Gary James' Interview With Neal Doughty of
Formed in 1967 in Champaign, Illinois, REO Speedwagon sold over six million copies of their album "Hi-Infidelity" in 1980. That album spawned three hit singles*, "Keep On Lovin' You", "Take It On The Run" and "In Your Letter". Two years later, an album titled "Good Trouble" yielded two Top Twenty singles, "Keep The Fire Burnin" and "Don't Let Him Go".
REO has an incredible history behind them and founding member Neal Doughty is just the one to tell their story.
Q - Neal, what brings you out on the road?
A - We actually haven't made a new record in awhile. We've been doing really well touring. Starting in about 2000, we teamed up with Styx and that's who we're touring with right now. The two bands together just brought a lot of people out. A lot of people remember those big hits from the 80s. It's not so much nostalgia as more people like coming to hear songs they're familiar with. The entire evening is one big sing-a-long 'cause everybody knows every song. So, we've had a really good run with them. We've just been touring constantly. We literally hadn't had time to go into the studio. We probably will, sooner or later, but, we've just kind of gone in the touring mode because it's just been going real well for us.
Q - Who headlines?
A - It's called the Co-Headline Tour. It's equal billing...same production value...same length of set. But, we alternate who closes the show. Obviously we both can't play last. There's other bands doing that these days. They're totally equal, but, they just reverse playing order for different cities.
Q - Didn't REO perform at The Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York?
A - Yes
Q - What'd you think of that casino?
A - Those casino shows we do on our own. It's usually just an evening with REO. We're able to do a much longer set. We really like those casino shows because, for one thing, they've really gotten good at building state-of-the-art theatres. They're a nice big stage. You can use your entire production. But, it's a smaller audience, usually around a thousand people. The same amount of people you'd have in a very large bar...and we started out as a bar band and we still have that intimate relationship with the audience. Most of the shows we play with Styx are between five and ten thousand people in the audience. Our manager likes to call it "one plus one equals three", because we get twice as many people as either group would get on their own. So, we get to play the big pavilions and arenas. But, once a bar band, always a bar band, and you like those smaller rooms where you can see every face in the crowd. But, it's been brought a step up from the bars 'cause the casino facilities are state-of-the-art. The dressing rooms are wonderful. They treat you like kings. They give you wonderful hotel rooms. The rooms are designed by the very latest technicians to sound good. We have audience members that are twenty years old, that weren't even born when we made our biggest records. But, we also have that loyal following. They're kids that have moved out. They're kind of empty-nesters. They feel like going out for a weekend to the casino and making a little vacation out of it, and at the same time, they get to see us in a nice intimate setting with nobody pushing or shoving and no parking problems. It just works out well for everybody. Since the casinos are doing their business at the gambling tables, they can afford to pay the band enough money so that the band can bring their entire production and we do the same show as we would do in an arena. Those types of casinos are just all over the country and a lot of bands are coming around and discovering that is a really, really nice circuit to play.
Q - And now The Turning Stone Casino is building a 5,100 seat amphitheatre.
A - Well, that's another phenomenon that has happened recently. The casinos are realizing that the bands they're booking could definitely fill up a much larger room, so sometimes they're running shows where the shows outgrew the room. We played a casino down in Mississippi where they had their little showroom and the shows kind of outgrew it. They put up a gigantic, permanent circus tent in one of their parking lots that holds 5,000 or 6,000 people and they started running their shows out there. We just played one of those and it was sold out in two nights! We're a mixture of the Classic Rock era and of the 80s Power Ballad era. Bands like ourselves and Styx and Foreigner fall into that pattern. It just has crossed generations. Even without new songs on the radio. It's just amazing how many people will show up for these things. So, yeah, a lot of casinos have started to build much larger facilities on the premises. They probably don't run a show every night in those rooms. They'll find a band that's been selling out their showroom everytime and see how many people they can get in there.
Q - How are you touring the country these days? If I recall correctly, REO was one of the first bands to travel by plane.
A - Right. We had our own pilot, who was a good friend of ours and we had some people we knew lease us some airplanes. We got a good deal on it. We did that for a while. Now, our tours are a little more spread out to be doing the airplane thing. They're spread out over a month. They're well routed, so we can take a bus every night. We get done with a show, we get on the bus, we get into our nice little bunks with our flat screen TV in each bunk and we watch Letterman and we fall asleep. When we wake up, we're in the next town. So, there's no travelling the day of the show, which we actually like better. We all live in Los Angeles now. So, we'll fly to the part of the country we're playing and then, if there's a whole tour emanating from one area, we'll take the bus from there.
Q - You guys paid your dues for many years in the bar circuit. When you see an act like 'N Sync, The Back Street Boys or Britney Spears sell out arenas and stadiums around the world, what goes through your mind? Are you envious? Do you feel any resentment?
