When REO Speedwagon Became MTV’s First Concert Broadcast: Exclusive Interview
In a parallel universe, MTV could have changed the career trajectory of REO Speedwagon in a different way. As the fledgling network was putting together their infrastructure, they approached Kevin Cronin to be one of the VJs for the channel.
He took the meeting, to hear what they had to say. "We went to dinner and these guys who looked like lawyers and accountants offered me a job," the singer-songwriter recalls in the book I Want My MTV. "I said, 'I play in a rock band! We tour eight months of the year and make records the rest of the time!'"
The network didn't hold a grudge, spinning eight different videos from the Midwest group more than a dozen times during the first 24 hours on air for the channel on August 1, 1981.
That same week, REO Speedwagon's show in Denver, Colo. became the first live stereo concert broadcast on MTV.
These were blurry times, as Cronin tells UCR now. "The Hi Infidelity tour, that’s what we looked at every night," he says. "It was either a sold out arena or a sold out stadium show."
Hi Infidelity was released in November of 1980 and even though it's on the shorter side now (clocking in at a hair under 35 minutes) as albums go, they made every second count, with six out of the record's 10 songs finding a place on the charts.
"Keep on Loving You" gave the band their first number one single, so in short, by the time they arrived in Denver, they were having a really good year.
The performance was eventually released on home video as Live Infidelity (the person who came up with that title can take a bow) and remains a fan favorite to this day.
Cronin recently joined us to look back on the gig and talk about some of the surrounding history.
REO Speedwagon has the honor of being the first live stereo concert broadcast on MTV, which is a pretty cool thing.
Our Hi Infidelity [album] was just so hot that year and it just coincided with MTV coming on the air. There was a sponsor of the event, and I believe it was Coca-Cola. We had a song on the Hi Infidelity album called “Tough Guys.” The song was a veiled reference to my having been bullied when I was in junior high and high school.
I was a musician type and just because I played the guitar, for some reason, people thought that was a good reason to give me grief. Of course, then the Beatles came out and changed all of that. So I wrote this song, “Tough Guys,” there’s a lyric that says, “They think they’re full of fire/ She thinks they’re full of shit.” The standards and practices people at Coca-Cola looked at that line and supposedly were not happy about that lyric. They requested for me to change it to, “She thinks they’re full of it.”
As I say in my book, the standards and practices people at Coca-Cola misjudged me fairly seriously in trying to basically bully me into changing the lyric of a song about being bullied. The people who heard the broadcast live in the Eastern time zone and the Central time zone heard the actual lyric, because I just sang it. I was like, “I’m not going to change the lyric of the song.” Though it seems kind of tame by today’s standards, you know, the word “shit” was a big no-no back in 1981.
The people in the Western and Mountain time zone, got the delayed version. They heard a little dip in the vocal track at that particular moment.
Watch REO Speedwagon perform live in Denver for MTV
Denver is such a special concert market to begin with. Was there any sort of history with REO and Denver that led to the decision to do the concert broadcast from there?
Well, yeah. REO and myself personally have a strong connection to the Denver/Boulder area. It was a hike up in Rocky Mountain National Park that Gary Richrath and I took, when the weather turned on us. That was the inspiration for the first song that really got any serious attention for REO Speedwagon, “Ridin’ the Storm Out.”
You know, “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” that was a song off Live: You Get What You Play For, that actually started getting airplay and propelled that album to being our first gold record. That song was more than our first single, it was really the band’s theme song. We had been faced with having to ride many storms out over the years. We still end our show with that song.
But also, [I took] my first real road trip. I was living in Chicago, in college at the time in 1970. A buddy of mine, who is also a guitar player said, “I’ve got a car and I’ve got some gas, let’s go to Colorado.” Another friend of ours was going to the University of Colorado in Boulder. My buddy Eddie Hunt and I jumped in his car and headed west.
I’d never seen a mountain before. I had never been outside of the Tri-State area, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. We headed west and we got to Boulder, just as the sun had set. From this guy, this friend of ours, named Dave Drury, from his porch, there was a view of the Flatirons, which is kind of the national monument part of Boulder.
The sun sets right behind them and Dave had a guitar resting against the railing of his front porch. I picked it up and the guitar was in a weird tuning. I didn’t know anything about alternate tunings, but when I went to play a chord, it sounded horrible. I’d recently seen the Woodstock movie where Richie Havens plays with his thumb wrapped around the top of the neck. I tried that and sure enough, I got some sound out of it and that’s where I wrote the verses for “Time For Me to Fly.”
To this day, when we play that song, if you watch closely, I’m playing it Richie Havens-style, with my thumb wrapped around the top of the neck. So we’ve got a lot of Colorado mojo in REO Speedwagon. Being from Illinois, it was everyone’s dream -- in fact, it was kind of a cliche. If you were from Illinois, at some point in their young life, they would go to Colorado to get their head together.
So you know, REO still, we’ve headlined Red Rocks, just outside of Denver, five or six times over the years. The people of Colorado, just fell for our music on some level. I think “Ridin’ the Storm Out,” being written in Colorado, just kind of endeared us to the people, way back in the early ‘70s. So it kind of made sense that the first MTV live concert video would be from the old McNichols Arena in Denver.
