who accumulated five gold and eight platinum albums, as well as two gold and one platinum single among the over forty million records they sold. As incredible as those numbers are, and as unbelievable as it might sound to the reader, REO Speedwagon was always first and foremost a hard working, hard rocking live act, capable of filling huge venues, which they continue to be to this day, some five decades and counting since their humble beginnings in Champaign, IL. I cannot express in words the loving care with which Cherry Red Records, UK, compiled the two box sets, ‘The Early Years 1971-1977’ and ‘The Classic Years 1978-1990’ which taken together serve as definitive documentation of REO Speedwagon, one of, if not the biggest rock band to arise out of the Midwest US in the 1970’s. Both box sets are absolutely essential to fans of classic rock and cannot be recommended highly enough.
– Kevin Rathert