In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1981: REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity
On the surface, there isn’t much that’s interesting about REO Speedwagon. They were one of many rock bands alongside Journey, Styx, Foreigner, and Boston that got big in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by making clean, bright, and hooky-sounding music without having much of a public image. These bands would get radio play, sell lots of records, and regularly fill arenas without getting much love from critics who derisively labeled these acts as corporate rock.
But amid this crowded competition, REO Speedwagon rose far above their contemporaries with their 1980 album Hi Infidelity. The album spent 15 weeks at #1 from February to June 1981 knocked out two times by Styx’s Paradise Theatre before going back to the top. In the process, it overcame the public’s mourning of John Lennon to outsell him and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by a big margin to become 1981’s biggest-selling album alongside Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits, Christopher Cross, and Crimes of Passion. Hi Infidelity has gone on to sell over 10 million copies now certified as Diamond with all four singles reaching the Top 30. It’s not a particularly special album but it struck a nerve with Americans in 1981. REO Speedwagon was able to capture the zeitgeist in a way that their studio rock peers couldn’t.
Hi Infidelity was REO Speedwagon’s ninth album in a group that had waited a long time for their big commercial breakthrough. The origins of REO Speedwagon date back to the late ‘60s at the University of Illinois when students Neal Doughty and Alan Gratzer first met creating a band with friends naming themselves REO Speedwagon, an old truck model after Doughty saw it in his transportation history class. At first, the band was largely a college act performing at frat parties and campus events while new members came in most notably guitarist Gary Richrath. As the band grew, they signed a record deal with Epic Records releasing their self-titled debut album in 1971 which didn’t make much impact. Soon after, original singer Terry Luttrell left the band being replaced by Kevin Cronin who also left after the second album but after a couple more albums with different singers, Cronin came back to the band for good in 1976.
By the time Cronin re-joined REO Speedwagon, the band had begun to hit their stride. Those early albums were far from big hits but through their growing fanbase began to sell steadily with some of those albums going platinum. REO Speedwagon, like a lot of rock bands, grew their fanbase through nonstop touring which helped them a lot in their Midwest base being able to fill arenas in cities like St. Louis while they were complete unknowns everywhere else. But all that performing helped their music get bigger with 1978’s hilariously titled You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish becoming their first album to reach the Top 40 peaking at #29 and going double platinum. Singles-wise, the album gave them their biggest hits yet with the biggest being the classic rock staple “Time For Me To Fly” which peaked at #56 on the Hot 100.
After almost a decade together, REO Speedwagon had been slowly working toward success but was still looking for a big mainstream breakthrough. Like Fleetwood Mac before them, the members started taking inspiration from their personal lives as they had gone through some turmoil with their partners. Kevin Cronin had found out his wife had cheated on him before they married and Gary Richrath and his girlfriend were going through relationship troubles. Pretty soon, songs began pouring out speaking to their personal troubles which had the band going into new directions.
Most notably, Cronin had written his own song about him and his wife’s situation declaring he’ll love her no matter what. That song, “Keep On Loving You,” was a ballad which didn’t go well with the hard rock image REO Speedwagon had up to that point. But Richrath started playing a heavy guitar riff over the song which helped sell the other members on the song. That turned out to be a good decision considering the song became the album’s biggest hit and the band’s first #1 hit. It also played a major role in the rise of the power ballad in rock that by the end of the ‘80s was what most rock bands were doing to get that big pop crossover smash. It follows a lot of the tricks: a slow intro that continuously gets bigger and louder, wailing guitar solo, melodramatic vocals. You know the drill.
Hi Infidelity is what you could call a loose concept album on the band members’ relationship troubles. You could easily place it alongside Rumours or in today’s world next to one of Taylor Swift’s albums. But unlike those albums, Hi Infidelity isn’t exactly an album where you have to get all invested in the situations of the band members largely because REO Speedwagon aren’t famous enough and at the time were a new band to many who didn’t know much about them. Plus, it’s not like Hi Infidelity is an album made for lyrical analysis. Instead, it’s an album made for car rides and background noise, the type of music you can listen to and not think much of what the lyrics are about.
For the most part, REO Speedwagon on Hi Infidelity are a typical sounding rock group. You can clearly hear their years of experience throughout with lots of clean precision thanks to the band and producer Kevin Beamish in each instrument. There’s nothing that stands out too much about the playing though the keyboard solo and Bo Diddley-like beat on the album opener “Don’t Let Him Go” is cool. The songs, particularly the big hits, still make for killer arena singalongs. Anytime you hear “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On The Run,” how can you not wave your phone with the light on, sing along, and play air guitar to the solo.
