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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…

Let Him Entertain You: An American's Guide to Robbie Williams

“Your country’s refusal to embrace Robbie Williams will forever baffle me.” - Shivrang, New Girl

Dear Citizens of the United States,

You have been missing out.

Great Britain has always had celebrities, songs, and TV shows that don't make it across the ocean and into our pop culture consciousness. For every Bob the Builder and Doctor Who there's a Blue Peter and My Hero. For every Radiohead there's a Super Furry Animals, for every One Direction a Girls Aloud.

Not everything needs to cross over. But, as Shivrang said, the fact that Robbie Williams hasn't is one of the biggest head-scratchers of modern music history. He's got the whole package: catchy radio-ready tunes, great live performances, charm and personality, arresting videos. In the UK all but one of his 11 studio albums have gone to #1 (my favorite 2009's Reality Killed the Video Star only got to #2). He's also had seven #1 singles. In terms of chart performance, Robbie being anonymous here in the US…

REO Speedwagon: Wheels Are Turnin' (1984)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon rushed into the studio to follow up the mega-selling Hi Infidelity, producing Good Trouble. The album sold well and featured two top 40 hits, but was nonetheless seen as a disappointment.

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Part of REO's disappointment with Good Trouble was that they'd felt hurried to complete it. They were also, according to the band's VH1 Behind the Music, seriously overindulging in drugs and alcohol. With their next album, they tried to rectify both of these problems. Kevin Cronin led the band (all save guitarist Gary Richrath) on a campaign of improved diet and exercise, and encouraged everyone to moderate their drinking and drug use. And the group took its time in crafting and choosing the songs that would end up comprising Wheels Are Turnin'. Cronin, Richrath, and drummer Alan Gratzer produced, bringing in David Devore (Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Santana, Foreigner) for production and engineering assistance.

When writing about Good Trouble I r…

REO Speedwagon: Good Trouble (1982)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon became household names with the massive sales of Hi Infidelity and the number 1 hit "Keep On Loving You."

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The common narrative pushed by a certain segment of REO Speedwagon fans and various critics is that the breakthrough of Hi Infidelity led the band to abandon their rock bonafides and become a synth band that mostly wrote ballads.

As direct evidence that this is a false narrative, I offer you Good Trouble. From the organ solo on opener "Keep the Fire Burnin'" to the atmospheric rock of Gary Richrath's "Stillness of the Night," Good Trouble is very much continuous with the REO of 1976 on.

Released in June 1982, meaning the guys barely had a moment to breathe following the mega-tour for Hi Infidelity, Good Trouble is in many ways the yang to its predecessor's yin. While Hi Infidelity was a loose concept album about heartbreak, this one is heavy on love songs and devotionals. Cronin's ballad "Sweet …

REO Speedwagon: High Infidelity (1980)

Where We Left Off:
REO stumbled sales-wise with their hard-rock turn, Nine Lives, threatening the commercial momentum they'd been building. Though losing patience, Epic issued an REO compilation, A Decade of Rock 'n' Roll 1970 - 1980, featuring a couple of tracks from each album. It was a prescient move, as interest in the band would soon skyrocket.

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You knew it was coming. Hi Infidelity, released in November 1980, is the album that made REO Speedwagon household names. After 10 years of languishing in the lower recesses of the rock hierarchy, the band finally broke through. Hi Infidelity would spend fifteen weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, making it the best-selling album of 1981. It spawned four top-25 singles and has sold over 10 million copies to date.

The album's astonishing success is at least partly attributable to a very aggressive radio marketing campaign from Epic (the result, according to Frederic Dannen's 1990 book Hit Men, of the band gifting …

REO Speedwagon: Nine Lives (1979)

Where We Left Off:
With Kevin Cronin back on lead vocals and Bruce Hall replacing Gregg Philbin on bass, REO Speedwagon were finally building sales momentum with two successful albums in a row.

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Nine Lives was released in July of 1979. The title was likely a reference to the fact that it was the band's ninth album (if you include You Get What You Play For), as well as the fact that they'd survived a level of turmoil that would have been the end of a band with less fortitude. There are also nine songs on the album.

Perhaps the most interesting and puzzling thing about this record - both in sound and in presentation - is how much it represented a swerve away from You Can Tune a Piano...You'd think that having finally hit on a successful formula REO would want to repeat it. But on the whole the music on Nine Lives abandons the countryish pop rock of the previous record in favor of a faster, harder sound, way more "Ridin' the Storm Out" than "Time For Me t…

REO Speedwagon: You Can Tune a Piano, But Can You Tuna Fish? (1978)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon finally had a sales success with their 1977 live album, You Get What You Play For. But they lost their bass player, Gregg Philbin.

