I've always thought archaeology would be an interesting line of work, and not just because of that Indiana Jones guy. The digging and sifting might get old after awhile, but I'm fascinated by the idea of using artifacts to try to understand how a culture evolved.
All of which occurred to me as I attempted to solve the following historical puzzle: just how in the holy hell did this album become a multi-platinum phenomenon?
Let me be clear -- I'm not here to bash REO Speedwagon as a band. They put out a respectable amount of respectably good material over the years. But Hi Infidelity was unquestionably their commercial pinnacle and, as a prototypical slab of arena rock, the clear pick for our current retrospective. And it's really, really, really, cringe-inducingly bad.
REO started out as a Midwestern college band in 1968 whose early lineup formed around keyboardist Neal Doughty, drummer Alan Gratzer and guitarist Gary Richrath. Their first three albums saw the group burn through three different lead singers, including Kevin Cronin, who was dumped after a single outing for the long-since-forgotten Mike Murphy. Three albums later, Cronin was invited back for 1976's REO and the group's fortunes took off. The success of 1977's double-live You Get What You Play For, featuring a blazing live version of "Ridin' The Storm Out," set the table for the next studio album, which would also be the first to feature longtime bassist-vocalist Bruce Hall. Their platinum 1978 disc You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish may have suffered under the weight of a dubious title, but the music sparkled with melody, led by the surging "Roll With The Changes," still a personal favorite from the REO catalog.
Engine thus primed, the Speedwagon came out of the curve and floored it down the straightaway with this album full of Top Ten singles. Top Ten singles... in the year 1980 (you've been warned).
Big Single #1 "Don't Let Him Go" has some drive and drama to it, but also features some of the most godawful bleepity-blip tones ever regurgitated by an '80s keyboard. Following right on its heels, Big Single #2 "Keep On Lovin' You" is a candidate for the ultimate power ballad -- for a Spinal Tap fan. Piano, bells, melodramatic lead vocals, big-as-the-sky production values and steroidal background vocals, all coalescing around one of the most brain-dead lyrics ever recorded. "You played dead, but you never bled / Instead you laid (sic) still in the grass all coiled up and hissin'."
Look, it rhymes with "listen," see? Whaddya want here, Robert Frost?
Big Single #3 was "Take It On The Run," whose sturdy descending chorus hook supports a lyric that seems lifted straight out of the Foreigner songbook of Victimized Men Who Really Need To Quit Whining And Get On With Their Lives. As non-violent a person as I normally am, listening to this song makes me want to hit things.
To REO's credit, they aren't a one-trick pony; they do their best to work in a little variety. "In Your Letter" is a sincere if rather limp Brill Building pastiche. "Shakin' It Loose" shoots for rockabilly swagger, though Richrath's fiery leads are undermined by Cronin's airy vocals. "Follow My Heart" starts promisingly, laying down a nice hard-blues groove under the first verse, but then you discover that's all there is -- within 30 seconds you're into the Painfully Obvious Chorus (an unfortunate REO specialty), which is repeated enough times to qualify as torture under the Geneva Convention. And ultimately, there's just no redeeming a disc with a song as monumentally dopey and weak-kneed as "Rough Guys" on it.
This album is, in sum, a thundering mediocrity, popular enough in its day to ensure that Cronin, Doughty, Hall and a pair of hired hands are still playing state fairs 25 years later, an artifact of an earlier time whose mores and values we are still struggling to comprehend.