Half century ago, two young kids went off to college, and by chance or fate, formed a musical bond that changed their lives. Keyboardist Neal Doughty met drummer Alan Gratzer, and REO Speedwagon was born. The guys quickly built a strong following on the strength of songs like “Sophisticated Lady”, “157 Riverside Avenue”, “Keep Pushin’”, and “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” Five decades later, Doughty, along with his long-time cohorts, Kevin Cronin (vocals, guitar, piano) and Bruce Hall (bass) continue to keep the wheels turning and the fires burning. While Gratzer and original guitarist Gary Richrath both stepped down in 1988 and 1989, respectively, the guys found musical chemistry and camaraderie with new drummer Brian Hitt and guitarist Dave Amato who have now been with the band for 25 years.
REO Speedwagon exploded in the late ’70s with their breakout record, You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish. The album launched the hits “Roll with the Changes” and “Time for Me to Fly.” It would pave the way for REO’s seminal record, 1980’s Hi Infidelity. The album would be the biggest selling rock record of the year, and sold over 10 million copies. The album featured the #1 single “Keep on Lovin’ You,” and the Top 5 single “Take It on the Run.” This week, Idaho Music Scene caught up with Neal Doughty to chat about the band’s current tour with Def Leppard and take a look back at 50 years of REO.
On Wednesday, September 28, REO Speedwagon will return to Boise for the first time in 8 years. The band last performed in Idaho with two shows six months apart; at the Western Idaho fair in August 2007, and at the Idaho Center in April 2008. It’s been a dry stretch for Treasure Valley REO fans since then, but the Midwest rockers will perform at Taco Bell Arena with Def Leppard and Tesla next week. Get your tickets here.
It will be good to see REO back in Idaho. It’s been far too long.
“I didn’t know it had been that long. I remember that great big long bike path along the river in Boise. I’ve been on that thing many times. I guess it has been a while.”
You guys are sharing the stage this tour between Def Leppard and Tesla, both of which are traditionally a bit heavier than REO. Has that been a bit strange at all? How have the crowds responded?
“It’s been great. It’s kind of surprising because our biggest hits were a couple of radio friendly ballads, but we’ve got a little heavier rock and roll stuff. We never got close to being heavy metal, but we’ve got stuff that rocks out a lot more than some people realize. The three bands—it’s just working tremendously. The tour has been setting attendance records. So somewhere in there, the people like seeing these three bands even though they’re not identical. Maybe that’s a good thing.”
It was 50 years ago that you and Alan Gratzer hooked up, and next year marks the 50th anniversary of REO. How do you put that in perspective? You head off to college for electrical engineering and end up mastering in rock and roll.
“That was a total accident, and it happened because Alan and I happened to live across the hall from each other in the dormitory. When we met, he was in a band and within that first year he and I were wanting to start a band together. It was purely for fun. We had no intent whatsoever to leave school in order to become rock musicians. It just happened gradually, and the campus adopted us as the official band of the University of Illinois: At least the university bars anyway. It slowly turned into something that one day we were going, ‘Well, we don’t want to give this up in order to graduate from college, because we can always come back to school. We’re only going to have one shot at something happening like this.’ So we found ourselves musicians instead of engineers, and by the time that transition happened, we were already supporting ourselves already because we’d become very popular locally by playing a lot of cover songs and sprinkling our own in there. It just sort of grew so gradually, but never in the wrong direction. Something would happen to take us to the next step, so we never had any reason to give it up. Of course now 50 years later it feels totally like what I was supposed to do all along. This has been my whole life, my whole life-long career, and that feels like exactly what was supposed to happen. Now if they invented a way that rock bands didn’t have to travel so much, I’d do it until I was over a hundred years old.”
This year also marks the 45th anniversary of your debut album. Can you take us back and share what you recall about making that first record?
“I remember that we were about to go broke from taking the time off touring. We were at a tiny studio in Connecticut owned by Paul Leka who was producing the record. We were sleeping on the floor of the studio. We did it in two stages. We took some time off to go back touring again so that by the second half of making that record we were able to rent a real house to live in. And it indeed was, ‘157 Riverside Avenue’. That song is a true story written about living in that house in West Port, Connecticut. We were excited beyond words to be making an album. Cause back then you couldn’t make an album on your laptop. You had to have somebody with some money backing you up, and getting a record label as big as Columbia/Epic, which is now Sony: Getting a label that is that biog that is going to put out a real record album was just so exciting. We thought, this is going to change everything. And of course it took another 10 years before we had a really big hit, but it was exhaustion mixed with excitement, which is kind of the way it still is. [laughs].”
My personal favorite REO album is You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish. A near perfect rock record. Where did you come up with that title, because it is a classic?
“That record, to this day, is second only to Hi Infidelity, and it’s a close second too. That title was a friend of ours, and I think he’d seen it in a Marx Brothers movie or something. We were at a big party, sitting around, and he came up with that title. He didn’t claim to have made it up, and I forgot where it actually goes back to, but he came up with that right when we were looking for a title for the record. And there was no doubt that had to be it. It was another one of those trusting fate type things.
You guys have to constantly play the hits obviously, so how do you manage to keep things fresh for yourselves?
“It’s funny, the songs we play live, over the years it has become very obvious which are the audience favorites, and they also happen to be our personal favorites. I actually enjoy playing these songs every night. This is like 50-something shows on this tour and there’s 10 or 20,000 people singing along, and it doesn’t get dull. It doesn’t get boring. We’re constantly, believe it or not, trying to play every show a little bit better than the night before. Part of that is the invention of the in-ear monitor. We’re hearing ourselves in absolutely perfect, record quality stereo in our ears. I can hear every note that the other guys are playing. The audience probably wouldn’t mind a few mistakes, but to the five guys on stage, we’re just trying to be perfect for each other. We’re very glad to be crowd pleasers, but a lot of what keeps it interesting is hearing what each other are doing from one night to the next and it’s not always the same. Sometimes it’s way better. Maybe we’re the only ones who know it, but it benefits the audience because it keeps our energy way up, and our musicianship is better than it’s ever been.”
You can catch REO Speedwagon at Taco Bell Arena with Def Leppard and Tesla on Wednesday, September 28th. Tickets are still available. get details and tickets here.