Review Summary: Give the Speedwagon some love.
Recently, I decided to embark on a project that would seem impossible to many, baffling to others, and downright crazy to some: listen to all of Rolling Stone Magazine's “500 Greatest Albums.” The project soon consumed my life; the prospect of having to listen to eleven Bob Dylan albums and eight Bruce Springsteen albums at some point in the near future soon haunted my dreams. After a few weeks, I came to the obvious realization that the list that I was abiding to was far from perfect. Besides the overwhelming amount of imbalance towards “classic rock and rollers” of the 60's and 70's, there are many glaring absences and oddities about the list. I've seen that many people have set out on completing this same project, and come up with the same conclusion that the list was flawed. Some devoted a year or more of their lives to the 500 albums on the list, writing about everything they listened to, and they would even claim whether or not the album was, in their terms, “awesome.” More often than not, the albums on the list that were not downright classics were not considered to be “awesome” by most, and probably just were included because the editors at Rolling Stone wanted the list to reflect their personal tastes rather than history itself.
Based off of these conclusions, I guess no one at Rolling Stone cared enough to put REO Speedwagon, a band who played a surprisingly large role in the popular music of the early 1980's, on the list. When the band formed in the early 1970's, they decided to take their name from the name of a car (the 'Reo Speed Wagon') that was produced in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, and soon after was taken out of production and faded into obscurity. Add that to the fact that lead singer Kevin Cronin's voice makes him sound exactly like he looks: a nerdy white guy dressed to the nines in a pink blazer two sizes too large for his body, sporting a gigantic 80's perm while belting out ballad after ballad and pounding away on a baby grand piano. Millions of people came out to their concerts to see a bunch of stereotypically white guys from suburban Illinois sing some over the top power ballads, and the band reveled in the success. I'm sure Kevin Cronin was plastered all over girls' walls in 1981.
That's why The Hits
, REO Speedwagon's best, and most concise greatest hits album is so important in the history of music. REO enjoyed massive success, especially thanks to their breakthrough album, Hi-Infidelity
, which was #1 for fifteen non-consecutive weeks in 1980-1981. Hi-Infidelity
had four top twenty hits, three of which are included on this album, including the pop standards “Keep On Loving You” and “Take It On the Run,” both of which remain as some of REO's finest work, even though they may seem like simple ballads to most today. Not to be overlooked, the Bo Diddley-like shuffle of “Don't Let Him Go” is a fast paced rocker lined with insistent keyboards, and a guitar solo to boot. Simply put, it is fairly easy to see how these three songs were such big hits in the early 80's. While Hi-Infidelity
makes up most of the high points of this album, there are a few other songs which stand out as being highlights on The Hits
. “Can't Fight This Feeling” is probably one of the most cheesy songs ever written and performed, but stands up as being a classic 80's power ballad. Not to be outdone, “That Ain't Love,” which was recorded after the prime of REO's mainstream success, shows the band taking a “darker” turn in the theme of their songs. Throughout, Cronin's voice is surprisingly durable and melodic, going from grumbling about how he and a lover are in “such different places” and then belting out “That Ain't Love/I believe you've got the wrong emotion” over a gong, keyboards, and a shimmering, over the top guitar solo that exemplifies everything that was great about music in 1988.
The rest of the album gives us a mix of pre Hi-Infidelity
tracks (see “Ridin' the Storm Out”) when the band had a slightly edgier side, and some more songs from the latter half of the decade that play the classic 80's power ballad formula to death. Some of the material on The Hits
makes one wonder how on Earth these guys maintained their popularity for as long as they did. To say that REO was a beneficiary of the expanding music culture of the 80's is an understatement; because they were one of the most prominent rock bands during the launch of MTV in August 1981, people assumed they would keep churning out hits. As a result, REO made a lot of unbelievably hilarious music videos that probably had higher budgets than their record label would like to admit. However, much like the car that they were named after, REO Speedwagon's success quickly faded away. Nirvana changed everything, and the band soon found themselves playing second (or even third) fiddle to alternative and grunge. But, it is hard to ignore the impact that the Speedwagon had on the culture of the 80's. Their music may have been overwhelmingly cheesy, and even annoying by some standards, but REO Speedwagon were just a bunch of guys with a terrible fashion sense who found themselves at the top of the charts at a fascinating time in musical and cultural history. For their work, and for being time capsules into a completely different culture and world, they deserve at least some respect and recognition.