Q - When you've had the kind of career we've had, we got to be the number one band in the world for four months, that's our Gold Medal. You can't win the Olympics every single year and not let the new kids come in and give it their shot too. It's like being so greedy that you win the lottery once and then you're mad 'cause you don't win it again. That big record we had in 1981, "Hi - Infidelity", that was the Gold Medal. That gave us a career for life. We'll be able to do this in our 60s if we want to. So, I can't hold anything against any group that gets the same kind of break. Plus, I'm actually a fan of Britney Spears' records. I've never seen her "live", but, he first record was so well produced and every song was good. And also, she paid her dues. She just started younger. She was working when she was like eleven years old in the business. Same with The Back Street Boys. They're friends of ours. We've done some charity work along with them. They started ten years before anybody really heard about 'em. So, it's sort of the ten year, overnight success thing, where a lot of bands that you think just came out of the woodwork and immediately became stars...a lot of them were around a long time before the public really knew about it. These young bands, a lot of them just started younger.
Q - You released how many records before "Hi-Infidelity" broke through? Was that your fifth album?
A - To tell you the truth, "Hi-Infidelity" was album number eleven. This is why I'm not jealous of the younger bands, because they don't get a chance like that any more. Nowadays, the idea of a label nurturing a young band for that many records without tossing 'em out the window, is unheard of. These days, if these young bands don't get a hit on their first album, they're done. I think our "Live" album was number seven and it went Gold. So, by then, it gave Epic (Records) the incentive to stick with us until finally album number eleven went to number one for four months. But, that was back in the days when record labels had the resources to nurture a band through several albums and stay with 'em and watch 'em grow. If they thought you had no potential, they wouldn't stick with you. They thought we did 'cause we always had such a good "live" following. That's when I get on my soapbox about the Napster type thing and the file sharing. That doesn't really hurt the big band. If somebody downloads Eminem's records instead of buying 'em, he's still ok. But, it's the sales of an Eminem type record that gives the label the money they need to nurture the new bands. A Napster type thing is fine for us. It just lets more people hear our music and more people come to see us "live". But, that's part of the reason it's
so hard for a new band to make it, because most albums don't break even and the labels need that big, big hit in order to make money to bring up a new talent. And, it's the Top Ten records they make their money on. Those are the ones that are losing sales to downloads. You can't feel sorry for Eminem. He's doing fine. I'd like to see a way for the labels to get some of that money back so that they could help newer groups and give 'em more than one record as a chance.
Q - Rolling Stone Magazine once referred to REO, Journey and Styx as being "faceless bands." Do you remember that?
A - Yes, I do.
Q - How did that go over in the band?
A - All it really means is that there's not two really, really pretty boys in the band that show up on a lot of the covers. You get somebody who's exotic looking like Steven Tyler or Mick Jaggar, and you put their face on a cover...it sells magazines. We, on the other hand, just consider ourselves "boy next door" types. We don't care if we don't happen to look as "out there" as some of the other bands. And, the irony is, in the long run, the facelessness is why we're still around. All three of the bands, Styx, Journey, REO, have had to go through some personnel changes and you can't pull that off if everybody in the world knows every face in the band. So, the facelessness thing is part of our longevity. So, I guess the laugh is on Rolling Stone. If they were saying that as a slur, it didn't work out that way. It worked out extending our careers a couple of decades.
Q - How big was disco in the Midwest? Is it true that bands and "live" entertainment have always been more popular?
A - That's true, partly because there's a very, very, high concentration of universities, large and small in the Midwest. You can't drive a hundred miles without running into another little college. That's where the bar scenes that spawn rock bands takes place, on campuses. We got our start on the campus of The University Of Illinois in Champaign, which is a very large university.
There must've been twenty good bands in that town and ever one of 'em had all the work they needed, just because it was a college town. All through Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, a little bit of Indiana, there's just got to be a college on every block. I think that's a big part of it. Plus, the Midwest values where they're just hard working folks and they don't try to jump on whatever trend they just saw coming out of New York or L.A. They identify with the "working man" type of rock I guess you would call it.
Q - Since this Warwick, Rhode Island tragedy, have fire personnel been out to look over your act?
A - No. Well, for one thing, we haven't played in a club that small for a long time. Back in our arena days, when we did use pyrotechnics, we had a full time pyrotechnic expert on the crew, a separate guy who had been through training. That's all he did. Plus, every single day, a fire marshal would walk right on stage and see what we're doing and see if we had it set up right. You know, I don't want to make and real statements about that thing 'cause I'm not an expert. There aren't many bands that would use pyro in an old, wooden building that small. I have a feeling they had no idea that anything could go wrong. There were just a bunch of factors in place, like, I guess the neighbours had complained about the noise, so they put up some sound proofing which turned out to be flammable and they didn't know it. You almost can't pin it down to malicious neglect on any one person. It's just a whole bunch of things that went wrong at one time. The kind of venues we've been playing are where the fire marshals are pretty much on top of it, so that hasn't affected us at all, other than make us feel real bad.
Q - REO is often described as a rock band. How would you describe your sound?
A - I would describe us as classic rock, melodic rock. I think that's a good term. I like Rap. I like the Seattle sound. I like just about everything, but you just can't beat a song with a really good melody, Whatever type of rock it is, if the singer is belting out a beautiful melody on top of everything else, that's how I define us. We got thrown in the 80s power ballad genre, but, "melodic rock" is fine with me.