REO Speedwagon has been providing audiences hits since the ’70s. The band gained momentum after its release of High Fidelity in 1980 giving us “Keep on Loving You” and “Take it on the Run."
Since then they have accumulated enough hits to fill up any set to keep crowds entertained. With them teaming up with Chicago currently on tour, it brings a nostalgic rush of Rock live to audiences across the country.
CityBeat caught up with founding member and keyboard player Neal Doughty to get a feel of how life has changed over the years in the music business. The band performs at Riverbend Music Center Wednesday night. Find tickets/more info here.
CityBeat: I read in an interview that you found the name REO Speedwagon in an engineering class when you were in school in Illinois. I was curious if you ever finished your engineering degree.
Neal Doughty: No. I did not finish the engineering degree. I went to college for five years and never graduated because when the band got started it was just a little dormitory, a couple guys in the dorm, playing for fun playing on weekends. Then the band got really, really popular and we started branching out to Ohio and Indiana and the first thing we knew is we were too busy to go to class. And if you are in engineering at the University of Illinois, you better go to class because it is not easy. So myself and Alan, our original drummer, neither one of us finished college. We stuck with the band. It was sink or swim in the music business. It was interesting telling my parents that I had dropped out of college after five years, but we were already supporting ourselves with this band. We are already actually making a living. My dad goes, “Hey I can’t argue with that. People go to five years of college and never do get a job.” They handled that OK and I am happy with how that turned out.
CB: I think you made the right choice. That is pretty hardcore to have a full-time band and finish school.
ND: Yeah, I have two nephews that are engineers and it’s a good area because I haven’t heard of an engineer who couldn’t find work. They were hired right out of college. I would have been happy either way. I am still interested in scientific things. I would have enjoyed it and been pretty good at it but this will do. It’s fine.
CB: You have been playing the hits for over 30 years. What is your favorite song to play live?
ND: I think my favorite song live, I love playing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” because I get to showcase the piano a bit on that intro. I also love playing “Back on the Road,” the song that Bruce sings. It is somehow the perfect tempo and a crowd who hasn’t been on their feet yet will always get up for that song.
Of course with all the changes and stories of our career, there isn’t one song we play live that I don’t like, which is a great luxury. A lot of bands don’t have that. We have been together so long and have so many records out that we can pick our favorite songs to play live and it usually turns out to be the favorites of the audience too. Most bands, they probably play some songs that at least two guys hate it, but we have been very lucky to have a lot of songs to choose from. I’m happy.
CB: What has been your greatest Rock star moment?
ND: My wife is in the room and she is laughing because I think she had something to do with my greatest Rock star moment. I don’t know if we should go into the details. We met at a show. We had known each other for a long time and had never quite gotten together. One night after the show, she pretty much attacked me in the dressing room in front of the entire crew. There were no clothes that came off. It was all very legal and everything. All I can say is within three months, instead of living at the beach in California I was living in Minnesota where it gets really cold. This was eight years ago and so far it has been totally worth it. Yes, that was my greatest Rock star moment … to have a woman that was so affectionate in front of so many people.
CB: That is the best story I have heard in a while.
ND: She is laughing her head off right now.
CB: There is nothing illegal about clothes coming off, by the way. It is fine.
ND: Everybody kept their clothes on. It was just kind of a message that I like you, a really nice way of saying I like you. In fact, I was supposed to leave town that night but the band got me a hotel room and a plane ticket. It turned out to be fairly innocent, but it was the start of a great relationship that is going eight years later. You definitely meet some of the wrong women on the road, and this is one of the rare instances where I met the right one.
CB: The internet and social media have totally changed the way bands can make it and get on the radio and get famous now. Do you think it is easier or harder for a band to make it today?
ND: It is a whole different thing. It used to be very, very hard to get a record contract. We were together four years just starting before we got somebody interested with us. We were lucky to be with Epic Records for so many years. They let us do like 10 records that weren’t hits until we had High Fidelity in 1980 and 1981. There is no record label that would give a band that many chances to turn in a hit.
On the other hand, now you can make a record on your telephone and upload it to the internet. If it goes viral, anything can happen. I live in a small town in Minnesota, and one of the students there, one of my wife’s English students, made a video on a broken iPhone with an out of tune piano and it went viral. It has 10 million views on YouTube and she now has a couple record companies fighting over her.
I don’t mind how it’s working today. If I were going to, in my old age, try to make a song of my own, I think I would like the fact I could make it at home, upload it to the Internet and see what happens. I have nephews who are in a Rock band. They have become the most popular band in the St Louis area just from all their sales online. I think it is a great equalizer. You no longer need a lot of money behind you to get a break and that’s good. Any kid in a basement has the same chance as somebody with a million dollars to spend in a studio and I think that’s truly great.
CB: Are there any new up and coming bands or current artists that you would want to collaborate with?
ND: I tend to like one song by an artist and just buy that one song, which you can do now. I tend to have this really crazy range of tastes in bands. I like Foster the People on one end and I like Brad Paisley on the other end of the scale. Brad happens to be a good friend of ours, so I may be biased.
