REO SPEEDWAGON – The Classic Years: 1978-1990

In 2017, Hear No Evil Recordings released an excellent REO Speedwagon box set entitled ‘The Early Years’. The mid-priced release rounded up the band’s fist seven studio albums and 1977’s double live set ‘Live: You Get What You Play For’ in one handy package, making some of the albums available on CD in the UK for the first time in a long while…and in the case of the unedited version of the live disc, for the first time ever. Given the love that went into that set, it seemed inevitable a similar set covering the band’s next decade – the period that brought them the most commercial success and some massive hits – should follow. Such a box would be an essential release, especially since a few of the albums from that period have become equally hard to find despite selling in huge numbers.

As with its predecessor, ‘The Classic Years: 1978-1990’ offers a fairly basic package with card sleeved discs presented in a small clam-shell box, but that approach has helped in making the nine disc anthology as affordable as a three CD set. As before, it’s the music that really counts, of course and during the 1978-85 period especially, REO were on fire, delivering one great album after the next. Bundling their best studio albums with over a disc and a half’s worth of hard to find live material, ‘The Classic Years’ more than lives up to its title.

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Having finally secured a stable line up, REO ended 1977 on something of a career high. With the ‘REO’ album experimenting with a purer AOR sound and Kevin Cronin settled back into the band, it seemed only right they would attempt to replicate that musical formula on their next studio LP. 1978’s ‘You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tune A Fish’ is that album’s equal in every respect. It’s opening number, especially, sets the blueprint for the decade that follows…

That tune, ‘Roll With The Changes’, is pure REO gold right from the opening flurry of Neal Doughty’s piano, which is in turn joined by some fantastic guitar sounds from Gary Richrath. Now sounding like he’s been fronting the band forever, Cronin – also the song’s sole writer – turns in an amazing performance, full of soul…and also the first major appearance of various vocal inflections he’d soon make his distinctive trademark. Gospel styled backing vocals continue to lift the spirits throughout, but it’s when moving into the extended instrumental coda the magic really happens, as Doughty trades riffs with Richrath and invokes some of the old rock ‘n’ roll spirit that powered the likes of ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’. Succumbing to pure AOR, the semi-acoustic ‘Time For Me To Fly’ again shows off the new confidence in Cronin’s curly voice against a wall of harmonies. It’s chorus is one of the genre’s most-loved and with synths replacing pianos as well as an undeniable sheen present throughout, it’s a great radio-friendly tune. Falling somewhere between the new AOR shininess and the retro pop of 1976’s ‘REO’, ‘Blazin’ Your Own Trail Again’ is a superb melodic workout allowing Richrath an opportunity to deliver a faultless guitar solo, but like the previous tracks, there’s very much a feeling that Cronin’s in the driving seat. His voice, again pitched against some brassy backing vocals, comes across like the ultimate AOR frontman, at this stage only rivalled by Steve Perry on Journey’s ‘Infinity’, released in the previous year. The resultant track – and also the semi-pompy ‘Sing To Me’ – are tunes that constantly invite shameless sing-alongs. Looking back across the decades, it may all seem formulaic, but in 1978 you’d have been hard pressed to find melodic rock performed much better.

For those who’ve started to miss the rock ‘n’ roll flair of the Michael Murphy era or perhaps want a bit more grit from Richrath, ‘Tuna’ features a couple of tunes that are more than happy to oblige. ‘Runnin’ Blind’ is a full scale rock ‘n’ roll number that sounds like a distant cousin to ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’, ‘157 Riverside Ave.’ or even REO’s early cover of ‘Little Queenie’, while ‘Lucky For You’ begins with a pop-ish flair but eventually unfolds into a full scale instrumental freakout where Doughty hammers at the piano and Richrath occasionally sounds like a proto-metal Chuck Berry. Holding everything together, bassist Bruce Hall plays with real passion, using his four strings to evoke a McCartney-ish lead sound. Moving into the tail end of the record, things show no signs of slowing down either: the Richrath penned ‘Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight’ might seem to channel the Eagles’ best of the era musically and be of it’s time lyrically, but some lovely harmonies and country rock inflected lead guitar give a dated sentiment a great send off; the instrumental ‘Flying Tuna Trot’ has a funky swagger and ‘Say You Love Me Or Say Goodnight’ shows of the REO ease when it comes to a stomping rock. Another throwback to an older REO sound, it’s a pleasure to hear Cronin absolutely relishing in the upbeat mood and compared with any remotely similar work on 1972’s ‘R.E.O./T.W.O.’, he sounds so much more confident. Doughty, meanwhile, rolls off the piano as if he’s just jamming on the spot and when pulling into the stomping big finish, you get the feeling that REO just know they’ve knocked spots off of all their previous studio records.

