In AOR’s most glorious year of 1981, the best selling album in the USA was not Escape or 4, but from a band who had slogged their way around the Mid-West with only modest success throughout the seventies. REO SPEEDWAGON suddenly hit the big time with Hi Infidelity; like an AOR ‘Rumours’, with band members drawing lyrical inspiration from relationship difficulties and honing their sound into a more modern, radio friendly style. (The bonus disc of demos with the 30th anniversary re-release is a fascinating insight into the process).
Opener ‘Don’t Let Him Go’ sets the tone with tension building in its drum intro and though guitarist Gary Richrath and keyboard player Neal Doughty still jam away in the middle, the song has greater polish to it.
The secret of REO’s success was the contrasting styles of their two main songwriters: Richrath had a rougher-edged, more aggressive guitar playing style than most of his AOR counterparts. But Kevin Cronin had a folksier and more melodic ear and his somewhat fey vocals fit the ballads perfectly. It was a pair of those that became massive worldwide hits. ‘Keep On Lovin You’ builds from his piano intro with power chords slashing in dramatically at the right moments, while the chorus is huge and benefits from a big backing vocal arrangement.
Boasting the memorable ‘heard it from a friend who…’ lyric, ‘Take It On The Run’ sees acoustic and electric guitars combine perfectly before Richrath’s solo really takes off. These two together arguably set the template for the power ballads that every rock band had to release as a single from then on.
The doo-wop inspired ‘In Your Letter’ was for me the weakest song on an album which has lesser-known gems, notably the pair co-written by Tom Kelly, ‘Out of Season’ and ‘Follow Your Heart’. The latter would have been an equally good single with its big chorus and yet Richrath really lets rip with two solos with squeals of feedback.
‘Tough Guys’, ‘Shaking it Loose’, with Doughty’s barroom piano, and ‘Somewhere Tonight’, written and sung by bassist Bruce Hall and with almost a Who feel, are all rockier numbers in keeping with their earlier sound. They probably shocked pop fans who bought the album on the strength of the hits, though final track ‘I Wish You Were There’ is a typical Cronin ballad.
While REO’s platinum selling days are long gone, they still delight USA concert goers with a set that includes several songs from this, their finest hour.