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R.E.O Speedwagon are a rock band hailing from Champaign, Illinois, United States who formed in 1967. The hard rockers were one of the most commercially succesful rock band of the 1980’s with hits like “Keep On Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling” making them popular to this day.
The seeds of the band were sewn with keyboardist Neal Doughty enrolling in an electric engineering program at the University of Illinois. On his very first night he met drummer Alan Gratzer, they hit it off and Doughty became a fan of Gratzer’s band soon afterwards. As is the case with a lot of student bands, Gratzer’s bandmates weren’t happy with the way that the frontman of the band treated them. Coincidently, their frontman was also their keyboardist, and come the end of their university’s spring semester the bands guitarist Joe Matt, told the frontman that he, bassist Mike Blair and Gratzer were leaving the band to start a new one with Doughty.
This proved to be a good move, as they had formed the first incarnation of REO Speedwagon, taking the name from a car that Doughty studied in one of his engineering classes. They started playing concerts around their campus bars, university events and frat parties, as a matter of fact their first concert was at a frat party that turned into giant food fight after they came of stage. Something still wasn’t quite working however, and the band would go on to have significant line up issues for the next couple of years, with only Doughty and Gratzer remaining as the sole founding members of the group.
These were to plague the band for their entire existence as a band but it was in 1970 that the band settled on a line up that was going to see them skyrocket in popularity. Luttrell, Gratzer and Doughty were joined by Gregg Philbin on the Bass guitar and prolific songwriter Gary Richrath on guitar. With Richrath on board the band gained their first legion of fans in the American Midwest, and after the concerts they were playing grew every larger, they signed their first record contract with Epic Records in 1971. Their self-titled debut album came out the same year and saw a mild hit in the form of “157 Riverside Avenue”, a concert staple of theirs to this day.
At the start of their career, the band adopted a progressive rock influenced sound that struggled to find a place among the larger than life hard rock stars of the day. Although they consistently sold enough to stay on Epic Records, they didn’t see legitimate commercial success until the end of the decade and their transition to the stadium rock sound of their later work. As with many bands in the 70’s, their first taste of success came with the release of a live album, 1977’s “Live: You Get What You Play For” was their first release to be certified platinum and showcased what the band considered to be the best side of them, their live performances.
This was a smart move, rewarded in 1978 when their seventh album, the ridiculously titled “You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish”, was their first album to enter the Billboard 200 Top 40, peaking at number 29. This was only a taste of their future success, however, and 1980’s “Hi Infidelity” saw its lead single “Keep On Loving You” reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100 after five months on the chart. The album was a monster hit, selling over ten million copies and marking the band out as one of the key rock bands of the 1980’s.
Since then, they’ve been one of the bastions of American Rock, still selling out arena’s the country over and a huge draw all over the world to boot. There might be cooler bands out there but not many of them have the songbook that The Speedwagon has, and when it comes down to it, that’s all that matters. Highly recommended.