The History of REO Speedwagon’s Blockbuster ‘Hi Infidelity’
The record also gave the band its first No. 1 single, “Keep on Loving You.” But as keyboardist Neal Doughty told us in 2011, he had a hunch they had crafted something special once the record was complete.
“We still never know exactly what happened, it was just the right songs came together. That's the first album we made where I was convinced every single song was good,” he said at the time. “I was listening to the thing before it came out. Usually when we'd finish an album, I'd take a little breather and not even listen to it for a while. That one was just my favorite record from the time we finished it. That's how I knew something must be different.”
REO scored four Top 40 hits from the album, which has sold more than 10 million copies to date. Even though they sputtered a bit with the follow-up album, 1982's Good Trouble (which still managed to hit the Top 10 and spawn two Top 40 singles), they kept on rolling and soon found themselves with another blockbuster LP, 1984’s Wheels Are Turnin'.
In short, the ‘80s were a good period for REO Speedwagon at a time when some of their ‘70s peers were struggling to remain relevant. They stayed busy throughout the decade, even if longtime fans felt like the band had made a shift away from the harder music they played earlier.
“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,” Kevin Cronin told us in 2013. “So to me, it’s all good. 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.”
We recently sat down with Cronin to go track-by-track through the Hi Infidelity album, released on Nov. 21, 1980. "More than half of my life is post-Hi Infidelity at this point," he says. "In my career, that record kind of marks time. That was a big one.”
“Don’t Let Him Go”
“Don’t Let Him Go,” if I’m not mistaken, was the first song that I wrote for the album. We didn’t really have any songs. [Laughs] The band had stalled a little bit, because we released You Can Tune A Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish in 1978, and we really had high hopes for it. We really felt like it was just the best thing that we had ever done, and then what we didn’t realize was that there are other things and other forces at play in the music world. One of them was that our record label, the guy who was the head of radio promotion at our record label, quit and took the entire radio promotions team with him and he started a new record label, like right in the middle of our project, so it was like, “Wait, what happened?” It was like someone pulled the rug out from under us. It kind of tripped us up a little bit. We knew it was time to make a record, because that was just what you did, you know? You made a record, you went on tour, you came home, you took a couple of days off and then you started another record. But we didn’t really have a backlog of songs written.
I remember sitting in my home studio and songs to me kind of come in litters, and you kind of get a feeling when you’re about to give birth, for lack of a better metaphor, and I was kind of feeling like, “Okay, I’m starting to feel something here.” I don’t usually write this way, but I had this thought that I’d never written a song with the famous Bo Diddley beat. There’s certain things that you want to kind of check off your songwriting bucket list. So I started messing around with the Bo Diddley beat, and I found a little variation of it. That was kind of the original inspiration for “Don’t Let Him Go.” To the casual listener, it might sound like the exact Bo Diddley beat, but to a musician, there’s a variation: There’s an eighth note that’s in a different place that makes it unique. So I got excited about that rhythmically, because my thing is rhythm guitar. That’s kind of where it started. It’s one of the few songs that I’ve ever written where I kind of create a character. Usually, my songs are pretty personal, but this one, I kind of created a character. I usually call whoever the protagonist in the song is, I call them “our hero.” So our hero in “Don’t Let Him Go” is really kind of an amalgam of all of the band members at that particular time. One thing that we all kind of had in common right around the Hi Infidelity period was that our personal lives and our home lives were fracturing.
We just worked so much and we toured and were in the studio and it was beginning to take its toll. That song, I just kind of create this character [that’s] not any one of us in particular: It’s certainly not me, although there’s parts of it that are me. But it was part Gary [Richrath], it was part Alan [Gratzer], it was part Bruce [Hall], and so the message to the song is “Don’t let him go.” The song says, “Don’t let him go/Give him a chance to grow” and a lot of people misunderstand that. They think it says, “Don’t let him go/Give him a chance to go,” which makes absolutely no sense. [Laughs] In other words, stick with us here; we’re working really hard at this. I was kind of reaching out to all of our wives, girlfriends – whatever the predominant relationship that anyone had was, it was just like, “Have patience and don’t let go of us now. You know, we’re still works in progress.”
"Keep on Loving You"
We were rehearsing at S.I.R. in Hollywood and we were working on songs like “Don’t Let Him Go” and other songs. One night, I literally just woke up out of a dead sleep and I had these three simple piano chords just kind of coursing through my head. One of the things that I always take seriously as a songwriter, if you feel inspiration and you’re driving down the street, you pull off on the side of the road. If you’re sleeping, you’ll get up; whatever you have to do to capture it. The truth is, 90 percent of the time it ends up being crap, but that 10 percent, I mean, it might not be 90/10, but a good percentage of them, it’s like, “Why did I bother waking up at night to record that?” But every once in a while, you get something. So I woke up and just went into my little funky home studio and sat down at my little funky Wurlitzer electric piano and started playing those chords. I’m not much of a piano player, but those chords, there was a tension in those chords. Because I kept the bass note solid with an F and then I changed the chords from F to G to A Minor, and it was partially just because of my limitations as a piano player. But it created this kind of tension between the chords, and the bass note that captured something that I was feeling and I just started kind of singing and the lyrics started coming. When I got to the studio the next day, I started playing what I had written the night before. The way it kind of works with us is that one of us comes in to rehearsal and just kind of starts playing something.
Sometimes you just start playing and something happens right then. But a lot of times, there’s an idea that’s half-baked and you bring it in and you start playing it and then the other band members either join in or they don’t! [Laughs] If everybody joins in and the vibe starts rolling, that’s usually a pretty good sign. If people don’t, that’s usually not a very good sign. So in this particular case, no one started playing along, but I just had a very strong connection to those chords and to the words that I wrote for those verses. So, I was pretty persistent. I literally kept playing it until Richrath finally plugged his guitar into a stack of Marshalls and cranked up this gnarly sound that really didn’t fit what I was playing at all. I think his intention was – if you were going to stereotype us – he was the rock energy and I was more the melodic song energy. Those are very stereotypical, but I think what his intention was, was to kind of drown me out and get me to finally stop playing this particular idea. But when I heard him start playing with that sound, it was, like, that was it. That was like the perfect thing guitar-wise for what i was playing. I don’t think that was his intention. I think he was pretty surprised when I was like, “Dude, that’s perfect! Keep playing that!” He was like, “Wait, you’re kidding, right?” I was like, “No! I love that! That’s exactly what this song needs!” Because the song, if you listen to it on the surface, people use it for their wedding song.
“I’m going to keep on lovin’ you” – it’s very nicey-nice. But when you really listen to what the verses are saying, it’s a pretty dark song, so it needed that tension of the bass note against those piano chords, and then when Gary put that big gnarly sounding guitar part on there, that was exactly the perfect thing. So a lot of what happens in bands is what I call “happy accidents” and that was another part of kind of my job. Because Gary was kind of the king of happy accidents. He would play things and he’d finish a take on a solo and go, “Oh man, I totally fucked that up” and I’d go, “Dude, that’s the best thing you’ve played all day. What are you, crazy?” [Laughs] So there was a lot of that kind of energy that would happen in the studio.
