Skip to main content

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.


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 beginning of the video for 1988's "I Don't Want to Lose You" you can see Gratzer literally pass the drumsticks to Graham and wish him luck. Once Richrath left, guitarist Miles Joseph (a well traveled L.A. backup player) took over. Both replacement players had played with Cronin and Hall in a for-fun side project called The Strolling Dudes.

But those two were only temporary, as it turns out, as the band soon brought in drummer Bryan Hitt and guitarist Dave Amato. Hitt was a Texas native who'd played with the likes of Cher, Graham Nash, and Wang Chung. Massachusetts native Amato was known for his vocal and guitar session work and a stint in Ted Nugent's band. Amato is reported to have said that joining REO was appealing because "every song has a guitar solo."

REO also brought in another keyboardist, Jesse Harms. Harms had worked most prominently with both Van Halen singers, playing on David Lee Roth's Eat 'Em and Smile as well as several Sammy Hagar solo albums dating back to 1984. As strange as it was to add a second keyboardist, Harms was likely brought in for his songwriting ability more than anything else.

The first album by this new configuration was given the laborious title The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken - a literal description of the album art - and appeared in late summer 1990.

The songwriting was much more of a committee effort than on past REO albums, with seven of the eleven tracks attributed to more than one writer, and several outside songwriters participating. This is a bit of a head-scratcher, since the band already had two talented songwriters in Doughty and Hall, and yet those two have no songs here outside of a couple of co-writes.

In fact, since my write-up for Good Trouble I've been refuting the commonly-held notion that the success of Hi Infidelity led the band to abandon their rock roots and go after synth-driven radio hits. It simply didn't happen that way, but The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken is the first of their albums where the criticism has some merit. Because of all of these extenuating circumstances , it's difficult to take the album purely at face value.

Cronin's "Love is a Rock" starts things off promisingly. Centered on an acoustic strum, a sparkly synth hook, and heavenly harmonies, this statement of devotion would end up being the band's last charting single, getting up to #65 on the Billboard 100.

From there, the record can be pretty cleanly split into "rockers" and "ballads."

The ballads - in theory the band's strength - are miss and hit. "The Heart Survives" (a Cronin/Harms cowrite) and "All Heaven Broke Loose" (written by Cronin, Doughty, and guitarist Adrian Gurvitz) are both fine songs, but are also somewhat boilerplate. The shiny, crystalline production doesn't help that. "Love In the Future" (written by Cronin and Tom Kelly) has a more organic feel, but the direct, well-intentioned lyrics about environmental stewardship can't quite rise above it being a "message song." More successful are "Half Way" (written by Cronin, Harms, and Mark Spiro, who'd worked with Cheap Trick and Julian Lennon) and "Can't Lie to My Heart" (written by Cronin with once-and-future hitmaker Diane Warren). The former rides a strong vocal and female backing singers to that classic REO ballad vibe. And the latter is melodically rich and soaring, with Dave Amato doing an effective Richrath impression.

The rockers are a similarly mixed bag. For one thing, the band had dabbled in "hard" rock before, most prominently on Nine Lives, but their rock had always had elements of boogie woogie, blues, and country. Those genres aren't really present in songs like "Live It Up" (written by Harms) , "Love to Hate" (Also Harms), and "Go For Broke" (cowritten by Harms, Cronin, Hall, and Amato), instead falling more in line with the generic polished hard rock of bands such as Warrant and Winger that were popular at the time. Cronin's "You Won't See Me" (not a cover of the Beatles song), is more familiar, thanks to a twangy guitar riff and brassy eff-you lyrics. The other standout in this group is the propulsive "L.I.A.R.," the first REO song credited to the entire band (Cronin, Doughty, Hall, Amato, Hitt) since their 1971 debut. The title acronym stands for "love is all right," and had this song come out a couple of years earlier, it might have been a fairly significant hit.


The Earth, a Small Man, His Dog, and a Chicken was REO's worst performing album, chartwise, since 1976's R.E.O., and their lowest-selling record since Nine Lives in 1979. Harms left the band after the tour. The poor reception, along with the early 1990s ascendance of grunge and alternative music, would effectively send REO Speedwagon into temporary dormancy. It would be six years before they'd release new music.


Popular posts from this blog

Big Bad Eddie (Is Sweet Edward Now)

I wasn't surprised this week when I heard the news that Eddie Van Halen had left our mortal realm. For one, 2020 has been such a parade of awful news that nothing terrible is shocking anymore. For another, I knew Eddie had been reckoning with cancer for a long time. And for yet another, we're all just visitors here, but Eddie was especially so. We were lucky to get him for as long as we did. * With the inordinate number of monumental musicians we've lost since David Bowie's death in January 2016, it feels like my music writing has been approximately 75% eulogies. These essays have developed a predictable formula wherein I detail my personal history with that person's music. I fear the familiarity of that risks diminishing their impact, so for Eddie I wanted to honor his sense of innovation with my own. But there's a reason that formula came about. Ever since I was a teenager, the primary goal of my writing has been discovery. In the process of writing, I learn w

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. * 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 "T

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." * 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