Clocking in at barely thirty three minutes, ‘You Can Tune A Piano…’ ushers in the new era of REO in a lean, filler free exercise that showcases most of their finest musical traits to date. It’s an absolutely essential LP.

Filler free isn’t a concept that could ever be levelled at 1979’s ‘Nine Lives’, but ‘Tuna’ was always going to be a hard act to follow. That’s not to say it’s a bad record – just one of the weaker links in this ‘Classic Years’ set. If there’s anything that lets it really lets it down, though – and something that’s only really obvious when playing it back to back with ‘Tuna’ – is the production style. For the first time, the band decided to self produce; leaving Cronin and Richrath at the controls with assistance from Kevin Beamish suggests they weren’t always the best judges of how their own work should sound. Hall’s bass is lower in the mix throughout, leading to a harsher experience. This works okay on the album’s rockier numbers – ‘Heavy On Your Love’ and a cover of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’, especially, come across with a real punch despite the unapologetically loud guitar work, but the more “live” feel definitely hampers the softer tunes. That said, if you can tune in to a record that sounds as if it were meant to be heard on vinyl – and only vinyl – there are some gems to be found along the way.

The album’s most interesting number, ‘Take Me’ really captures that moody, “street” feel of some 70s American rock. The main groove sounds almost cinematic, like a less jazzy take on Steely Dan’s ‘Night By Night’, giving Alan Gratzer plenty of opportunity to experiment with complex drum parts, while Richrath drops in various semi-angry guitar lines. A few years previously, Cronin might have sounded a little out of place pushing his voice for a rockier extreme, but here, he sounds as if he’s relishing a new musical challenge. The piano driven pop of ‘Need You Tonight’ is another clear stand-out, sounding like a throwback to the ‘Tuna’ album, with a tiny country flourish to flesh out the rock, while the aforementioned ‘Heavy On Your Love’ is a superb rocker that needs to be played loudly. Sounding like the obvious choice for a single, Gary’s main riff is particularly fine, while a more gutsy performance from Cronin makes damn sure this’ll take on Journey and Boston in the battle of AOR bands. If this had been on ‘Tuna’ – obviously with a much better sound – it’d be a perfect snapshot of late 70s REO…

Approximately half of ‘Nine Lives’, though, deserved much better. The harmony driven rock/pop workout ‘Only The Strong Survive’, in particular, so needed the perfect production of ‘REO’ or ‘Tuna’; the louder guitar sound and harder vocal mask a great commercial track and by the time the guitar solo appears, the harsher edges are unavoidable. Likewise, the multi-layered ‘Drop It’ is reduced to something that just sounds too dense; there’s so much going on, a more sympathetic production could’ve produced a winner and ‘Meet Me On The Mountain’ had the potential to be an album highlight with a made-for-radio tune and harmony driven hook…but instead of sounding like something that could have stood alongside ‘Time For Me To Fly’, it just sounds oddly unsatisfying. With Richrath’s soloing sounding especially odd, almost as if he were playing from the end of a tunnel, it’s hard to gauge what, exactly, the band had in mind. If they chose this sound as a deliberate artistic choice, that’s fine…but it’s really not obvious that was the intention.