"Follow My Heart"
Tom [Kelly, the song's co-writer] was an old friend of ours. Before he became a famous hit songwriter, he was part of the Champaign[, Ill.] music scene of the early ‘70s, back when Irving Azoff was booking everybody, Tom was the lead singer in a band called the One Eyed Jacks. He was mostly known as being a tremendous singer. He could hit the high shit; he was amazing at that. Our original relationship with Tom was that he would come in to help us out with background vocals. But then when he started writing songs, he was really the first writer that wasn’t a member of the band that we kind of let in a little bit, and he was a friend. He was kind of part of that REO family, so it didn’t really seem like an outsider. He and Gary came up with that song independently, so I don’t really know much about the actual writing of the song, but I can tell you that when I first heard it, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, to be honest with you. But I liked the guitar riff. I thought the guitar riff was cool, but I wasn’t real inspired by the lyrics side of it. When we made the demo, I had to find something to get excited about, so I sang it a lot differently than the way it was presented to me. And actually there were some happy accidents on that one too. There was a part that was supposed to be an instrumental breakdown and a guitar solo, that I didn’t realize that was coming next, so I ended up starting to sing a chorus. But it wasn’t a chorus. [Laughs]
It was just a breakdown section, but I just kind of went with it and just sang some basic ad-libbed vocal parts over a section that was supposed to be a guitar solo. It ended up being kind of a cool thing. I think when we played it back, Gary kind of got inspired by that. We inspired one another, we kind of fed off of each other, but there was also a sense of kind of competition. Like, basically, if I do something cool, well then the next thing that he does, he’s going to want it to be cooler than what I just did. And then when he does something, then I go, “Well, wait a minute, I want to do something cooler than that!” So for years, it was a very productive relationship in that way. I think when Gary heard those vocal ad libs, he was inspired. He came and played a live solo on that song that to me, that’s my favorite part of the song. There’s a little breakdown where I sing some vocal ad libs and then Gary’s guitar solo, which was all a one-take event. That, to me, was the most exciting part, and that song is pretty much, what you hear on the demo and what you hear on the album, it’s the same performance. Gary and [producer Kevin] Beamish, in the mix, made it sound bigger and put echo on it and effects on it to make it sound like it was in a concert hall. That was actually one of the songs that made me go, “Wait a second, these demos: We’re not going to top these demos!” Sure enough, we couldn’t!
"In Your Letter"
Gary came in with the song, and it was a true song. It was a true story about Neal coming home from a leg of the tour and finding a note on his kitchen table from his then wife, saying that she had run off with this guy that we all knew. That was how she broke up with him. You know, it was like, “Oh, that’s nice.” Neal came into the studio the next day and he was a wreck. It just was very destructive to him emotionally. That song was really an empathetic piece of songwriting on Gary’s part. But instead of making it a really sad song, he made it kind of happy and poppy sounding. When I heard it, it didn’t have that “in your letter, oooh, in your letter.” When I heard the song, the chord structure and the melody was very simple, very almost like ‘50s doo-wop. You know, just that G, E Minor, C, D – and like, that’s the first chord progression I ever learned. It was basically “This Boy,” but it was sped up. If I thought about it, I could name 50 songs that have that chord progression.
So I just kind of was like, you know, this song is important to [get] on the record, just because it was a song that was our way of kind of supporting Neal and he needed it. So I just kind of thought, “All right, well, if we’re going to do this, let’s just go all of the way.” [Laughs] Let’s just really turn this into a ‘50s doo-wop thing, and that’s where the whole “In your letter, oooh, in your letter” refrain came from and that became kind of the hook of the song. That’s kind of how that developed. And again, a lot of that song is the demo. We overdubbed the background vocals later on. I think I kind of multi-tracked all of those vocals. It’s like 12 of me singing over myself! Honestly, it’s really a fun thing to do, to go in the studio and sing the first part and then you kind of double-track that part and then you go to the next harmony part, you sing that and you double-track that, and when you’re done and you’ve got like a four-part harmony, which is basically eight tracks of vocals. If a guy like Tom Kelly, a real singer’s singer does that, it comes out almost sounding like robotic.
But luckily for me, I’m a little bit rough around the edges as a singer, so when I double-track myself, it doesn’t sound robotic, because each take has a little, shall we say, pitch variations in different places that it kind of creates when I double-track myself and sing harmony with myself like that, it kind of creates a sound that’s pretty unique and a lot of our records kind of had that on there. So it’s another kind of [thing] where my limitations as a singer kind of pay off! [Laughs]
"Take It on the Run"
Gary passed away [in 2015], which, as I say it now, it still chokes me up. I just can’t fucking believe that Gary is not alive. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Fortunately, over the [last] couple of years, Gary and I had some soulful time together. We saw one another a number of times and were able to get a lot out on the table that may have gone unsaid otherwise. I always just kind of felt like I wanted to give Gary an opportunity basically to lay me out, if he wanted to. Because when our partnership kind of ran out of gas at the end of the ‘80s, it could have been that the band went with Gary or the band went with me. The band went with me, and I had to believe that he had some feelings about that. So I wanted to give him an opportunity to go, “Hey man, I’m right here; anything that you haven’t said that you want to say, let’s get it out, man. I’m your friend.” So I’m glad we had a few soulful conversations like that before he passed away.
