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Since You're Gone: A Ric Ocasek Appreciation

Ric Ocasek passed away yesterday, and my heart sank when I saw the news. Don't know what you got 'til its gone and all that, but it's difficult to anticipate whose passing is going to affect you and how, and thinking about it too much is ghoulish anyway. The bottom line is that Ric Ocasek has had an outsize impact on the development of my music fandom, and I hadn't truly reflected on that fact until today.

Like my fellow Gen-Xers, I grew up hearing Cars songs as part of the tapestry of everyday life. "Magic" at the waterpark, "Moving in Stereo" in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, "Drive" on a car ride at night (how perfect!), "You Might Think" and "Just What I Needed" at the mall or mini-golf course. I knew all the songs but couldn't name the band.

Freshman year of college I conducted an intensive self-education in pop music that started with greatest hits albums by "important" bands. During a rare trip to th…
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REO Speedwagon: Find Your Own Way Home (2007)

Where We Left Off:
REO Speedwagon's 1996 album Building the Bridge was their first album not to chart since 1972's R.E.O./T.W.O.. But their appeal as a live concert draw continued to grow, especially as nostalgia for the 1970s and 1980s built.

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Though 11 years between albums certainly seems egregious, REO did release some new music during that span. The 1999 Epic compilation The Ballads featured two new love songs, "Just For You" (written by Kevin Cronin with Jim Peterik from Survivor) and "Til the River Runs Dry" (by Cronin and singer-songwriter Jimmy Scott).

But it would be another 8 years before new REO music appeared on the shelves. According to Cronin, a 2000 tour with Styx - specifically seeing a new generation of fans singing along with the old songs - lit a fire under the band to start working up new material again.

The result was Find Your Own Way Home, which came out in April 2007. The band self-released the record, and cut a deal with XM Satelli…

REO Speedwagon: Building the Bridge (1996)

Where We Left Off:
REO Speedwagon, like so many '80s arena rock giants, got chopped up by the early 1990s alternative buzzsaw. Their 1990 album The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken was their worst-performing release in more than a decade. After sticking with the band for two rollercoaster decades, Epic dropped them.

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With no label, REO Speedwagon essentially started over in the early 1990s. After a hiatus during which guitarist Dave Amato toured with Cher and Richie Sambora, the band began taking gigs wherever they could get them. They went back to playing clubs and fairs, trying to win fans one show at a time the way they had in the early 1970s. It wasn't easy, and there were times when the future of the band was in serious doubt, but eventually it started to work.

Granted, they weren't so much adding new fans as they were reminding older ones they were still around. As singer Kevin Cronin put it in a 1996 interview with the Orange County Register, "The fa…

REO Speedwagon: The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken (1990)

Where We Left Off:
After the release of The Hits in 1988, founding drummer Alan Gratzer and guitarist Gary Richrath quit REO Speedwagon.

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According to REO bassist Bruce Hall, there was never any question about whether REO should continue on after losing two key members. He told Malcom Dome, "as long as we had Kevin [Cronin], then we had the man whose voice was the most identifiable part of the band." It sounds a bit mercenary, but then REO's history had always been about survival and moving forward. "Roll with the changes," indeed.

According to Cronin, there was a moment of truth where the rest of the band (sans Gratzer, who quit first) might have chosen to stay with him or go with Richrath. This creates a fascinating alternate reality in which REO finds its fourth singer, a new drummer, and once again becomes Richrath's band.

But here in our timeline, REO recruited drummer Graham Lear (known for his work with Gino Vannelli) to replace Gratzer. At the begi…

REO Speedwagon: The Hits (1988)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon's 1987 album Life As We Know It didn't sell up to typical standards, but even worse, cracks were forming in the band's solidarity.

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REO Speedwagon have approximately five different career-spanning compilations floating around out there, but 1988's The Hits is the only one I'll be writing about. Why? Well, partly because it features the final two appearances of the band in its classic configuration, and partly because its as sturdily-constructed a hits compilation as you'll ever find. 

(It also happens to be the first album by them I owned. I bought it my freshman year of college, and it served as the soundtrack for no less than three doomed crushes.)


I have a set of rules about hits collections that I hold sacred. Namely, that the songs should be presented in chronological order, live versions and remixes should be omitted, and that no new songs should be included. The Hits violates all of these and yet somehow still manages to suc…

The Unlikely Musical Life of Tom Kelly

You may not know the name Tom Kelly, but I guarantee that you've sung along to songs he wrote. 

Born in West Lafayette, Indiana in 1952, Tom moved to Effingham, Illinois when he was 11 years old, just in time to witness the Beatles' debut on Ed Sullivan. Bit by the rock music bug, he joined a local band called the Trifaris, singing and playing bass. His family moved back to Indiana in '66. When Tom finished high school, he decided to go to college in Illinois, but his choice was made based on extracurricular factors, not academic ones. "I started at Eastern [Illinois University] because there was a band,” he told the Effingham Daily News in 2011, “Then I transferred to Southern [Illinois University] because there was another band.” 
Champaign, Illinois  Continuing his college hopping, Tom headed closer to home to attend Purdue, and there he had a group called The Gaping Huggers, comprised of former fellow Trifari JC Marshall on drums, and University of Illinois student D…

REO Speedwagon: Life As We Know It (1987)

Where We Left Off:
Wheels Are Turnin' was REO Speedwagon's third consecutive multi-million selling album, producing the #1 hit "Can't Fight This Feeling."


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Produced by the same team as Wheels Are Turnin' (Cronin, Richrath, Gratzer, and David DeVore), Life As We Know It was recorded while when Kevin Cronin was going through a divorce. He says making the album was a welcome distraction from his family falling apart. At the same time, his relationship with Gary Richrath was fraught with tension.

That set of circumstances played a huge part in the album's lyrical content, and knowing the record was the last one for the band's classic line-up makes for an intriguing listen. For example, it's commonly held that "Too Many Girlfriends," a tune about someone running too hot for too long, is Cronin taking a shot at Richrath. This is most evident in the self-referencing line, "he better find the one / he's gonna take on the run / before it…