So, ‘Nine Lives’ is a victim by it’s own hand. At least six of the nine songs should be REO classics, but its wobbly send off will always be problematic. Not that it bothered the record buying public: in the US, it gave the band their second top 40 Billboard hit…but bigger success was to come.

Much bigger success…

1980-1985

During its recording, not even REO could’ve predicted that ‘Hi Infidelity’ would go on to sell over 11,000,000 copies, but by taking everything they’d learnt and polishing it a little more, they created a genre masterpiece. The 80s had arrived and REO were quick to embrace the new decade’s pop styles quicker than most. From the first note to the last, from the band’s image, and from the sleeve art flaunting the idea that sex sells, there’s almost no link to ‘Nine Lives’ just a year before. ‘Hi Infidelity’ hit the shelves a full nine months before Journey’s ‘Escape’ and it could certainly be argued that the album paved the way for that multi-million selling musical colossus. The idea that ‘Hi Infidelity’ not only shaped melodic rock for the next decade, but left most other similar artists behind when trying to create something as perfect just cannot be understated. With ten songs packed into a svelt thirty four minutes and with absolutely no filler, it is AOR perfection.

Much has been said and written about this album in the past, but all the praise is justified. Revisiting it as part of this box set decades later, it’s amazing how well everything holds up; even the lesser known material had the makings of hit singles. The huge hits still sound marvellous, of course, but a couple of the album’s deeper cuts are also the most interesting.

The best of the album tracks is hidden half way through side two. ‘Out of Season’ is pure pop – it’s pace, tone and melody instantly lift the mood. Cronin takes the idiosyncrasy within his voice and uses it in the most extreme way since ‘Time For Me To Fly’ on a chorus that’s an absolute killer, but that’s all equalled by some superb guitar work throughout. This is the commercial REO at full tilt. By following that with a prime rock ‘n’ roller ‘Shakin’ It Loose’, complete with Doughty hammering his piano like 1962 never went out of fashion, they present a double whammy that’s every bit as effective as the album’s opening cuts where the pure AOR of ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ and the world famous ‘Keep On Lovin’ You’ firmly mark REO’s place at the top. With more retro pastiches in ‘Someone Tonight’ and the doo-wop tribute ‘In Your Letter’ as well as the classic ‘Take It On The Run’, ‘Hi-Infidelity’ is one of those albums that has something for almost every mood. Closing with ‘I Wish You Were There’ it doesn’t weaken towards the end, either. That track, although smoother than most, shows a different side to REO again as they tackle a country rock waltz that occasionally sounds like Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ augmented by the guitar and keyboard parts from Joe Cocker’s powerhouse cover of ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. It’s one of those numbers which might just knock you sideways if you’ve not heard it in a long while.

The good news for fans is that, even though they don’t provide much variation on the finished product, the nine demos originally issued with the Sony Legacy 30th anniversary set are all included here. The bad news is…so is the reggae influenced recording of ‘Keep On Loving You’ from 1989. With snare drums used in place of steel, a steady pop-reggae rhythm and keyboards that sound like pan-pipes, REO suffer a massive, massive lapse of taste and force something upon their audience that sounds like something from an 80s Disney movie played by Aswad at their most uninspired and lightweight. It’s genuinely nasty…

After ‘Hi Infidelity’, some people consider 1982’s ‘Good Trouble’ to be a poor relation. While there’s some truth in the idea that REO simply just repeated the same formula, it’s still a hugely enjoyable album. Since the songwriters’ credits are pretty much an even split between Richrath, Cronin and Hall, it’s unsurprising that it seems very well balanced – calculated, even – but it’s best tunes are as good as any from its more successful predecessor.