But at any rate, the one thing that we disagreed on to the very end was the writing of “Take It on the Run.” It’s bizarre to me that we had totally different memories of what happened, but as I sit here talking to you right now, I would bet my life on my story. [Laughs] Even though Gary and I totally disagreed on it. But what I remember happening, Gary was very prolific, and he would kind of hole up in his home studio and he would have notebooks full of lyric ideas and tapes full of musical ideas. But a lot of times, he wasn’t really good at finishing them or kind of even being able to have an objective opinion on which songs were most worthy of being on an REO Speedwagon record, for example. So my job was more in the song arrangement type of area. Like, if you were going to separate our production duties, let’s say. And there was always [exceptions]. But in general, that’s kind of what it was. So I would, from time to time, when we were getting ready to go into the studio, I would go out to Gary’s house and into his studio and we’d just spend the day out there. I would sit down with him and kind of sort through his notebooks and listen to some of his [demos].
He would make demos out there by himself, just overdubbing the guitars and he would put a vocal down [that was] just kind of a guide vocal for me to listen to. That was kind of our mode of [working] and it just evolved that way. I remember that it was kind of the 11th hour and we were getting ready to into the studio for Hi Infidelity, and Gary was a little shy on songs, which is kind of why Tom Kelly was recruited, just to kind of jump start the songwriting process. I was out at Gary’s place and kind of paging through his notebooks and listening to some demos and I wasn’t really hearing things that were jumping out at me that really got me excited. I’m the singer in the band, so I’ve got to be excited about something, or how am I going to put my all into singing the songs? At the very end of the night, it was late and Gary goes, “You know, I’ve got this one thing. It’s kind of a slow song” and Gary wasn’t a slow-song guy in general. [Laughs] He goes, “I’ve got this slow song. I don’t know if there’s anything there, and plus, the title of it is ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and you know, the Beatles kind of already have a song called ‘Don’t Let Me Down.’”
And I go, “Well, fuck it; let’s play it. Let me hear what you’ve got.” He put on this demo, and I’m a big proponent that the opening line of a song, of a book, of a movie script, is pretty important, you know? And when I heard, “Heard it from a friend/ Who heard it from a friend/ Who heard it from another you’ve been messin’ around,” I was like, “I don’t need to hear anything else – this fucking song, people are going to [love this].” It just had me. It was kind of one of those “You had me at hello” moments. I just thought, “That’s just the greatest [beginning].” To me, that’s up there with “Norwegian Wood": “I once had a girl/ Or should I say, she once had me.” It was just one of those lines that it was just like, “Okay, you’ve got me. Now, you’ve just got to deliver the rest of the thing. But I’m already in love here.” But the chorus to it didn’t pay off, because the song was titled “Don’t Let Me Down” and it was just like, “Okay, that kind of makes sense with what the song is talking about,” but it just didn’t connect with me.
So I was listening to it and the opening line of the chorus was, “Take it on the run, baby,” and I was like, “Gary, I think the title to this song is ‘Take It on the Run,’ I’ve just gotta be honest with you” and he was like, “Oh, really?” And I was like, “Yeah.” So I just added to the end of the chorus, “You’re under the gun/ So you take it on the run,” which either makes sense or it doesn’t, but it sure sung well and it sure rhymed, and it was a spur-of-the-moment thing that when I heard the rest of the song, that’s what I felt. So we went with that. And just a little sidebar to that, when “Keep on Loving You” went to No.1 ... I had to beg the A&R department at Epic Records to put “Keep on Loving You” on the album. They didn’t think it was good enough. When they heard that, they were like, “Go back and keep writing; we don’t really hear that.” I had to literally fight with the record company to get that song included. This is the kind of shit that we went through with the record companies, you know? But after “Keep on Loving You” went to No. 1, the next thought is, “Well, what’s the follow-up single going to be?” And of course the guys at the record company thought “In Your Letter,” because it was poppy and it sounded like a hit song. It had a big hook with the “In your letter, oooh, in your letter.”