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REO Speedwagon, though now based out of Los Angeles, returned home to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to find their new bassist. They had a pretty good idea of who they wanted, but they needed to make sure. So they went to a show at the one of their old regular venues, the Red Lion, and sat in with the Jesse Ross Band. That group featured their old friend Bruce Hall, who had co-written "Lost in a Dream" on the album of the same name. It was a covert audition.

Hall recalls that after the gig the REO guys didn't even ask him if he wanted to join, they just sent him a plane ticket to L.A. In the late 1960s Hall had been in a band called Feather Train with Gary Richrath before the latter begged his way into REO Speedwagon. "When Gary left Feather Train, he promised we'd work together again," Hall recal…

One Last Mix for Shalini

Note:
I published this on my author website (www.paulvallen.com) last year, but realized that it fits better here.

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My dear friend Shalini Dhuria Van Hoek died in the early hours of January 2, 2018 after suffering a brain aneurysm two days earlier. She was 43 years old. I met the news – delivered via a Facebook post by her husband Pim – with complete disbelief followed by utter despair. I’d known Shalini for over 18 years. She was the first friend I made upon moving to Minneapolis in the fall of 1999. She was one of the most caring, giving, and funny people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, and it’s a very cruel trick that she’s gone.


Shal and I connected initially, and then continually after that, over a shared love of music, especially live music. Our tastes weren’t exactly alike, but we loved a lot of the same bands – Toad the Wet Sprocket, They Might Be Giants, Matthew Sweet – and were able to turn one another on to a good many others. I made her dozens of mix CDs over the cours…

REO Speedwagon: Live - You Get What You Play For (1977)

Where we left off:
R.E.O. Speedwagon reunited with their second (of three) lead singers, Kevin Cronin, and released R.E.O.. The album didn't produce any hits, nor did it sell well.

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I feel it must be mentioned again how incredibly patient Epic Records was with REO Speedwagon. By 1977 the band had been with the label for 6 years, but had yet to produce anything even approaching a sales success, and yet the label stuck by them. The band, having noticed the disparity between their sales and the ecstatic reception they got at shows (sometimes as headliners, more often at this point still as an opener for artists such as Joe Cocker, J. Geils Band, Rainbow, Heart, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive), proposed a live album. This, they argued, would show fans who hadn't seen them in concert what REO Speedwagon was really capable of.

The massive success of KISS's Alive! and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive made their case for them. And thus Epic issued the double album Live - Y…

REO Speedwagon: R.E.O. (1976)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon fired their lead singer...again! Mike Murphy, who'd piloted three records with the band, was gone, and so began the search for yet another new frontman.

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Here's where things get strange. To replace Murphy, the REO guys (Neal Doughty, Alan Gratzer, Gary Richrath, and Gregg Philbin) auditioned Peoria, Illinois native Gary X. Volz, who was late of a group called the e Band. REO liked what they heard and offered Volz the gig. But the singer worried that the heavy touring rock 'n' roll lifestyle would clash with his values, and declined. (Volz would go on to great success with Christian rock band Petra in the 1980s).

The guys had noted that Volz sounded somewhat like their second singer, Kevin Cronin. And in the years since his departure, Cronin had kept in touch with one of the band's managers, sending along demo of new songs, perhaps in hopes the band would record them or perhaps in hopes of landing management himself. For his part, …

REO Speedwagon: This Time We Mean It (1975)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon's second album with lead singer Michael Murphy (and fourth overall), Lost in a Dream, found them in a collaborative spirit. Though it didn't contain any hits, it was their highest charting record to date.

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This Time We Mean It was a brave title for a record. REO drummer Alan Gratzer says it was a born of frustration, a plea for people to pay attention and start buying their records. But it's very easy to misinterpret as they band saying they were just kind of goofing around up to this point, which we know wasn't the case.

At any rate, the band's fifth album was released just 9 months after their previous record, a clear attempt to build some commercial momentum. . Not surprising since the two groups played shows together and shared a manager in Irving Azoff, REO here seem to be reaching to become the midwest's answer to the Eagles. They brought on Eagles producers Allan Blazek and Bill Szymczyk to record the album. They even co…

REO Speedwagon: Lost in a Dream (1974)

Where We Left Off:
REO rejiggeredRidin' the Storm Outon the fly after losing singer Kevin Cronin during the making of the album. Michael Murphy replaced him.

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Lost in a Dream has the distinction of being the first REO Speedwagon album to feature the same singer as the previous album. Once again helmed by producer Bill Halverson, the album came out just 10 months after its predecessor.

Murphy was fully integrated into REO now, writing or co-writing half the songs on the record. Gary Richrath wrote four more, and keyboardist Neal Doughty offered his first solo composition, the rollicking "Sky Blues." Murphy's songs integrate well with Richrath's, in some case working in the same boogie woogie blues milieu ("Do Your Best" and "You Can Fly") but in other places pushing the band toward a more groovy pop direction ("Give Me a Ride (Roller Coaster)" sounds like it could have scored a montage in a Scooby Doo episode, and that's not inten…