Are there any special memories from that particular gig? Since it was a broadcast, did it stick in your head at all?
You know, live broadcasts are always stressful. Not only are you playing for a sold out arena, there was probably 18 or 19 thousand people there. So the stakes are kind of high, just in and of itself. But you know, the Hi Infidelity tour, that’s what we looked at every night. It was either a sold out arena or a sold out stadium show. So we were kind of used to that by that time. But then when you add the aspect of a live concert and you’re being beamed out to God knows how many peoples’ television sets -- and again, for us, the stakes were particularly high.
Being from Illinois, we hadn’t gotten a whole lot of attention from the media centers in New York and Los Angeles. We were kind of known as a faceless Midwest band. That always kind of bugged us. But you know, what are you going to do? Being that we were the first live concert broadcast on MTV, that was an opportunity for us to kind of shed that faceless moniker, for lack of a better term. People who hadn’t seen us play live, could actually check us out. It was a way to kind of reach a new audience.
That was always our goal, since we started playing clubs in Champaign, Illinois. It was always, “Alright, we’ve played every club in Champaign, we’re kind of the most popular band in town, where else can we play?” You know, there was a number of different college towns in Illinois. So we would go down to Carbondale and over to Bloomington. All we wanted was to play our music for as many people as possible. So this MTV opportunity was huge for us. I don’t particularly remember being stressed, but sadly, my natural personality is to be anxiety-ridden. [Laughs] So I can imagine I was probably pretty amped up for that show. But I think ultimately, if I remember correctly, Epic ended up making some sort of a deal with MTV and they released it as a….
Yeah, laserdisc! It wasn’t even a DVD back then. It was the size of an LP and no one even had laserdisc players. We ended up buying them because we wanted to see what this thing looked like. They were kind of silly. They were the size of LPs and kind of not the greatest quality. If I remember correctly, I was fairly horrified by the performance, myself. But then again, every time I see any performance that I’m involved in, it’s very difficult for me to just sit back and enjoy it.
My tendency is, you know, if my shoe was untied in an otherwise good performance, I’m totally looking at that shoelace. So I tend to find the warts in any warts and all performance, sadly. But yeah, I’m working on it. I’m getting better at it. I haven’t seen that performance in probably 40 years.
REO had eight videos on MTV in the first 24 hours that the channel was on the air. They were pushing the live broadcast hard. “Keep on Loving You” is one that you talked about with the L.A. Times. It has a storyline and it’s a humorous tale. What was your favorite video to make, in general?
The psychiatrist couch vignette in the “Keep on Loving You” video, not my finest hour as a performer! Acting has never been my strong point. But we made some really fun videos in the years following Hi Infidelity. We made a video for a song off Wheels Are Turnin’ called “I Do Wanna Know.”
It’s just a shame that song didn’t do better on the radio. Because that video, in my opinion, was really deserving of an MTV video award. A lot of thought went into that and it was a lot of fun and a lot of work. Kevin Doles was the director and producer of that clip and really deserved to be recognized for that one.
We did one on our next album for a song called “In My Dreams,” directed by Jim Yukich, another Chicago boy. He was famous for his work with Phil Collins and he’s just a great guy. Genius video director and producer. That was one where we had all of our kids and crew and the band and we did kind of a live-ish performance of “In My Dreams” and the kids are playing video games. We’re shooting hoops. It was like a band picnic that day. So that was a good one too. Keep an eye out for the parrot in the video that was sitting on my shoulder, and soiled my collar!
So you had bands like Duran Duran that were making incredible music videos really early on. Is there a video that you saw that made you really want to up the music video game as far as what REO was doing?
Between ‘81 and ‘85, music videos for rock bands, at least for American bands, but I think for British bands as well, there was kind of an unspoken formula where the band got all dressed and coiffed and made up. There were, you know, hot video chicks. The famous Warrant “Cherry Pie” video, the “Addicted to Love” video with Robert Palmer, with the dancing models in sports coats, pretending to play the guitars.
The one that was the ultimate was the David Coverdale / Whitesnake video with the late Tawny Kitaen, writhing on the hood of his car. When I saw that video [for "Here I Go Again"], actually, those three videos, I was like, “You know, there’s no way we’re going to compete with this.” We’re just not that kind of band. We’re a Midwest bar band. We don’t look good in matching costumes and make-up. That’s what gave us the idea, just throw out the MTV formula playbook and that’s how we met Kevin Doles. His reel came to us -- and this is kind of funny -- he married my first girlfriend, my girlfriend in seventh grade.
So we get a reel from a woman claiming to be my seventh grade girlfriend and sure enough, she was. She was actually really cool, so we looked at her husband’s video. Kevin Doles, had kind of made a living doing children’s toy commercial spots in Canada. He’d never made a rock music video, but he kind of fancied the idea of getting into that world.
We saw his reel, with just these funny videos. You know, they weren’t animated, but they were kind of Teletubbies-esque. These wacky videos that would attract the attention of kids, but also would entertain their parents. I had little kids at the time and so I thought, “Yeah, let’s give this dude a chance.” We made some pretty awesome videos with Kevin.