And I was like, “Absolutely fucking not.” Luckily, our managers, John [Baruck] and Tom [Consolo] are our good friends. They’ve been with us since the beginning, so they were very protective. If the band felt something really strongly and it was at odds with what the record company felt, John and Tom would always go to bat for us and push it through. So I was like, “There is no fucking way that you’re going to follow ‘Keep on Loving You’ with ‘In Your Letter.’ The second single is ‘Take It on the Run.’” There was no question in my mind, you know? It helps when you write a No. 1 song. It gives you a little bit of clout with the record company, so they finally put their trust in me. And sure enough, “Take It on the Run” became the two of the one-two punch that sent that record into the stratosphere. “In Your Letter,” in my opinion, would not have had that same effect.
That was an important song to me, and it still is. That song has found its way back into our set list. It disappeared for a long time. I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s back. It was a pretty vulnerable statement. It was a reaction to having been bullied when I was a kid. So it came from a very, very vulnerable place. I don’t know if you were ever bullied, but especially, because I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there wasn’t the kind of consciousness as there is today, about bullying. Now there is zero tolerance for bullying, which is frikkin’ great. No kid should have to endure some of the shit that I endured myself, and I saw other kids who got way worse than me. Let’s face it, someone that’s bullying someone, they’re just kids too. They don’t know any better. It’s probably a learned behavior from their home life. They’re probably the same kids whose parents are beating on them at home and they come out and act it out on some other vulnerable kid. It’s something that there’s a lot of shame involved in it, so when I wrote that song, I think it was slightly veiled, I guess, but I think that anyone, maybe, anyone who has been bullied, would hear that song and it would touch a chord in them.
This is the first time I’m really talking about it in these terms. But that’s where the song came from. It was an expression of a lot of repressed feelings from junior high school and high school, which were difficult periods in my life. And so I was able to express it, and I just like that song. I like the chord structure. Every time we play it live, after the guitar solo, there’s a couple of verses, and then right before the tag, we do a repeat chorus, and there’s a transition between the first of the repeat choruses and the second repeat chorus where there’s a minor chord that goes there and it’s one of those things as a songwriter that every once in a while, you fall on a chord change. I’m a lover of songs that don’t have a lot of fancy chords, but just have simple chords arranged in a cool way. And that was one of my favorite chord changes of my songwriting career. Some of the best at that are guys like Tom Petty. It’s not about how many chords you have and how fancy they are, it’s how you kind of string ‘em together and the rhythm of them and how they work. That little part of “Tough Guys” is probably my favorite [moment]. I look forward to it every night. It’s just one of those things.
"Out of Season"
We had written all of the songs that we were going to write pretty much for that record, and some of the songs that we tried didn’t pan out and we were still a couple of songs shy of how much material we wanted for the record. And that was when we called Tom [Kelly]. He worked with Gary a little bit and he worked with me a little bit. “Out of Season,” I had written the verses already and Tom had written the chorus already. Tom didn’t have verses for his chorus and I didn’t have a chorus for my verses, and we were just fuckin’ around, basically just playing some music. “Hey, what have you got?” “I don’t know, what have you got?” And we kind of went, “Wait a minute!” I think how it happened is that I played those verses, and Tom was like, “Wait a minute, I think I’ve got something.” He went through his notebooks and it was just kind of a marriage where it was just like click, click, connect it, and boom! We’re off to the races. Song done! You can kind of hear it. If you listen to the song, you kind of hear the verses and then all of the sudden, the transition between the verse and the chorus, it’s pretty sharp. It’s pretty abrupt. [Laughs] But it worked. I really do like that song.
But of all of the songs on the record,.there was a little manufacturing done in that song, There are a lot of songs through the history of pop music that are what I call a manufactured song as opposed to a created song. They’re created, but it’s a different thing. It’s not like a “Keep on Loving You,” which was a burst of creativity in the middle of the night, or I was just feeling what I was feeling so strongly that it just erupted like a broken water main, [where] there was no stopping the energy of that song. “Out of Season” was more like we were digging for it and we found it and we put it together and it worked.