The lead track (and massive US hit) ‘Keep The Fire Burning’ finds Cronin curling his vocal over a brilliantly busy piano riff before a harmony drenched chorus reawakens all of the ingredients that made ‘Hi Infidelity’ so good. The musical blend between Cronin, Richrath and Doughty is perfect here and by the time Doughty breaks away for a melodic solo, you know you’re witnessing a classic, even from first listen. Wheeling out a big ballad early on, ‘Sweet Time’ sort of sounds like a retread of a couple of previous REO slowies, but Cronin’s voice is amazing and the simple refrain holds up incredibly well. It might sound full of old AOR clichés decades on, but it comes from an era when all the best clichés were set in stone for the first time. Equally strong, ‘Every Now & Then’ harks back to the ‘Tuna Fish’ album in terms of melody; between a slightly warmer sound to the performance and Cronin sounding a bit more like his younger self, there’s a more 70s feel to the performance. This is very much further suggested by a fine twin lead guitar break and by the time the band fades with Richrath amid a smooth solo, it marks its place as an album highlight. The only weak link throughout the album’s first side – and probably even the whole thing – is the trite ‘Girl With The Heart of Gold’. In terms of looking for a new twist on a shared love, songwriter Bruce Hall could’ve perhaps made his love interest sound less like a Victorian prostitute. Also, while the melodies are strong throughout, endless repetition of the main hook just makes a four and a half minute ditty seem like something that goes on forever.

Applying their AOR chops to an odd melody that sounds like a sea shanty, ‘I’ll Follow You’ seems a touch uneasy at first, but a massive tempo change into a rock ‘n’ roll chorus sets things on track and clearly enjoying every moment, Doughty is on fire. Giving him an old tack piano sound only helps to strengthen a retro feel and is very much recommended listening for those who love it when REO cut loose, as per ‘157 Riverside Avenue’. ‘Let’s Bebop’ provides another solid dose of retro fun with Doughty busying at the piano and Cronin tackling a silly lyric with a huge amount of conviction and finally, with the title cut serving up some rock ‘n’ roll and a much more frivolous feel, the album ends on a massive high.

With ten songs and at least eight belters, there are far worse ways to spend thirty seven minutes than in the company of REO’s tenth studio outing. It mightn’t be mentioned as often as ‘Hi Infidelity’, and it’s double platinum sales aren’t exactly a match for the previous eleven million, but ‘Good Trouble’ is an excellent listen in the main. Athough the history books might treat it more like an afterthought, it deserves so much more love.

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By 1984, REO were very much on a roll and, indeed, kept their AOR wheels turning on ‘Wheels Are Turnin’, a disc that completed a hat-trick of fantastic LPs. Much like ‘Good Trouble’, there are no attempts here to mix things up – by now, REO have a clear vision of their strengths, and a mixture of slightly poppier AOR with a couple of rock ‘n’ roll throwbacks is very much the order of business.

Opening the album, ‘I Do’ Wanna Know’ is a happy nod to their earlier rock ‘n’ roll style that could have easily slotted into 1976’s ‘R.E.O’ or 1978’s ‘Tuna Fish’. Cronin sounds completely at ease wrapping his voice around an unashamed pastiche, but it’s Doughty’s swirling organ work and the stately approach by the rhythm section that really gives it that necessary spark. The semi-acoustic ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ plays out retro pop rock with ease and, once more, Doughty’s organ work is pivotal to its brilliance. It could easily have fit amongst the material on any of REO’s five prior albums…but it’s to their credit that it sounds anything but tired. For those who love REO in their more rock ‘n’ roll guise it’ll surely be a welcome listen, while the massive stadium rock single ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ is a great equal to ‘Take It On The Run’. There’s unlikely to be anyone interested in a Speedwagon box set that won’t have heard this song a million times over, but like Toto’s ‘Africa’ and Journey’s ‘Any Way You Want It’, by now, its heavy nostalgia is all part of the charm.