Compared to their studio rock contemporaries, REO Speedwagon hasn’t exactly endured in the public imagination. Where people today still know and sing along to the hits of Journey and Foreigner, I’ve never heard the same appreciation for REO Speedwagon. That could be because even for their genre, they didn’t stand out. Vocally, Kevin Cronin doesn’t have the soulful tenor of a Steve Perry, the blues howling of Lou Gramm, or the theatrical over singing of a Dennis DeYoung. Instead, Cronin has a very reedy and pedestrian voice that compared to those vocal peers doesn’t stick out too much.
That doesn’t mean Cronin isn’t able to deliver the songs. He makes up for his limitations by pushing his voice on every song. Part of the reason the songs work the way they do is through Cronin’s delivery as he builds up his voice with conviction on the important singalong choruses. In a move that many modern songwriters have done, REO Speedwagon structure their songs to get to the chorus as quickly as possible to where the last minute of the songs are just Cronin singing the chorus over and over. That’s a pretty smart tactic in helping to ensure the album’s catchy quality.
Maybe it’s their look that explains why they haven’t endured. MTV premiered on August 1st, over a month after Hi Infidelity fell from #1 which would be a good opportunity for a band as hot as REO Speedwagon especially as they were early adapters to music videos. The band wound up filming a bunch of videos within a day but filmed only one proper video which was for “Keep On Loving You.” The video shows Cronin in a therapy session with a sexy-looking psychiatrist wondering why this girl he made up shows up all the time with the band but not with him when the song plays. We then see the band performing as the band members except for Cronin along with the girl watch on a small TV. Toward the end, Cronin asks who this mysterious girl is with the psychiatrist pulling down her hair while saying she has no idea. It’s a silly video that’s also emblematic of the early music video moment when artists largely made performance clips with not much thought to a storyline.
“Keep On Loving You” wound up being the 17th video played when MTV premiered on August 1st but it was their live clip of “Take It On The Run” that got them on the network first as the ninth video played but only played for 12 seconds before technical difficulties caused it to go black. By Cronin’s admission those videos weren’t good as he explained in the entertaining oral history book I Want My MTV, “Keep On Loving You” made us look like even bigger dorks than we were. It starts with me in a psychiatrist’s office—a female psychiatrist, because someone figured out that you had to have a hot chick in the video.” Cronin’s right that those videos aren’t good and that him and the rest of the band look like dorks. It perfectly encapsulates why bands like them weren’t able to keep up in the ‘80s amid MTV’s flashy influence leading to better-looking and more exciting acts. Bands like REO Speedwagon might have been good enough for 1981 but in a couple of years, they would be pushed aside.
After Hi Infidelity, REO Speedwagon spent much of the rest of the ‘80s as one of the biggest rock bands in America. They wouldn’t reach the heights of 1981 again but they still managed to make more hits. Their next two albums, 1982’s Good Trouble and 1984’s Wheels Are Turnin’ both went double platinum and spun off more hits including their second and final #1 which like “Keep On Loving You” was another power ballad with “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in 1985. They also kept on touring throughout their prime including a set at Live Aid. But as soon as the ‘80s ended, so did REO Speedwagon’s time as a hit-making band which coincided with Gratzer leaving the band and Richrath getting fired. (Richrath died from surgery complications in 2015.)
Decades after their peak, REO Speedwagon is still going. A few of the Hi Infidelity era members are still in the group today including Cronin. They haven’t released new music since their 2009 Christmas album but continue to do lots of touring on the classic rock nostalgia circuit often playing alongside other veteran acts. They also pop up in various places including last year on the great Netflix drama Ozark where they were the subject of an episode’s plot and performed “Time For Me To Fly.” For as long as they’re around, the public will keep on loving REO Speedwagon cause it’s the only thing we want to do.
Honorable mention: As crazy as the making of Hi Infidelity was, that was nothing compared to what AC/DC were going through in making Back to Black. Dealing with the tragic death of original lead singer Bon Scott, the band hires Brian Johnson to make an album in tribute to Scott by just continuing with the kick-ass songs they’d already been known for. Every song here is a banger thanks to the crunchy and heavy production of Robert John “Mutt” Lange, not unlike the arena rock productions of REO Speedwagon only better. Like all of AC/DC’s music, there’s nothing wildly different about Back in Black but it managed to be the one that connected with lots of people. The singles didn’t chart that high but the album sold a lot that at 25 million copies is now one of the best-selling albums of all time managing to be the #7 album of 1981.
Next time: A bunch of ‘70s prog-rock veterans come together to make some heavily corporate sounding ‘80s rock on their self-titled debut known as Asia