"Shakin It Loose"
“Shakin’ It Loose” was late in the process. It was a song that Gary came in with, and I remember I wasn’t a huge fan of it when Gary first brought it in. I didn’t feel like I knew what he was writing about. I was like, “What are we talking about here?” I didn’t really get it. But the title was kind of cool. Most of the songs on that record are pretty heavy, pretty weighty. “Keep on Loving You,” “Take It on the Run” – they’re about heartbreak and loss and loneliness and desperation. You know, a lot of heady stuff. “Shakin’ It Loose” was just like almost a little breather. I think it’s like two minutes and 45 seconds or something. So it’s just a little breath of just “Fuck it, let’s party” in the middle of all of this craziness. So on that level, I think it works on the record.
I’m a huge Bruce Hall fan. I kind of take credit for getting Bruce in the band, and that’s a statement that might be debated as well. [Laughs] When I first joined REO Speedwagon in 1972, we used to go back to Alan [Gratzer]’s apartment. He was kind of the maitre d' of the band. We would go to the Red Lion, and either we’d be playing there or our friends would be playing there and we’d just be hanging out. But the after party was always at Alan’s house and he had a piano. So it was a big music hang when anything was going on in Champaign. It was ‘71 and ‘72, so there’s a lot of camaraderie among the musical community. I remember just sitting at the piano one night playing some Beatles songs. I used to know how to play “Martha, My Dear” on the piano. I just kind of figured it out for myself. The next thing I knew, there was this cat sitting next to me that I didn’t really know, kind of singing harmonies along with me. And I was like, “Oh, dude! That’s cool! I dig that!” And it turned out it was Bruce.
Everybody in Champaign already knew him because he was the lead singer in a band that had gigged around town. He was born and raised in Champaign, so everybody knew Bruce in Champaign, but I didn’t know him. I was the new kid in town. I remember when I saw him a few nights later playing bass and fronting this band at the Red Lion, our local club, I was like, “Dude, I’d like that guy to be in our band. He’s my bass player even though he doesn’t know it yet.” I just felt that really strongly [even though] REO had a bass player. Bruce was singing “Back on the Road Again” with his band back in those days, so I knew that Bruce had songwriting chops. My thing is, the more people in the band there are writing, the better. I want to have some of my songs on the record, obviously, but not at the exclusion of other people’s songs. But on the other hand, the song has to be worthy in some way.
“Back on the Road Again” was kind of unique for Bruce. Most of his songwriting sounds more like “Someone Tonight,” it’s more of almost like a Cheap Trick kind of feel to it, kind of a power-pop kind of thing. If you’re backstage at one of our shows, Bruce walks around playing acoustic guitar: He’s a really tremendous finger picker and very melodic. He comes up with just these beautiful melodies and beautiful chord changes. But a lot of times, he doesn’t finish them. One of the hardest parts of songwriting is to bring it home. “Someone Tonight” was just kind of Bruce at his power pop best. The subject matter was kind of similar to “Back on the Road Again,” and I was encouraging Bruce to write, because I always felt like the more writers we have in the band, the better records we’re going to make and the more records we’re going to be able to make. It took a little pressure off of me to have to be the principal songwriter. It’s nice to have other guys writing, because it takes a little bit of the pressure off.
"I Wish You Were There"
That was a song that I had written years before. I wrote that when I was living at home, still with my parents. I wrote it at the kitchen table. I’ll never forget that. I never felt like it was finished. I always felt like it needed a chorus. I always felt like those were verses that were kind of in my mind, and I was just kind of waiting to finish it someday. I’ve always got a spare-parts department in my brain of verses, lines of songs – just ideas, that they’re in there and you kind of figure that, “Someday, this will find a home.” For some reason, there was this vibe in the studio and this closeness that was happening between the band members. This sounds corny, but it was really almost like a spiritual connection that we all had. We had known each other for a long time, but we learned things about one another during that record that it became a really strong bond between the band. And I’m not talking about after it was successful. We didn’t know what was going to happen, this was just this fuckin’ demo tape we were making at Crystal Studios.
