In 1980, nobody expected a number-one hit from REO. They were a mid-level arena (and, in the Midwest, stadium)-packing touring juggernaut, nine albums into a career that saw them achieve modest record sales and relatively stagnant chart action (their highest chart position had been for 1978’s You Can Tune a Piano but You Can’t Tuna Fish, which had topped out at Number 29). Album rock radio played some of their better-crafted tracks, like Tuna‘s “Time for Me to Fly” and “Roll with the Changes,” or Nine Lives‘ “Only the Strong Survive,” but Top 40 airplay was out of the question. A deeper dig into their catalogue (or a troll through their live album or the first Decade of Rock and Roll compilation) yielded more examples of earnest playing and steadily improving songcraft, but their bills were paid by playing live and leaving a trail of smoking hockey arenas and defiled groupies behind them.
It’s hard to say what made “Keep on Loving You” such an out-of-the-box success. The bulk of America was unfamiliar with the band, which negated the familiarity factor of Kevin Cronin’s vocal tics (coming down hard on his ur’s and er’s) and typical REO production flourishes (like the rattlesnake sound effect after the “all coiled up and hissin'” line). The band would eventually be played in heavy rotation on the fledgling MTV, which had a lean selection of content to fill its 24-hour broadcast day, but that came well after “Keep on Loving You” had scaled and descended the charts.
No, I think “Keep on Loving You” achieved its popularity simply because listeners were ready for the power of power balladry. We’d heard the juxtaposition of plaintive keyboard and guitar power chordage before (Aerosmith’s “Dream On” comes immediately to mind, as does REO’s own “Lightning,” from 1976, though no one ever heard it), but such complementary forces had not been deployed in such a consumable fashion as they were on “Keep on Loving You.”
There was obvious creative tension at play—Cronin’s wimptastic lyrics and pianistic tremble bumped into Gary Richrath’s distorted Les Paul snarl, like a nerd bumping into a greaser in Arnold’s parking lot. Richrath’s solo played into the dynamic, at once tough and melodic (though minus his usual “chirping” style of picking), in stark contrast to the heavenly angelic background vocals of the “He-Man Broken Hearts Club Choir” (essentially, Cronin and future Mr. Mister frontman Richard Page, overdubbed atop one another a couple dozen times).
One beneficial result of this musical tension was the fact that “Keep on Loving You” could be (and was) embraced by both AOR and Top 40 radio. As a result, it steadily climbed the Billboard Hot 100, hitting Number One on March 21 of ’81; by that point, Hi Infidelity was a month into its 15-week reign atop the album chart, a period that would see three more singles from the record hit the Top 40. Although the band would have more chart success in the early Eighties, they would never again run the thing quite like they did in 1981.
Indeed, the band helped usher in something of a Golden Age of AOR. Within a year of Hi Infidelity‘s release, listeners would be treated to such classic slabs of arena rock as Foreigner 4, Styx’s Paradise Theater, Journey’s Escape, Pat Benatar’s Precious Time, (all Number One albums), Billy Squier’s Don’t Say No, Rush’s Moving Pictures, Rainbow’s Difficult to Cure, Loverboy’s Get Lucky, Blue Öyster Cult’s Fire of Unknown Origin, Rick Springfield’s Working Class Dog, Survivor’s Premonition, Sammy Hagar’s Standing Hampton, and The Completion Backward Principle by the Tubes. This was shit that blew my mind as a young music consumer; I was captivated by these loud and melodic long-haired dudes (and Pat Benatar), and remain so to this day.
And what’s cool is that a lot of these bands are still out there playing, quite often on summer shed bills with one another, or at your local watering hole, state fair, amusement park, rib bake, or asparagus festival. Now, don’t expect all the original band members to be on the bill—REO itself features a guitarist and drummer who are the “new guys,” even though they’ve both been in the band about 20 years—but if you go into a given show in the right mood, on a good night, and you close your eyes, it can be 1981 all over again, except your back hurts more and your sitter charges more per hour than your tickets cost.
But you’re still around, and the music still hits you where you live—two things I will definitely be toasting on November 21.
Other random thoughts:
- While touring in the late Eighties, Cronin apparently toked one too many joints laced with something very bad, and began performing “Keep on Loving You” as a reggae song, to the utter horror of his audiences, which had dwindled to a few dozen tourists per venue. Proof of this substance- and dementia-induced decision exists on REO’s second Decade of Rock and Roll compilation. I find this such an abomination, I refuse to provide a link—go find it yourself, if, God help you, you’re interested in such a thing.
- Does anyone out there know what became of Elizabeth “Lizard” Frye, the band’s cook? She’s included in the credits of Hi Infidelity and several other REO records, and was interviewed in the MTV documentary on the making of the Wheels Are Turnin’ album in ’84. She seemed like a nice lady. I hope she’s well.
- The band’s 2008 record Find Your Own Way Home is worth finding and listening to. No band that long in the tooth and that out of fashion has any business making a record that good. Well, except maybe Rush, but I expect that from Rush. REO? Not so much. Go get it.
- The band’s Christmas record that came out last year is really bad. I wanted desperately to like it, but I don’t. If you haven’t read the Giles/Hare Mellowmas piece on “FTS Speedwagon,” you really should.
- Here’s a cool little video of Lisa Loeb and Dweezil Zappa playing the irony card and performing “Keep on Loving You” on Hard Rock Live some time in the late Nineties: