Long before lead singer Kevin Cronin was spending almost as much time in a hair salon managing his curls as he was in a recording studio, REO SpeedWagon was a hungry, full-of-piss-and-vinegar rock and roll band still looking for it’s first big radio hit.
Until that happened, REO SpeedWagon was a touring entity out of Champaign, Illinois that had built up a tremendous following across the United States playing in small clubs and mid-size venues. Their music had a raw, lookin’-to-bust-out quality that endeared them to hard-charging beer-drinking blue collar workers everywhere.
And then they got famous and REO SpeedWagon decided it was better to sound like a hybrid of STYX and Journey.
Until that occurred – REO SpeedWagon was a true working man’s band. In fact, I would go as far as saying that REO Speedwagon took the guise of three distinct entities: the first incarnation of the band that you see at the start of their second album R.E.O. T.W.O. which saw Kevin Cronin take over for original vocalist Terry Luttrel. The second version of REO SpeedWagon kicked in when Cronin took a “leave of absence” (o-k, he left due to creative headbutting) and was ably replaced by Mke Murphy, and then the band’s final line-up in 1976 with R.E.O which marked the return of a more focused Kevin Cronin and their home-run stretch when REO SpeedWagon literally attacked the hit-radio format and produced some of their most radio-friendly songs to an entirely new audience.
The song that turned the tide for them was the 1981 slow dancing-in-the-disco ballad “Keep on Lovin’ You”. Until then, REO SpeedWagon had already been playing the sheds for 10 years and was performing the type of kickass rock and roll that hadn’t been heard since Joe Walsh was playing with the James Gang. I submit to you then that REO SpeedWagon’s “top ten songs” don’t include the top-ten radio fodder of the late-70’s and early 1980’s, but can be found in their earlier less commercial efforts.
1) “Keep Pushin'” (1976) Marked the return of Kevin Cronin after he was earlier shown the door due to creative friction. A great team effort by the band and a low-charting hit, but still well received by their fans. Another can’t-miss number forever used on the concert trail.
2) “Roll with the Changes”(1978). From the album “You Can Tune a Piano but you can’t Tune a Fish”. Clearly REO was on the brink of something big as their fist top-40 hit proves. As high-octane a song as you’re ever going to find. This album alone can make up a near top-ten list of favourites. “Roll with the Changes” is one of their best efforts and quickly became a concert staple for years to come.
3) “Ridin’ the Storm Out” (1973) Title cut from the album of the same name that has reached near anthemic proportions for REO fans. One of the few hits produced by Mike Murphy while Kevin Cronin was on hiatus. Continued to translate well long after Murphy was gone.
4) “Blazin’ your own Trail Again” (1978) also off the “You can tune a pianoÃ¢Â?Â¦” album. “Blazin’ your own Train Again” is more than a by-the-numbers rock and roll tune. It’s simply fun to listen to! A great tune for the beachÃ¢Â?Â¦.for working outÃ¢Â?Â¦or when you’re on the road thinking back to when you had more hair.
5) “Say You Love Me Or Say Goodnight” (1978) Another great sing-this-to-the-girl-you-just-met-before-the-club-closes tune! Certainly had far more meaning when you’re in your early 20’s. Still stands up pretty good almost 30 years later.
And now rounding out the top tenÃ¢Â?Â¦Ã¢Â?Â¦Ã¢Â?Â¦
6) “Back on the Road Again” (1979) From the “Nine Lives” album. Nicely done ballad that benefits from Kevin Cronin keeping his mouth shut. Instead, Bruce Hall sings the vocals and does a nice job bringing some real emotion to this simply done number.
7) “Only the Strong Survive”
8) “Keep on Lovin’ You” (1981). Put this one under “Honourable Mention”. REO’s first big hit off their “Hi Infidelity” album. I hate to admit but this really did kind of grow on you when it first came out. REO was beginning to dig themselves a whole with this one. Long time fans were getting irled at this sudden switch to ballads after a decade or so of rock and roll. Not nearly enjoyable when I listened to it while writing this article.
9)”The Unidentified Flying Tuna Trot” (1978) fun little instrumental number that is joy to listen to while on the road or when making peanut butter and bananna sandwhiches on a Saturday afternoon for your kids.
10) “Lightning”. SimpleÃ¢Â?Â¦effectiveÃ¢Â?Â¦and I like the title!
The last 15 years for the band was one marked by arguments, drug and alcohol problems, members leaving, breaking up and coming back. The highpoint (or low-point depending on how you look at it) may have been when REO SpeedWagon teamed up with Styx and released the album Arch Allies-Live At Riverport, which featured the two bands jamming together on each other’s respective hits.
A new album is due is late 2006 or 2007 and what’s even better is Kevin Cronin now sports short hair.