Those whom love Richrath will find four minutes of enjoyment on the title track with various choppy guitar sounds and rocky fills underscoring a big vocal – very much classic REO – but, interestingly, this album reaches its peak during a couple of songs that have a much poppier stance. Fusing big pop-rock sounds with a slight reggae bent, ‘Thru The Night’ very much sounds more like an old Saga experiment and is a product of its time. However, with a really infectious hook and fine playing from all concerned – particularly Gary – it manages to be an album highlight. There’s a lot of cheese gone into its general creation, but it’s fun. Another of the band’s more underrated numbers, ‘Live Every Moment’ represents some superb pop-rock that deserved to be on a film soundtrack montage. Doughty’s piano work is bouncy and crisp; Cronin and Richrath drop into some fine harmonies and while it’s partly by-numbers, the end result is just lovely – and even better with the volume cranked. It’s a mystery as to how this isn’t considered one of the band’s very, very best. A different kind of pop sits at the heart of ‘Break His Spell’, but it still sounds like gold standard REO. With Kev giving everything in a great performance, a huge piano solo from Doughty and the eventual arrival of a huge choir of vocals, it packs a hell of a lot into under three minutes and like ‘Live Every Moment’, it’s a real mood lifter.

Some of the material is certainly predictable and for the bands 70s fans it’ll probably be a bit shiny, but with nine songs and no filler packed into thirty nine minutes, ‘Wheels’ is yet another REO essential. If the CD were a standalone purchase, it would be worth buying for ‘Live Every Moment’ alone.

The version included in ‘The Classic Years’ offers fans a few non-essential radio edits for bonus tracks as well as a harder to find number that appeared in The Goonies – not that anyone remembers REO on that soundtrack; the glory always goes to Cyndi Lauper. Given REO’s gifts for frivolous rock ‘n’ roll and obvious abilities to play kind of things that Kenny Loggins turned into soundtrack essentials, it seems odd that ‘Wherever You’re Goin’ (It’s Alright)’ never rises beyond the pedestrian by comparison. Driven by thin 80s drums and a heavy strummed acoustic guitar, it’s very much an update on a couple of musical moods from 1976’s ‘R.E.O.’ with Kevin in good voice, but beyond that, it’s more than a touch lacking. There’s a pleasing guitar solo, but it’s far too short and introduced too late within the song – by that point, you’ve already endured a children’s choir…urgh. It’s the kind of track you might play once or twice and then forget about for a decade, so it’s not really any wonder people always think of Cyndi. Still, it’s nice that it has been included here for the sake of completeness.

In 1985, REO released their first hits compilation. Years ahead of the fashion for doing so, ‘The Hits’ included two previously unavailable songs, recorded at the time of ‘Wheels’. Despite some now dated production decisions that are typical of the mid 80s, both numbers still sound like fine examples of REO at their 80s peak. With a fusion of pop and rock and the kind of drum sounds you’d find on a Tina Turner or Robert Tepper LP, ‘I Don’t Wanna Lose You’ breezes past in a carefree manner, big on vocals, thin on bass. Chorus-wise it’s great, and a few fine moments from Richrath go a long way towards being able to forgive the trebly sound. Representing the other side of REO, ‘Here With Me’ attempts to replicate the formula of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ with a full compliment of bell-like keyboards and a lighters-in-the-air mood that sounds worthy of a film soundtrack, making the Goonies contribution even more baffling. [The ‘Hits’ tracks are included among the many bonus materials within this box set, although they’ve been appended to 1987’s ‘Life As We Know It’. They’d sit better as bonus tracks on ‘Wheels Are Turnin’, but it’s a minor quibble.]

1987-1990

Although a couple of unreleased tracks provided some genuine interest on the ‘Hits’ compilation, there had been a three year gap between the release of ‘Wheels’ and its follow-up, 1987’s ‘Life As We Know It’. Tensions had grown between Cronin and Richrath. Not that you’d especially spot those problems throughout most of the album, since ‘Life’ presents another rich slice of melodic rock. It mightn’t be as immediate as its three predecessors – how could it be? Even the most gifted of bands have to slide eventually – but for the REO fan, there are at least five tracks that hit that gold standard.

REO pull one of the best songs out of the hat straight away and ‘New Way To Love’ successfully blends their old love of rock ‘n’ roll with their most commercial sound to date. Sometimes sounding like something from a Huey Lewis album, a frivolous feel is key, with Gary playing some great guitar fills and Kevin relishing in a throwaway hook. For those who like things to sound even more like a party (or a Scotti Brothers soundtrack filler), the addition of energetic saxes will very much appeal. The pure AOR of ‘Variety Tonight’ is a fantastic example of the techy AOR sound that had sprung up in the mid 80s and Neal Doughty drives the number with a blanket of synths that scream 80s like nothing else, especially when pitched against Hall’s synthetic sounding basslines. By the point that a fine guitar solo appears, there’s a feeling that this could have appeared on a Rick Springfield LP or been a smash in the hands of John Farnham. Cheesy it may be, but try resisting the shiny 80s vibes when playing it loudly!

A co-write with songwriters Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (writers of Bangles hits and ‘Like A Virgin’), ‘Screams and Whispers’ is close to pop, yet at the same time isn’t a million miles away from a couple of tunes on Molly Hatchet’s shamelessly commercial ‘The Deed Is Done’, or even the soundtrack for The Lost Boys. With a strong rhythm and a world of stabbed keys, it’s brilliantly played and the radio-friendly style is a perfect fit for REO at this time – even if they sound like they could turn in this sort of thing on auto-pilot – and ‘Over The Edge’ could be another banger from Kenny Loggins. Ever professional, the band take this should’ve-been-on-a-soundtrack workout and really run with it. Richrath offers a scorching solo and the chorus hook is one of those that still sounds inspiring decades on. The lighter synth pop influence on ‘Accidents Can Happen’ fares less well, being just that bit too far out of REO’s comfort zone and lyrically limp, but that’s balanced out by the rocky ‘One To Many Girlfriends’, a number that really allows Cronin to stretch his voice and Richrath to throw out some great guitar work. Somehow, this studio recording really captures the vibrancy of their older work while still applying the newer 80s sheen.

If there’s any real problem with ‘Life As We Know It’, it isn’t necessarily the songs – even ‘Accidents’ could have worked out better if Bruce Hall had handed it over to a pop star du jour – it’s the production and final mix. This was an album that would eventually sound like a victim of the era in which it was released. The drum sound is disappointingly thin and like so many pop-rock discs of the mid 80s, the lack of bass can be frustrating… Still, there’s enough material to make this disc an important collection filler.

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It would be another three years before REO would release another studio album and with 1990’s clumsily titled ‘The Earth, A Small Man, His Dog & A Chicken’ the band’s days at the top were clearly numbered. There had been a huge change in line-up: founding members Gary Richrath and Alan Gratzer had departed and in their place session drummer Bryan Hitt and ex-Beau Coup guitarist Dave Amato were charged with filling some very big shoes. New members can change the dynamic, but instead of fully embracing that, REO chose instead to carry on as nothing had changed. Tom Lord-Alge’s production is much warmer than ‘Life As We Know It’, but a lot of the songs seem relatively generic.

The opening number ‘Love Is A Rock’, re-introducing a few acoustic elements, provides a strong enough start. Its big chorus suits Cronin perfectly and while the late 80s keys are still doing their thing, Hall’s bass is pushed to the fore, making REO sound far more like their old selves. ‘All Heaven Broke Loose’ is perfect AOR fodder and although songwriters Gratzer, Jesse Harms and Adrian Gurvitz could’ve given it to anyone, the REO recording is easily ‘Earth…’s finest four minutes, with Cronin tapping into a classic, classic hook and everyone sounding like they’re enjoying themselves. Fans of lots of melodic rock albums released between 1984-1990 – and particularly the likes of Alias and FM – will find this track indispensable.

‘Love In The Future’ offers a good playing from Amato, but again, the end product could be almost any AOR band of the era. ‘Half Way’ – a contribution from Mark Spiro, best known to most as a songwriter who scored a couple of fantastic credits with Bad English – also has a strong chorus and brassy backing vocals that very much add to an enjoyable, if generic, number. Unfortunately, the rest of the album sort of blends into a safe and predictable half an hour, despite some good playing and a full sounding mix.