My taste in music is so eclectic now, something that maybe couldn’t have happened before the Internet. You hear a song on a TV show in the music in the background and there was no way you would ever find out what that song was. A lot of the new groups that get discovered, that I like now, it started watching a TV show, with a great song in the background. You just now have to aim your phone at the TV and it will tell you who the band is. That is really the greatest invention ever. There are songs I hear on the radio or in a movie or in the background of a TV show and you could have searched for the rest of your life and never found it. Now, being able to find anything you might hear is my favorite thing that has happened to the music business. If you look at the playlist on my phone, you would think this guy is all over the map with the stuff he likes. I am very happy about that development.
CB: You have been on the road for many, many years. Do you keep journals or photographs? How do you keep the history of the touring and the memories?
ND: No, once again, the Internet has helped with that. There were some lost photographs. We have had a million things happen that were great. Recently one of our old crew members from 30 years ago found a picture of John Entwistle jamming with us on stage in London, and Brian May for Queen hanging out with us in the dressing room that night. These old black and white pictures so people will actually believe that something that great happened to me. We found a picture of literally the house 157 Riverside Ave., which we rented in Rockport, Conn., where we did our first album. Now we found what it looks like recently. Then we also found they tore the thing down. Granted, it was not a national landmark, but seeing pictures of it a few years ago, we could see why they tore it down. It was about to fall down and we probably had something to do with that.
CB: You have had a few band members change over the years. How do you know you have a right fit?
ND: Well we have been kind of lucky we had only one real change happen and it all happened at the same time. Our current lineup has been together for 25 years, which is longer than the original group was together.
Back in the late 80’s, our original drummer Alan who I started the band with, and our original guitar player Gary both left around the same time. Alan couldn’t handle the road anymore because he was too attached to his family. He quit for the best of reasons, to be with his kids and wife. He opened a restaurant and is doing well. Gary started not handling the road well. The road brought out all of his demons. There was a point when he just couldn’t do it anymore because it’s too hard.
That really is when we got Brian, our drummer, and Dave, our guitar player, and that all happened very fast. We did a major set of auditions for drummers. I think we auditioned eight drummers in two days. Brian was the first one and we knew right then he was the guy we wanted. I asked Kevin if we had to listen to seven more drummers but he wanted to be fair to them. But Brian easily passed that audition. Dave Amato, our guitar player has a great background. He played with Ted Nugent. He has been on Motley Crue albums. He was a known studio guy in Los Angeles. He came over to Kevin’s house and we jammed for about half an hour and then immediately asked him to join the band. It was a perfect fit from the first note.
We were lucky to get Brian and Dave. They brought new energy into the band. I am not sure if we would be together now if it wasn’t for what those guys brought, which was new enthusiasm. We still call them the new guys after 25 years and they are getting kind of sick of it. That is the only real change we have made and it was 25 years ago. I am happy we still have our original vocalist which not every band is lucky enough to say that. We made one change and it has been great since.
CB: Do you have any regrets over the years?
ND: I have no personal regrets. I have done some incredibly, stupid, horrible things but I don’t regret them because they all led to where I am now and I am a very happy person right now.
CB: What can the fans expect when you come to Cincinnati this year?
ND: First of all, they can expect us to play a one hour set of our favorite songs and they’ll know all of them except for one surprise new song. I know the audience cringes when a band plays that new song because they want to hear the familiar stuff. This song is good, really good. We wouldn’t do it live otherwise. It’s got a hook right from the beginning. It has gotten nice mentions in our reviews so far.
Then Chicago comes on and does all of their hits. Then the lights go down and come back up three minutes later (with) both bands on stage doing three individual hits by each band. Six songs, literally the biggest hits of each band, played together, 14 individuals playing at the same time. That took about a 12-hour rehearsal to put that together and it is just amazing. The Phoenix newspaper called it one jaw-dropping moment after another. I have to agree. I am way in the back of the stage on that part and I love it because I can watch the whole thing. These guys from both bands are just running around having the best time of their life.
We have known some of the guys for Chicago for decades. Robert Lamm, one of the lead singers and writers was a neighbor in Beverly Hills back when I lived there 35 years ago and somehow we never toured with them.
We didn’t know if (the onstage collaboration) would work. They were a little more progressive, a little Jazz oriented, but they are still Rock & Roll. We are more Country or Folk. We weren’t sure the same audience would show up for both bands and it has worked beautifully. The shows so far have been virtual sellouts. The thing has blended so well.
Picture “Keep on Loving You” with that beautiful Chicago horn section. It gives me chills and I have been playing it 40 years. The crowd, the lights come up, and every camera comes out at the same time. They can’t believe … that we have that many people on stage and they are technically all playing together and we know what we are doing is more amazing. It is something you won’t see very often. We haven’t done anything like this. I am definitely having a really good time, we call it the grand finale. I am sure it shows to the audience we are having so much fun.