But I think I just kind of felt that there was a spiritual feeling in the air. And this wasn’t conscious, this was me looking in hindsight, but there was also a spiritual feeling to that song. It was kind of a gospel thing, which you would never expect to hear on an REO Speedwagon. But at that point, my feeling was “Hey, it doesn’t matter.” I had had the experience in the past with a producer of one of our records. I came in with “Time for Me to Fly,” and the producer who was working with us at the time – this was before the Tuna Fish record – said, “No, we can’t record that song. It’s only got three chords. It’s too simple.” And I’m sitting there going, “Who the fuck cares? Who’s counting how many chords this song has?” This guy was a famous producer, who produced Joe Walsh’s records, so I had respect for him, but in my mind, I’m thinking, “What is wrong with you? Who cares how many chords the song has!” So by the time we were making the Hi Infidelity record, we were going to get dropped from the label. They were ready to let us go and pull the plug on us. My thought was just, “Let’s just put it all out there. We have nothing to lose here.” My theory was always if a member of REO Speedwagon writes a song, then by definition, it’s an REO Speedwagon song. You can’t say that it’s not an REO Speedwagon song. You know, who’s to say what an REO Speedwagon song is?
To me, an REO Speedwagon song is a song that was written by one of the guys in REO Speedwagon. It would have to be really something that was way out there to go, “Well, we probably we shouldn’t record that.” If someone wrote something in ⅞ that had 5,000 chords that no one could play, there’s certain limitations, I suppose. But in general, I just thought that there was a spiritual feeling going on between us, and that song had a spiritual, almost like a church-like feeling to it. So I played it for everybody, even though it wasn’t finished in my mind, and Gary came up with that. When you listen to that song, the chorus is really that guitar part, that unison part where Gary would play a note on one string and then go to the next string and stretch it up to that note so it sounds like two guitars playing, but he was doing it both at the same time. It was just so melodic and so powerful that it was like, “Wow, I don’t have to write words!” Because the chorus to me usually [is where] you summarize what you’ve said in the verses, and that guitar part did it. And I was like, “All right, fuckin’ A, man. The song’s done, let’s go!”
The Hi Infidelity album was a clean slate. We had to create this album out of nothing. I think what was behind our ability to do that was the fact that really the four of us, Alan, Bruce, Gary and I – Neal to a lesser degree, because Neal was going through his own kind of trip. But the four of us, we were all kind of in the same boat, and we were all feeling our personal lives fracture, which kind of made the bond between us as band members really strong. We didn’t sit down and say, “Let’s write a record about this.” But there was a continuity between the songs that was just a result of the fact that the songwriters were kind of going through similar experiences. So it made us all relate to each other’s songs just as much as we were relating to our own songs. There was a real cohesiveness to the whole process. There were some amazing moments in the studio and in the rehearsal hall when we were putting the thing together.
I would say that at least 50 percent of what you hear on the album was directly from the demo tapes that we made over a three-day period at a shithole studio called Crystal Sound in Hollywood. We just went in to cut some song demos. We booked three days of studio time, and at that point, we had the songs written and arranged to a certain degree and we are just going to go in and cut live demos and then take a couple of weeks to drive around in our cars. My job was to listen to the songs and retool the arrangements where they needed to, change something here, fix something there. What ended up happening is that I ended up driving around town listening to this demo for a couple of weeks and kind of falling in love with it. My position was, “Guys, this album is pretty much done.” And everyone, especially including the engineer, who was like, “No, this is horrible. These are just horrible songwriting demos!”
My thing was that you can fix the sound of something in the studio. You can take a track and put an effect on it or whatever you need to do, but you can’t fix emotion. And there was so much emotion in those demos. Some of the lead vocals and some of the guitar solos: Accidents happened in the studio, and we actually spent a couple of weeks trying to recreate [those moments]. I finally said, “All right, well, okay, if you guys all want to do this again, okay, we’ll start over again, and I’ll go in there wholeheartedly.” Within about a week or two, I kind of won everyone over, because the tracks that we were trying to recut, just didn’t have the magic of those demo tapes.