REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin on Their New Live Album and the Classic ‘Keep on Loving You’
For years, REO Speedwagon have been regulars at the annual Moondance Jam, the Minnesota rock festival that takes place each July. Since the inception of the Moondance Jam in 1992, the band has played the fest six times, including its most recent appearance in 2010.
That summer, the band was on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of its landmark album ‘Hi Infidelity,’ performing a large section of the album in sequence, providing a hefty reminder of what a monster of a release it was for the group. Luckily, the moment was captured at Moondance on both audio and video for all to enjoy, so if you missed the tour, you’ve got a second chance to enjoy the ‘Hi Infidelity’ flashback.
We managed to grab a few minutes with singer Kevin Cronin recently to talk about the new release, and he spent some time reflecting on the success of ‘Hi Infidelity’ and the misconceptions that people have about the album and the effects that it had on the band going forward.
‘Hi Infidelity’ spent 15 weeks at the top of the Billboard album chart, giving the band its first No. 1 and eventually selling more than 10 million copies. ‘Keep on Loving You’ was a major anchor of success for the album, netting the band another milestone: its first No. 1 single. REO Speedwagon would notch three more Top 40 hits from the album, including ‘Take It on the Run,’ which sailed into the Top 5.
But as Cronin recalls, it was sometimes difficult to convince the band to perform his songs. Had band politics gotten their way, you might not be hearing some of these classics today. But Cronin kept pushing on, and the band would go on to score a number of hit singles over the years.
More than 45 years later, REO Speedwagon are still playing to huge crowds like the sea of people in attendance at the Moondance Jam. They’re still having fun, and as long as there’s power for the amps, they’ll continue to turn ‘em up wherever they can find an open stage.
Let’s talk about this new release ‘Live at Moondance Jam’ for a moment. It captures not only a special tour for you guys, but also it commemorates the relationship that you guys have had with Moondance Jam for quite sometime now.
Well yeah, we were doing Moondance back when the dressing room was the back of your truck! It’s come a long way, and it’s such an awesome event, because it’s a dying breed — the actual old-school rock festival. We have over 30,000 people in the audience and it’s a four-day weekend and people are all camping out. I mean, it’s really cool. We were so fortunate, because over the years we’ve recorded and videoed a number of shows, and there’s always been something that didn’t work. Either there was a technical glitch or I didn’t feel like I sang well or somebody’s guitar was out of tune or whatever. There was always something that messed it up.
For this particular show, we had 15 hi-def cameras — it was a big deal and a huge production with 30,000 people [in attendance], and man, it just all came together. The weather was perfect and people were psyched. And from our standpoint, the band just had a smokin’ night. So after 40 years, we finally nailed it, so we were just so psyched. We had a great night, everything worked camera-wise and the sound was good, so we finally got what we feel is kind of the definitive performance of this configuration of REO Speedwagon, so we’re very, very proud of this thing and glad that it’s going to to be released worldwide.
Looking at ‘Hi Infidelity’ more than 30 years later, it marked a shift on a number of levels for the band, and certainly stylistically there was a shift for the band, which would change the material you guys would write going forward. Did it feel different going into that record?
Well, you know, there’s this kind of perception that somehow [with] the ‘Hi Infidelity’ record, we switched gears or we changed our style. I can understand how maybe it looks like that from the outside, but from our perspective, it was more [of] a continuing evolution where we were just trying to work it out. Because when I first joined the band, I was coming from being pretty much a folk singer, I used to play more like folk singer-songwriter clubs [in Chicago]. Even though I was a Beatles guy for sure, and I loved bands like Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, that was kind of more where I was coming from. When I met Gary Richrath and the band, they were coming from more of a Deep Purple / Doors [vibe, where] it was more about the riff and the energy. For me it was more about the melodies and the lyrics and the message in the song. So when Gary and I first got together, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, and it kind of didn’t work for a while. That’s why we split up for a few years. But the second time when we started over in ‘76, we really had to try to kind of take the best of both of us.
If you really see how the records went, it was kind of like the ‘Tuna Fish’ record was a little more folky, a little more song-oriented, and then the ‘Nine Lives’ record kind of went back to being more about the riff and about the power. The ‘Hi Infidelity’ record, we finally kind of struck a balance. Any band, there’s always internal stuff that’s going on, and it’s kind of like whoever’s writing is more on target when you get to the studio, then the album kind of takes on that personality. But we never shifted anything. That’s just kind of how it happened. Every record you go into, no one knows what’s going to happen until the record’s finished. For us, we’ve always put the songs first, and to me, the band has to serve the song. So that’s the way I look at it. Because you can have the best players in the world, but they’ve gotta have something to play.
You’re probably aware, though, because I’ve heard you speak at live shows about the “rock side” of REO Speedwagon, about how you never want to forget that side. So I think you’re aware that there is that perception, and even fans that look at the band as two distinctive eras: the rock stuff and then the more pop-driven stuff.
Yeah, and there definitely is. That was just kind of how it happened. When the band decided to bring me in, they knew what they were getting themselves into. I wasn’t Robert Plant or Steven Tyler — that’s not the kind of lead singer that I am or ever could be. Those guys are amazing frontmen, but I’m not one of those kind of guys. I’m just kind of a folk singer that happened to wind up in a rock ‘n’ roll band. But I’ve always loved rock ‘n’ roll bands. The Beatles were the thing that really turned me on and got me going. But if you listen to the Beatles, they play everything from ‘Helter Skelter’ to ‘Yesterday’ and to me that’s what it’s all about. There was a time when we were making the ‘R.E.O’ record back in 1976, and I came in and played ‘Time for Me to Fly’ for everybody, and the general consensus in the room was that there was only three chords, and it was too soft and it didn’t sound like an REO Speedwagon song. I had just rejoined the band, so I wasn’t exactly coming from a position of strength, so I was like, “Well, all right, I think you guys are making a mistake to not record this song. I think it’s a pretty strong song, but whatever — if you guys don’t want to play it, nobody can force anyone to do something they don’t want to do.” But I remember that I walked out of that session, and I remember thinking, “Well, wait a second — how could it not sound like an REO Speedwagon song? I’m either a member of the band or I’m not!” If I’m a member of the band and I wrote this song, then it’s an REO Speedwagon song, no matter what!
What makes something an REO Speedwagon song to me is if one of us created it. But I know what you’re saying, there’s songs … and man, I love getting out there and playing songs like ‘Like You Do,’ those really ass kickin’ riff songs. I also love going out there and doing my acoustic set. So to me, it’s all good, man, there’s lots of different types of energy. There’s the energy of power and volume and just ass-kickin’ songs like ‘Golden Country’ and ‘157 Riverside Avenue,’ but there’s also power in a song like ‘Time for Me to Fly’ or ‘Take It on the Run’ which is softer. There’s power in the message and melody and the passion that you can put into it. There’s a lot of different kinds of power, so as long as the music is powerful in some way, then I’m in.
I want to go back to what you said about ‘Time for Me to Fly,’ because I’ve heard a similar story about the hesitation when it came to recording ‘Keep on Loving You.’ Is that something that you ran into consistently when you would present songs to the band?
Yeah, I did! But everybody does. You talk to anybody in any band and the scariest part of being a songwriter in a band is bringing a new song in. Because you’re so vulnerable, man. At least for me, when I finish writing a song, I kind of have an idea — it’s not a set idea, but I have an idea in my mind of what this song is supposed to sound like. And then I count on the band to take that and then do stuff that I never would have thought of that makes it even stronger. When you walk in, and you’re just playing a song on an acoustic guitar for guys, they don’t necessarily hear it the same way — they don’t hear everything that’s going on in my head, so it’s a really vulnerable place, man. One of the hardest parts of the whole process is when you get together to rehearse before you go into the studio. Everybody comes in with their songs and some people make demos and some people sit and play it on acoustic guitar or whatever, and then you’ve gotta pick the songs as a group. You have to pick the songs that you’re going to really dig into and record, because for us, we’ve never over-recorded.
I particularly like to have a song already written before the process starts. I know a lot of friends of mine and they just have a little riff, and they take it from there. So there’s a lot of different ways to do it. For us, we pretty much have the song where we want it when we get to the studio. And then when we get to the studio, it goes to another place that we never would have thought of. Because when you start listening to it back, you learn a lot about it. But yeah, that’s the most horrible part of being in a band is when you have to bring in a new song, for sure.
There’s been rumors of new music from the band. What’s the latest there?
Well, we loaded up into a friend of mine’s studio and just started messing around. I had a basic idea of a song and was working on it. It wasn’t even finished, and it was very different than the way we usually do things. But we just loaded in and started playing, and so we’re just kind of trying to see if there’s other ways of doing things. Recorded music has changed so much over the past few years, and plus, our lifestyles of changed. Bruce [Hall] moved to Florida, Neal [Doughty] moved to Minnesota — we don’t all live in the same neighborhood anymore like we used to, so it makes it a little more challenging, the thought of making an album. I love albums, and I just love when songs are just sequenced in a certain way and it kind of all works together. The reality and the practicalities of doing that at this point in our lives is that it would take a minor miracle for that to happen. So we’re looking at alternative ways of getting music out there. As far as an announcement to make of something, I really don’t have one right now. All I can tell you is that we’re investigating and we’re experimenting at soundchecks and we’re just messing around with stuff. You know, fortunately we’re having a lot of fun out on tour right now. One of the things we’ve been doing is taking some of the songs from the catalog that we feel kind of like we missed the boat on a bit the first time around. So we’re kind of treating them as if they’re new songs.
We look at them fresh and keep the best parts of what we did originally but kind of upgrade them a little bit. Because the thing is that you’ve got to remember that when you record a song in general, it’s a song that’s brand new, that you probably just wrote within the past few months. So here you are, making the definitive recorded version of a song and you barely even know it. So one of the great things about playing live is that you get a chance to reinvent the songs every night. So to me, every concert we do, it’s all new material. Because I look at those songs from a fresh perspective every night and no one can tell me how I have to sing it — I can sing it anyway I want to, and I usually like to have fun with it. Obviously, I’m singing it [in a way that] people are going to recognize it — it’s not that different. But in my mind, there are all of these different little tweaks that I can do — just a little tinkering here and there and that’s part of what makes it continue to be exciting and fun for me.