The best of the rest, the rockier ‘Live It Up’ was chosen as a single, even though it doesn’t immediately suggest classic REO. Written by session keysman Jesse Harms – writer or co-writer of over half of this album – it’s a melodic rock tune that’s more than okay, but never quite the classic it thinks it is. Not even Cronin’s presence is enough to make it sound like REO at their more distinctive – it actually sounds more like something that would have suited Jesse’s previous boss, Sammy Hagar even better – and beyond a big, rousing intro, ‘You Won’t See Me’ could just as easily been a hit in the hands of Robert Tepper, Jim Jamison or Tim Feehan.

On the surface, ‘Earth/Man/Dog/Chicken’ is a good AOR record, but the problem is that’s all pretty faceless. These songs could’ve been recorded by any number of soft rock bands in 1990 and achieved pretty much the same result. The consequence of that means it isn’t ever the sort of album you’ll reach for over ‘Hi Infidelity’ or ‘…Tuna Fish’, but a few numbers make it very much worth hearing…and since it’s been bundled in with some genuine essentials in this ‘Classic Years’ box, its inclusion is still very welcome.

[Despite having a succession of vocalists during their early years and a less than stable approach to line-ups, there are some fans whom, in 1990, refused to accept a version of REO without Gary Richrath. At the time of this box set’s release, Amato was still the band’s guitarist – a position he’d now held for over a decade longer than Gary. Sadly, Richrath passed away in 2015.]

BONUS LIVE MATERIALS

On the surface, ‘The Classic Years’ is an ideal way for the more casual fan to play catch up on a couple of studio albums – especially those overlooked later ones – but its biggest draw for even the keenest REO nut is the inclusion of (approximately) two discs worth of hard to find or unreleased live materials.

Following the precedent set by Hear No Evil’s 2018 Molly Hatchet box, the audio from a couple of promo only discs makes an official retail debut here. The first of these, the prosaically titled ‘Live Again’, captures REO at the time their ‘Tuna Fish’ tour of ’78 and was recorded in the intimate setting of Sound City Studios in front of a select audience. The version of ‘Son of A Poor Man’ is excellent, with Kevin’s voice high in the mix and lots of interplay between Doughty’s keys and Hall’s bass. Richrath is in great shape too, and his solo really cuts through. ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ is a little rougher, but again, captures a fine performance from Richrath and shows how natural a performer Cronin was back in his prime. The instrumental ‘Flying Turkey Trot’, much like it’s predecessor on 1977’s ‘Live: You Get What You Play For’, is better than the studio recording, but due to the no-frills recording and small audience, it doesn’t have quite the same energy as the take from the double live platter. That said, at the climax, Richrath steams into his fretboard. It’s just a pity that at the point you think he’ll go into a higher gear, it all comes to an end, since REO were obviously trying to replicate the 1976 studio recording in terms of it being suitable for radio.

Old favourite ‘Keep Pushin’ kicks off with a beefy riff full of 70s gold, before Cronin leads the way with a great version of the still classic track – enough to stop you in your tracks and go for a listen to the ‘REO’ album before moving on. Live staples ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ and ‘157 Riverside Avenue’ exercise more of REO’s r ‘n’ r muscles and as usual the takes here leave their studio counterparts in the dust. ‘157’ stretches to a full ten minutes, but don’t expect extended soloing – most of the excess is taken up by Kev chatting with the audience. If you’re feeling over-sensitive, his big speech during might sound like someone trying far too hard to impress, but he’s having a grand old time… While there’s little here that fans won’t get from ‘You Get What You Play For’, most will find its inclusion here more than welcome, especially with the promo vinyl now so hard to find.

The contents of the second promo disc are an untitled four track EP recorded during the promotion for ‘Hi-Infidelity’. Obviously, by 1981, REO had massive hits to promote and it’s those that take priority here, with spirited renditions of ‘Don’t Let Him Go’, ‘Keep On Loving You’, ‘Take It On The Run’ and ‘In Your Letter’. The source material for this promo is not credited [and unbelievably, the Discogs website is of no help], but further digging suggests they’ve been sourced from the show recorded at the McNichols Arena, Denver in 1981. The audience sounds huge and the band are giving their all, to the point where it’s only a slightly more urgent vocal that separates a couple of these recordings from the studio takes, since REO were so good live at the turn of the decade. There are a couple of moments where Gary’s guitar is a little more prominent – occasionally hitting an odd note, but that all adds to the fun. Since this whole show was recorded, it’s a shame all of it wasn’t included.

A massive boon for REO completists, disc nine – subtitled ‘Live 1980-1990’ – features seventeen “rare and exclusive” recordings sourced from different shows. Two more cuts from the Denver show (‘Roll With The Changes’ and ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’) have pride of place and represent older REO in suitable fashion. As with the promo cuts, Cronin’s voice is just brilliant, but these don’t come close to the perfection of five tracks taken from a 1985 show in Kansas City, where REO’s AOR sheen reaches it’s absolute peak. Fans will surely recognise the audio as being taken from the audio of the ‘Wheels Are Turnin’ Live ’85’ VHS and then cleaned up, but the performances of ‘Don’t Let Him Go’, ‘Tough Guys’, ‘Take It On The Run’, ‘I Do’ Wanna Know’ and ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ are career bests. It’s important, with hindsight, to recognise how naturally the two then new tracks fit so naturally with the classics.

Two cuts from the ‘Good Trouble’ tour (Rockford, ’83) sound a little light in direct comparison, but a great version of ‘Keep The Fire Burning’ is a reminder of a fine album, while two cuts from a 1990 show promoting ‘Dog/Chicken’ suggest that even without long-serving guitarist Gary Richrath on board, REO were still a near-flawless live act. On versions of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ and ‘Live It Up’, there’s definitely more of “live” feel than those 80s shows. Hearing more of this show would have been interesting, even if the parent album isn’t often praised. Elsewhere, there are single tracks taken from different shows, suggesting there’s a lot of REO live material sitting in archives. Most of it is of a high quality, but for those hoping for a little bit of a 70s throwback, a 1980 show spawns a slightly rough and ready rendition of ‘Say You Love Me Or Say Goodnight’, driven by rollocking piano lines and shredding rock ‘n’ roll guitar. While whole shows are always preferable to this kind of compilation approach, ‘Live 1980-1990’ does a more than fair job at covering a decade of great road work.

[Plugging a couple of extra gaps, the live versions of ‘Ridin’ The Storm Out’ and ‘157 Riverside Avenue’ from the ‘Second Decade of Rock & Roll’ compilation can be found as bonus tracks on the ‘Nine Lives’ disc.]

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‘The Classic Years: 1978-1990’ deserves to help REO get re-evaluated, much in the same way Toto and Journey have been embraced by a younger audience in the few years leading up to this release. Unless a couple of the tracks appear on a massive Netflix TV show, that seems unlikely but, in the meantime, this set is a very welcome anthology for all lovers of the band.

It’s reasonably comprehensive, even going as far to include mono edits of a couple of the singles (as is Hear No Evil’s wont), but it isn’t perfect – the selection of live materials sometimes feels touch haphazard and surely this would’ve been the golden opportunity to get those old ‘Hi-Infidelity Live’ (1981) and ‘Wheels Are Turnin’ Live’ (1985) VHS tapes issued on DVD officially. But…as it is, it’s every bit as important as the ‘Early Years’ box.

Whether you’re checking out an album or two you’ve missed over the years, or using it to plug a couple of holes in your collection, you’ll certainly want this if you’ve any interest at all in Speedwagon’s glory years. It’s worth having for ‘Tuna’, ‘Hi Infideliety’ and ‘Good Trouble’ alone, but a wealth of other enjoyable material makes that purchase a no-brainer. Just pretend that children’s choir never happened.

January 2019