In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Who was the first person ever to stand on a chair during a slow song and hold a lighter in the air? History has forgotten this person’s name, but we should salute a pioneer. That ritual had descended into goofy cliche by the time I started going to shows regularly, and it was fully replaced by the phone screen by the mid-’00s. But the lighter-up gesture ruled. When I went to my first concert — Guns N’ Roses/Metallica/Faith No More, RFK Stadium, July ’92 — I had no idea what was happening when the lighters came out during “Fade To Black.” Nobody had ever explained to me that this was a thing that people did. It looked extremely fucking cool.
The lighters-aloft thing was the perfect response to the power ballad — the stadium-rocking sensitive-soul yowler that became a rock-show staple before I was born. Ballads were crucial parts of rock ‘n’ roll right from the beginning; Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers all had them. Sometime in the ’70s, people figured out that stretched-out slow-builders could have their own kind of majesty and that they could make for magical arena moments.
The ’70s were the decade that gave us most of the canonical pioneering power ballads: “Stairway To Heaven,” “Free Bird,” “Dream On,” “Beth,” Nazareth’s version of the Everlys’ “Love Hurts.” In those songs, you can hear the bands figuring out exactly how this whole thing should work — how quiet it should be at the beginning, how loud you should sing the final chorus, when the screaming guitar solo should come in. But REO Speedwagon were probably the band who, at the turn of the ’80s, turned the power ballad into the gold-plated commercial beast that it would be in the decade ahead.
REO Speedwagon were part of the wave of semi-anonymous studio-rock titans that had first flourished in the mid-’70s. In the proud tradition of Grand Funk Railroad, a lot of these bands — Boston, Journey, Foreigner — would sell tons of records and play to vast crowds without getting any attention from pop radio or from critics. But when REO Speedwagon hit their commercial zenith, you couldn’t ignore them.
1980’s Hi Infidelity, the Wagon’s ninth album, sold 10 million copies in the US, and it was Billboard‘s #1 album of 1981, beating out even John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. REO Speedwagon’s formula for success was simple enough: They weaponized the power ballad, fusing soft rock and hard rock into one unstoppable whole.
It took years for REO Speedwagon to figure out what they were doing. The band formed at a University Of Illinois dorm in Champaign in 1967. Keyboardist and electrical engineering student Neal Doughty took the name from an early truck that he’d learned about in a history of transportation class. The band started out playing covers at campus bars and fraternity parties. Eventually, they came up with their own songs and gigged around the Midwest. In 1971, they signed to Epic and released their self-titled debut. It didn’t chart, and neither did any of their singles.
REO Speedwagon, like plenty of hard rock bands before and since, found their audience on the road, playing constantly. They also went through tons of personnel changes. Kevin Cronin came aboard as lead singer in 1972, recorded an album with the band, and then either left or was fired. Four years later, after Speedwagon had gone through a couple of different singers, Cronin returned to the fold.
During these years, REO Speedwagon did real business on the road, though it was a regional thing. Cronin likes to say that the band could sell out Busch Stadium in St. Louis but couldn’t pack a club the size of the Whiskey in LA. They also sold records. 1973’s Ridin’ The Storm Out out went platinum. 1978’s excellently titled You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish went double plat. But before 1981, Speedwagon’s highest-charting single — the radio-rock nugget “Time For Me To Fly,” put to excellent use in a recent episode of Ozark — only made it up to #56. “Keep On Loving You” changed everything for REO Speedwagon, and for power balladry in general.
Kevin Cronin wrote “Keep On Lovin’ You” after he found out that his wife had been cheating on him before they’d been married. On the song, Cronin sings about getting past that and staying together anyway. (They got divorced a few years after the song hit big.) Cronin wrote the song on piano, and when he brought it to the rest of the band, they didn’t want to record it. It was too soft. It wasn’t rock enough. Cronin has said that he thought guitarist Gary Richrath was trying to drown him out when he played over it. But the big, crashing guitar chords lent weight and force to a soft and sensitive lament of a song.
Lyrically, “Keep On Loving You” is a rough song. Cronin’s narrator is clearly bitter about what’s happened, but he pledges to remain with this woman anyway: “And though I know all about those men, still I don’t remember/ Cuz it was us baby, way before then, and we’re still together.” But “Keep On Loving You” still became a slow-dance anthem because of the chorus, which is the part of the song that everyone actually remembers. Cronin might be pouring his heart out on the long first verse, but he almost seems to be killing time before the monster hook, the lighters-up moment.
“Keep On Loving You” didn’t set the power-ballad formula, but it made effective use of that formula: Slow build, enormous crashing melodramatic chorus, triumphantly blazing guitar solo, quick coda. The song doesn’t even have a second verse; once Cronin gets to that chorus, he just sings it again and again. This was a smart decision. It’s a hell of a chorus, grand and operatic and serious.
The production, from the band and collaborator Kevin Beamish, has just the type of antiseptic sheen for this sort of song. Cronin’s pinched and reedy voice gets bigger and more robust as the song keeps going. Underneath him, the backing vocals sound like a choir. The pianos gleam. The guitar solo wails. It’s all very sharp and precise and professional — a cheap-seats rocker that just barely pierces your consciousness when it plays over in-store speakers in a Walgreens.
The power ballad was good to REO Speedwagon. Their supremely goofy “Keep On Loving You” video, where Cronin plays the patient of a sexy dream-girl psychiatrist, was among the first that MTV played when the channel launched in August 1981. Hi Infidelity also produced “Take It On The Run,” and even more melodramatic wailer that peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.) For at least a few years in the early ’80s, REO Speedwagon became quite possibly the biggest rock band in America. They will be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: In the 1982 high-school sex comedy The Last American Virgin, “Keep On Loving You” soundtracks a supposed-to-be-romantic scene where a boy lets the air out of a girl’s moped tire so that he can give her a ride to school. Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s video of a hostile and presumably drunk Deftones covering “Keep On Loving You” at a 1996 show in Chicago:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Keep On Loving You” cover that the Lemonheads put on the B-side of their 1996 single “It’s All True”:
(The Lemonheads have never made a top-10 hit; their highest-charting single, 1993’s “Into Your Arms,” peaked at #67.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Keep On Loving You” cover that the Donnas contributed to the soundtrack of the 1999 movie Drive Me Crazy:
And here’s the Drive Me Crazy scene where Melissa Joan Hart and Adrian Grenier dance to the Donnas’ cover:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Keep On Loving You” scoring the gruesome and ridiculous ending of the 2009 movie Crank: High Voltage: