Though I don't own any albums or memorabilia from this genre and, being that I was born in the tail end of the '70s, have limited memories of those days of hair-rific glory, I am a sucker for brilliantly cheesy '70s-'80s guitar power-pop arena-rock, just like any other brown-haired/blue-eyed/ god-fearing Midwestern boy (right?).
I'm very proud to say that one of the deliciously cheesiest bands of them all, REO Speedwagon, was born and raised right here in Champaign- Urbana. Hows about that?! I told you all that this town is a musical mecca, and this finally proves it hands down, bizatch!
From the liner notes on one of the bands more recent albums (yes, they're still around): "REO started out on the University of Illinois campus in 1967, playing obscure covers by underground bands such as Cream and The Doors. Beer and sawdust bars, 'The Red Lion', and 'Chances R' were home to dozens of local Champaign rock groups. But in 1970, when guitarist Gary Richrath joined founder members Neal Doughty, Alan Gratzer, Terry Luttrell and Gregg Philbin, REO emerged as the most popular band in town by far. Gary was not only a great lead guitar player and a flashy performer, but he was also a song writer. Little by little the band begun to sneak originals into their set among the cover tunes, and by 1971 they had enough of their own material to get the attention of Epic Records A&R man Tom Werman. The first album, chock full of REO's trademark high-energy riff rock, came out of that year."
Word on the street is that the boys of REO held their first rehearsals in the basement of the Illinois Street Residence Halls in Urbana (seen at right).
And have you ever wondered where they came up with one of best band names around? The REO Speed Wagon was an early ancestor of the pickup truck, first manufactured in 1905. The band took the name and the logo right from the vehicle after the keyboard player, Neal Doughty, an engineering major at the University of Illinois, learned about truck in a class, which frankly I think is awesome. The REO Speed Wagon fire truck is pictured at right.
I've just discovered that the first solid incarnation of REO, after some early personnel switches, played some really good funky-bluesy rock that's quite different than the power pop that folks of my generation equate them with (see picture at the top of this post). Here's a great YouTube find of very early REO, circa 1971, with a different lead singer and bassist than the later arena rock lineup. I really dig the lead singer, Terry Luttrell, and I've never realized what a great guitarist they had in Gary Richrath (a Peoria native). He and the keyboard player kick this song's arse. The music begins around 1:10 (4:45 remaining), after the totally riveting host does his smooth-talking thang.
REO Speedwagon - "157 Riverside Avenue" [video of TV appearance]
And here, friends, we have the REO we all have come to know and love, with the leader singer who basically became the face of the band (for good and bad): Kevin Cronin, the king of showbiz hair (that's him in the picture up top). This video rulez. I'd like to dedicate this to my great friends Dan and Erika, who are moving in July from Champaign to Boulder, CO. You'll understand why after watching the glorious first two minutes of this video (which shows the future of Dan Beahm). And be sure to check out the explosively cheesy ending starting around 5:45 into it (1:50 remaining), complete with guitar solos and guitar back-and-forth orgies, multiple pseudo-endings, lots of running, jumping, and random galavanting about the stage, dipping of greasy 80s-hair into the audience, fireworks, and the one of the best displays of shout-out-name-of-song-and-scream-a-barely-
understandable-"HANKYOU!"-before-running-offstage that I've ever witnessed.
REO Speedwagon - "Ridin' the Storm Out" [live concert, circa 1985]
On January 19, 2001 the City of Champaign dedicated part of Main Street in the heart of downtown to be forever known as "REO Speedwagon Way". To my knowledge this is the only street named after REO in the entire world, which makes us pretty much better than everyone else. The city was even cool enough to invite back the original singer Terry (from the "157" video above). More pix here.
After all of the above awesomeness, I hate to end on the following, but such is rock 'n roll. The latest incarnation of REO, with lead singer Cronin as the only remnant of their early-80s asskickingness (though keyboardist Doughty is apparently still involved here and there), is currently promoting their newest album by touring Walmarts across the nation. Yes, Walmarts. I don't have the heart to put this next video directly up on this blog, but here is the link of them performing "Time for Me to Fly" (seriously my favorite REO song) at their April 6, 2007 appearance at the Walmart in beautiful Eagan, Minnesota. Warning: if you have any self-respect, you may start to weep while watching this.
May Sufjan and Andrew Bird never end up playing the hallowed halls of Big Lots and Dollar General when they're in their sixties...