In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity, which went to No. 1 on Feb. 21, 1981, where it stayed for six weeks. It returned April 18, where it stayed for three weeks, and May 16, where it stayed for six more weeks.
True story: In the summer of 1995, when I was 17, I asked my mother if I could drive with some friends down to Milwaukee to see an R.E.M. concert. Her eyes lit up. “Of course!” she said excitedly. “I had no idea you liked REO!”
For the record, I did not like REO—as in REO Speedwagon—and my mom was at least partly to blame. Some of my earliest music-related memories involve my mom singing along very loudly and very off-key to songs off of Hi Infidelity, the band’s most popular album and the biggest record of 1981. (It has sold more than 9 million copies.) Hi Infidelity was one of two non-Christian music cassette tapes that she owned—the other, of course, was the Dirty Dancing soundtrack—and it was stored in the same kitchen drawer where we kept the silverware. The kitchen’s echoing acoustics made her voice sound even more booming whenever she reached for the high notes on “Take It On The Run.” Suffice it to say, it was not an ideal introduction to the Speedwagon.
My mom has always been bad with mispronouncing or flat-out mangling names—a habit I find myself falling into with alarming frequency as I get older—so I’m not surprised that she confused R.E.M. with REO. But I think there was another reason for the mix-up: REO Speedwagon was the last hugely popular contemporary rock band that my mom liked. She turned 34 in 1981, and as a divorced mother of two, she had more pressing concerns to tend to than pop music. The last time she checked in with pop culture, REO Speedwagon was arguably the biggest band in America. A lot had changed in music from the early ’80s to the mid-’90s, but my mom’s perspective was still fixed on her small but treasured tape collection.
It makes sense that my mom loved Hi Infidelity for a number of reasons, starting with her age. A recent story in New York magazine reported that the average age of an artist with a No. 1 hit in 1980 was 34.2, which means the typical pop star was singing songs reflecting the experiences and attitudes of my mom’s generation. (The average age of a hitmaker in 2010: 26.3.) On the albums chart, the No. 1 spot for 26 out of 52 weeks in 1981 was held by one of four journeyman rock bands with strong followings among Midwesterners like my mom: REO Speedwagon (which was No. 1 for 15 weeks), Styx, Foreigner, and Journey. (Foreigner was actually half-British, which makes them the Mumford And Sons of early-’80s heartland AOR.)
All of these groups had been around since at least the early ’70s (or featured musicians that had played in other prominent bands from that period), and all of them had frontmen who were at least 30 years old. Styx’s Dennis DeYoung turned 34 in ’81, Journey’s Steve Perry turned 32, Foreigner’s Lou Gramm turned 31, and Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin turned 30.
The prototypical hard-working middle-American rock band that packed arenas in Illinois and Michigan and was ignored on the coasts, REO Speedwagon spent the ’70s churning out the kind of nondescript good-time boogie music that pads classic-rock playlists to this day. Following the ’70s arena-rock playbook, the band released a live album, You Get What You Play For, in 1977, and was rewarded with its first platinum record. By that time, Speedwagon had already gone through a battery of members, with a revolving door of lead singers. (Cronin originally exited the band after its second album, and then returned for its sixth.) But this was a group, like practically every other band on its circuit, that took perverse pride in how faceless it was. Like Menudo with cute Latin boys, second-tier ’70s rock bands cycled through a steady stream of bushy-haired, tank-top-wearing white guys. It was never about a particular bushy-haired, tank-top-wearing individual.
REO Speedwagon had been around the block many times by the time of Hi Infidelity, and the album reflected this, both in its “do or die” sense of professionalism and the relatively mature sentiments of the lyrics. This was no wild and crazy collection of drunk and horny rock ’n’ roll kids; in Rolling Stone, keyboardist Neal Doughty called REO Speedwagon a “family band” and confessed, “We’re almost as corny as Donny and Marie.” That might be overstating things a bit, but there is something almost refreshingly dorky about the Hi Infidelity deep cut “Tough Guys,” where Cronin (who always sounds like he’s emphasizing his Midwest twang rather than covering it up) sings about a woman who “doesn’t like the rough guys” because “she says that they got brains all where they sit." Honestly, REO Speedwagon didn’t ask your mom for lyrical input—it just sounds that way.
Hi Infieldity is probably best remembered for helping to usher in the era of the power ballad. The album’s big hit was the piano-driven “Keep On Loving You,” which was written by Cronin and caused inter-group controversy when he introduced it to the band, apparently because the members of REO Speedwagon had brains all where they sit. Cronin recalled the genesis of “Keep On Loving You” in a recent interview:
For us, and this is the honest to God’s truth, it happened totally by accident. I walked into rehearsal and sat down at the piano, which I rarely do because I’m a guitar player, and started playing "Keep On Loving You." This was 30 years ago now as a matter of fact. And the guys in the band looked at me like I was from another planet. They were like, “What are you…?” because we were all bringing in songs for this record we were going to make and they looked at me like I was crazy. And I’m like, “Dude, this song really means a lot to me.” [And they said] “So, dude, that’s not an REO Speedwagon song.” And I kind of was like, “You know what? I’m the main songwriter for REO Speedwagon, so if I write a song, it’s an REO Speedwagon song. It’s the band's job to turn it into an REO Speedwagon song.” I was so passionate about this song. Everyone kind of got it and sure enough, Gary [Richrath], our guitar player went over, plugged in his guitar and started playing power chords to this little love song I wrote. The next thing we knew, it was a number one record and everyone was calling it a power ballad and acted like we had this strategy for success that made this song happen when really it was just an accident. Just those guys didn’t want to play a soft song and so they took my love song and amped it up a little bit.
Heard 30 years later, “Keep On Loving You” hardly sounds amped-up at all; any “rocking” on this song seems to be purely for the band’s benefit, in case there was still any lingering embarrassment over having a song so unabashedly romantic in the set list. (Though that discomfort didn’t last long, judging from subsequent singles like the even gooier “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”) In spite of any initial misgivings, the success of “Keep On Loving You” and what it did for REO Speedwagon speaks for itself. After 14 years in the no-name rock-band trenches, Hi Infidelity was an instant smash, going platinum in five weeks as “Keep On Loving You” rose to the No. 1 singles spot in March 1981.
Lyrically, “Keep On Loving You” is remarkably similar to another hugely successful power ballad from that year, Journey’s “Open Arms.” Both songs concern a troubled relationship—presumably between a husband and wife, or at least a long-term boyfriend and girlfriend—and an open-hearted commitment on the part of the narrator to maintain his steadfast (though somewhat tattered) loyalty to his lover. The opening line of “Keep On Loving You”—“You should’ve seen by the look in my eyes, baby, there was something missin’”—recalls the Righteous Brothers’ classic “our love is over” song, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” only Cronin (and Perry) still have hope for redemption. Just as Perry pledges to “come to you” with “nothing to hide” so “you’ll see what love means to me,” Cronin wants to leave behind all sins from the past (which are hinted at in the title Hi Infidelity) “’cause it was us, baby, way before them, and we’re still together.”
“Keep On Loving You” and “Open Arms” are love songs in the adult sense, as opposed to the expressions of overheated infatuation that pass for love in most pop songs. REO Speedwagon’s other peers on the album charts had similar songs on the charts in ’81: In Styx’s “The Best Of Times,” which went to No. 3 and helped make Paradise Theater the band’s only No. 1 album, Dennis DeYoung presents a loving relationship as a kind of shelter against tough economic times, while on Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” from the chart-topping 4, Lou Gramm tentatively opens his heart to a new woman, worried that he’s “coming on too strong” because “this heart of mine, has been hurt before.”
All of these power ballads are about damaged people trying to make a go of love in spite of trying circumstances—and that subject was imminently relatable to millions of recent divorcees like my mom. In 1981, the U.S. divorce rate hit an all-time peak of 5.3 per 1,000 Americans, after rising steadily throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The National Center For Health Statistics reported that there were 2.4 million marriages that year, and 1.2 million divorces. Those statistics were widely misinterpreted as meaning that 50 percent of nuptials ended in divorce—in reality, it was only 2 percent of the total number of existing marriages—but there were still more people than ever trying to piece their lives together in the wake of shipwrecked partnerships. And all those wayward lonely hearts turned to big, operatic declarations of devotion in the face of considerable hardship in order to power through. REO Speedwagon, Styx, Journey, Foreigner—it was all divorce rock.
Unfortunately for record labels, they were doing no better than the nation’s marriages. The music industry sold 55 million fewer albums than it did in 1980, which many insiders blamed on the advent of Pac-Man and the popularity of video-game arcades, which did $5 billion in business in ’81. “Video arcades and video games were a real threat,” long-time record executive Joe Smith said in a VH1 interview. “What kind of sales are lost when a kid drops 15 bucks in a machine? Ten of it could’ve been ours.”
The wave of divorce-rock bands might’ve made this situation worse because of their limited youth-appeal; or maybe they salvaged the year by appealing to the only audience that was there for music at the time. Either way, REO Speedwagon wasn’t going to let the music on Hi Infidelity be the only thing driving album sales. As reported by Frederic Dannen in his landmark music-industry expose Hit Men, the members of REO Speedwagon lavished executives from their label Epic Records with gold Rolex watches worth at least $8,000, in order to gently prod them to give their record an extra promotional push. It wasn’t unusual for bands to get directly involved in this sort of under-handed wheel-greasing at the time, but this incident adversely affected another of the label’s artists, The Clash. At least that was the feeling of the head of the label, Dick Asher, who made his concerns public, as Dannen recounts:
“It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the REO album had been a real good album,” Asher said. “But it just wasn’t. The Clash had a super album, and it was not getting any support. And I was meeting with [the heads of Epic], and I said, ‘I don’t hear anything about The Clash.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’re working this REO album, it’s much more important.’”
While REO Speedwagon was able to use corruption in the record industry to its advantage on Hi Infidelity, another change was afoot in the business that would be the band’s undoing. On Aug. 1, 1981, an upstart cable channel called MTV premièred with round-the-clock music videos. The network had scrambled to get on the air that summer before the record labels did their budgets for 1982, because MTV founder Bob Pittman feared they’d slash the funding for videos.
It might’ve been better for REO Speedwagon if that had happened, because the video format was ill-suited for a bunch of aging, paunchy arena-rockers. By the end of the ’80s, Speedwagon and its peers had been ushered away from the mainstream of pop culture and toward county fairs. But the music lives on in the hearts—and silverware drawers—of mothers, fathers, and all other sufferers of early-’80s heartache.
Coming up: Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind