REO Speedwagon were an anomaly in the music industry for most of the 1970s: they were played on the radio and sold out arenas and even stadiums in so-called “flyover country” between the coasts, but were largely ignored in hot spots like New York or Los Angeles.
“There were times when records just wouldn’t play outside of the Midwest and we couldn’t figure out what was going on,” singer Kevin Cronin said. i believe in 1987. “You think it’s people—and if people in the Midwest like it, why shouldn’t people in the West or the East like it? Maybe they won’t like it, but at least they should have the chance to hear it.
“We’re not saying everyone in New York is going to like us,” he added, “but unless the radio stations give us a chance, then people won’t get a chance to accept it or reject it. “
Future entertainment mogul Irving Azoff managed REO Speedwagon in their early days, but couldn’t help them break through. “We were his downfall,” said guitarist Gary Rickratt A rolling stone in 1978. “He wanted me to be like Peter Frampton, but Frampton wasn’t that impressive a guitarist – someone to try to like [Jeff] Beck or [Jimmy] page, [Pete] Townshend or [Eric] Clapton.”
Azoff said he did not “consider them a failure” in the same report. I always believed in them and still do.
But even Cronin had grown weary of the things the band had to do just to maintain their level of regional success. He joined REO in 1972, recording that year REO/TWO with them, toured constantly – then was out of the band a year later.
Watch REO Speedwagon’s “Rolling With the Changes” video
“If you talk to me, I’ll tell you I’m gone,” Cronin said i believe. “If you talk to the group they’ll tell you I’ve been kicked out, so it depends who you talk to. I felt unappreciated and unhealthy, vocally. It was demanding of me vocally and I didn’t know how to do it. The band would like to play every night and rehearse every day, and physically my voice couldn’t handle it.”
Cronin returned in 1976, in time to experience the initial success of REO Speedwagon with a 1977 concert double album. Live: You get what you play for it eventually earned the band its first platinum certification, but more importantly captured what Cronin and Richrath considered their true sound.
No producer has been able to replicate their energy on stage and tightness in the studio. “Some of the early records had good melodies,” Cronin said i believe“but they came out sounding weird because the producer had a different idea of what the record should sound like.”
He and Richrath decided it was time to try producing REO’s next studio record, 1978’s Speedwagon. You can tune a piano, but you can’t fish for tuna. They called a meeting with their label management and gave Epic Records an ultimatum: Cronin and Richrath would produce the album or leave. The reaction was unexpected.
“To our surprise, they were like, ‘Okay!'” Cronin told Adam Reeder Professor of Rock program. “Gary and I were looking at each other and saying, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ We don’t know how to produce records. What are we talking about?”
Fortunately, Cronin and Rickratt found an ally in Epic’s West Coast VP, who eventually became the executive producer of Tuna fish. “John Boylan is one of my favorite people in the world,” Cronin told the Reader. “He was in the studio riding shotgun in case we needed him. So we felt pretty confident going in there to produce this record.”
Listen to “Lucky for You” by REO Speedwagon
REO Speedwagon also had new blood in the lineup, as Bruce Hall replaced bassist Gregg Philbin, who had left the previous year. “I’ve known Bruce since the early ’70s, I saw him sing with his band at the old Red Lion, which was the coolest bar in Champaign, Illinois,” Cronin said in Songs and stories from Camp Cronin.
They later “met Bruce at a party in [REO drummer] Alan Gratzer’s apartment,” Cronin added. “He had started singing some harmony with me on some Beatles songs and our voices sounded pretty good together. I immediately got a good vibe from Bruce. So when Greg Philbin left the band, it was a no-brainer for me, man. The first phone call went to Bruce.”
The group entered the Tuna fish sessions with a set of songs they believed in. One of the first they tackled was “Roll With the Changes”. The song’s genesis came, fittingly enough, from a time when Cronin was on the move.
“I literally moved from Chicago to L.A. because the band had moved while I was out of the band, so it was like if I’m going to stay in the band and want to be with them, I guess I’m moving to L.A.” he told the Reader. “I decided that if I was going to move there, I wasn’t going to do it by plane; I want to feel the ground move under my feet. So I drove an old blue Pinto station wagon with a U-Haul trailer on the back, from Chicago to LA
“Somewhere around Albuquerque,” he added, “I started getting this idea, and the only thing I had was this brown paper bag with some nibbles in it that I’d picked up at a truck stop. So I’m literally driving down the highway, with a U-Haul trailer behind me, kind of writing the words down on this paper bag because I was literally reeling from the changes.”
Released as the first single released by You can tune a piano, but you can’t fish for tuna“Roll With the Changes” peaked at number 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, while becoming one of REO Speedwagon’s most indelible songs.
Watch REO Speedwagon’s “Time for Me to Fly” video
Another trip from years ago inspired Cronin to write the second single, “Time for Me to Fly.” This trip was meant to help him get over a romantic breakup. “It was my first heartbreak … my first girlfriend,” he told the Reader. “I had to get out of Chicago. A friend of mine said he was going to drive to Boulder, and I’ve never been to Colorado.”
His friend was a musician, “one of the few guitar players I knew from high school,” and when they arrived, Cronin found “a guitar sitting on his porch, and I picked it up and went to play it, and I hit a chord and it sounded horrible. The guitar was so out of tune. I just started messing with her and realized he had her in an open setting; I didn’t even know where a setting was open.
“So I got into it,” Cronin added, “and I remembered Richie Havens at Woodstock playing ‘Freedom’ with his thumb wrapped around the top of the neck of the guitar. And I thought maybe I’d give this a try. So I did, and that’s where the original riff of “Time for Me to Fly” came from.
The single reached number 56 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming REO Speedwagon’s biggest to date.
Other songs of You can tune a piano, but you can’t fish for tuna mined the country rock that put bands like Poco and Pure Prairie League on the charts and radio playlists. “Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight,” for example, is a jukebox classic that juxtaposes Cronin’s anxiety and jealousy against a pleasant melody, with piano and heavy guitar in the mix. “Lucky for You” cranks up the guitars even more while giving Richrath and keyboardist Neal Doughty plenty of solo space at the end.
Listen to “Do You Know Where Your Woman Is Tonight” by REO Speedwagon
Cronin wrote the upbeat “Blazin’ Your Own Trail Again” while traveling to one of his last gigs as a solo artist. “I pulled off the road, saw the start of a trail and started walking into the woods,” he said Songs and stories from Camp Cronin. “It just made me start thinking about the journey I’d been on in the few years I’d been away from REO Speedwagon — everything I’d learned and how grateful I was to be back in the band, kind of back on track. Somewhere during that transition I got the idea that I was really blazing my own trail again – and I wrote the song.”
REO transforms “Blazin’ Your Own Trail Again” into the perfect blend of country-rock and hard-rock influences, with acoustic guitar providing a complementary texture to Richrath’s electric rhythm guitar and delicious soloing.
Ultimately, the album became representative of what Richrath would be best known for, in terms of tone and the unique bird effect he used while soloing. “Everything I wanted to copy from Jeff Beck, I had done,” Rickratt said Guitarist in 1982, “so I started doing more harmonics and chirps. My first nickname was ‘Marshall Chirpman’ because I used Marshall amps. I had enough confidence in my abilities that I wasn’t afraid to do something slower – more beautiful and more melodic.That’s how I approached the guitar You can tune a piano, but you can’t fish for tuna.”
Released on March 16, 1978, the Top 30 hit album would be certified double platinum for sales of over 2 million units in the US alone.
Listen to “Blazin’ Your Own Trail Again” by REO Speedwagon
Overall, Richrath was happy with the results. “On Tuna fish“, he concluded, “I liked what I was doing: playing the right keys [laughs] and do all the things a good guitar player should do. The group was in control. I was in control and knew where I wanted to go musically.”
All that solid music was wrapped up in a diabolical cover that featured a supposedly dead tuna with a tuning fork stuck in its mouth and a name that looked like it could have come out of a Borscht Belt comedy act. In fact, the title came from a situation that only a rock band would experience, as a friend nicknamed Pineapple arrived at a party with some kind of “creative accelerator”.
“He came into our hotel room and ripped the mirror off the wall,” Cronin told a Chicago radio interviewer in 1978, “and put it on the bed and proceeded to write ‘REO’ with some substance I don’t want to mention.” Rickrats interjected, “But don’t sneeze over it,” then Cronin continued, “And by the middle of E, we had solved the problems of the universe,” he said.
When “the last bits of what makes you solve the problems of the universe are gone,” Rickratt added, “[Pineapple] says, “Remember – you can tune a piano, but you can’t catch tuna.” Cronin and I both fell out of bed laughing and used that as a title.”
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