The Number Ones

The Number Ones: REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling”

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.

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REO Speedwagon – “Can’t Fight This Feeling”

HIT #1: March 9, 1985

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

About a year and a half ago, I drove down to North Carolina to interview a reformed drug trafficker. This guy lived in the swampy area south of Wilmington, and he and his family took full advantage of the complicated estuary system just off the coast — the one that was apparently a nightmare for the Feds to police. To hear this guy tell it, virtually everyone in this tiny shrimp-boat town was on the take in the ’70s and ’80s. This guy would pilot a small low-flying plane over the area at night, and he’d throw bales of weed and coke into the water. Then he or his associates would head out there in their boats and pick them up.

Later on, this guy spent years in prison and changed his life around, but for a while, he was doing big business. He showed me, for instance, the area on the lawn of his old house where — again, according to this guy — he’d built a helipad because Manuel Noriega wanted to fly in for a face-to-face meeting. And when this guy was doing his business, he was doing much of it in a plane that had REO Speedwagon’s logo on the side. Somehow, he’d bought a plane that had once belonged to the band, and that’s what he flew when he was bringing in that contraband. He kept the logo because he liked it and because he thought police might be less likely to bother him if they thought he was somehow associated with a big rock band.

I thought about this guy earlier this year, when REO Speedwagon became the center of a plotline on the extremely entertaining Netflix show Ozark. Mild spoilers here: On the show, the Byrdes, a family of in-over-their-head white collar professionals, run a riverboat casino to launder money for a Mexican cartel. When the matriarch Wendy Byrde wants to convince a group of dentists to hold their convention on the riverboat, she can only seal the deal if she books an REO Speedwagon show. So that’s what she does. The family tries to get the band in on their money-laundering racket, and the cartel kidnaps Wendy’s husband while the Wagon is onstage.

I love the idea that REO Speedwagon might have multiple connections, both real and fictional, to the world of organized crime. Mostly, I love that idea because of how profoundly unlikely it seems. I’m not sure there’s ever been a successful mainstream rock band quite as proudly wussy as REO Speedwagon. The deep and overwhelming wussiness of REO Speedwagon isn’t necessarily a bad thing; very few people have enjoyed such success in the field of wimpily overdriven arena-rock power balladry. Consider the band’s second and final #1 hit.

REO Speedwagon had already been around for more than a decade before they had their one glorious year of commercial dominance. In 1981 — the last year before the advent of MTV reshaped American pop-music tastes — REO Speedwagon eclipsed all their studio-rock peers. Their album Hi Infidelity was the best-selling album in America that year, and they scored their first #1 hit with the lighters-up power ballad “Keep On Loving You.” That same year, they made it into the top 10 once more with the similarly soaring Hi Infidelity single “Take It On The Run,” which peaked at #5. (It’s a 7.) They were on top of the world. I bet that’s when they owned that plane.

You would think — given the band’s style and look, as well as the genuine awfulness of the “Keep On Loving You” video — that the high MTV era would not be kind to REO Speedwagon. You would be right. The band followed Hi Infidelity with 1982’s Good Trouble, which sold nowhere near as much as its predecessor, though it still went platinum and spun off a top-10 single. (“Keep The Fire Burnin’” peaked at #7. It’s a 5.) But when MTV’s influence started to wane and the record-buying public figured out that it was still really into power ballads, REO Speedwagon were right there.

It seems telling that “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” REO Speedwagon’s biggest-ever chart hit, landed at #1 soon after their ’70s studio-rock peers Foreigner had pulled off a similar feat with “I Want To Know What Love Is.” The excitement over British art-school synthpop was starting to fade, and the old arena-rock battleships were still afloat. But where “I Want To Know What Love Is” capitulates to mid-’80s production styles — complete with a Thompson Twin on keyboards — “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is the kind of soaring cheese that, given minor adjustments, could’ve hit the charts a decade earlier.

In fact, REO Speedwagon frontman Kevin Cronin had started writing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” a decade earlier — possibly when he wasn’t even in REO Speedwagon. Cronin had written the verses from “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the ’70s, and he thought of his unfinished song while taking a Hawaiian vacation in between Speedwagon albums. Cronin made plans to write a chorus with the former Rasperries frontman Eric Carmen, but then Cronin got sick, cancelled those plans, and decided that he just wanted to write the song himself. (The Raspberries’ highest-charting single, 1972’s “Go All The Way,” peaked at #5. It’s an 8. As a solo artist, Carmen’s highest-charting single is 1975’s “All By Myself,” which peaked at #2. That one is a 4.)

Cronin came up with a chorus and a title for “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” but he hated both of them. He’d been so proud of those verses, and he was worried that he was wasting them on a shitty song. That’s pretty funny, considering that “Can’t Fight This Feeling” lives and dies on its chorus. That chorus is a massive, beautiful, heart-swelling absurdity, and it’s easily the best thing about the song. When Cronin sings that first hook? When he builds up to it slowly? When the big guitar chords ring out and the drums thump their way in and the whole band joins in behind him? That’s the good shit right there.

“Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a song about giving in and admitting that you actually care about someone. Cronin says that he wasn’t singing about any particular relationship — or any one particular relationship, anyway. He also says that growing up in a reserved Irish Catholic family made it tough to express himself emotionally, that it was always a struggle. (From personal experience: This checks out.) But when Cronin caves in, he does it in the biggest possible way: Massed harmonies, screaming guitars, pounding drama-nerd pianos, overwrought metaphors about ships and candles and whirlwinds. He turns surrender into something ecstatic.

“Can’t Fight This Feeling” is pure adult-contemporary gloop. It starts out as sleepy waiting-room music, with Cronin’s pinched whine of a voice sharing space with piano tinkles and ookily slick ’80s-overproduction textures. But when the song kicks in, it jumps about five levels. That intro is boring, but it also builds tension, and then the chorus blows off all that tension in a big way. From that point on, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is pure prom-slow-dance grandeur, from its reaching-for-the-heavens guitar solo to the way the backing harmonies get louder and louder throughout. Cronin’s voice remains whiny, but every time he hits that chorus, his whine sounds like it’s got a little more strength and conviction to it.

All of which is to say: “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is the good kind of adult-contemporary gloop. It’s dramatic and self-serious and massively catchy, with tremendous drunken-singalong potential. Kevin Cronin can’t fight this feeling anymore. He’s forgotten what he started fighting for. And if he has to crawl upon this floor? Come crashing through your door? Baby, he can’t fight this feeling anymore. How am I supposed to resist that?

As the “Can’t Fight This Feeling” video shows, REO Speedwagon didn’t get any better at making music videos in the four years after “Keep On Loving You.” On camera, Cronin and all his bandmates are dumpier than you might imagine the members of a massive-selling rock band could be, and they continue to look endearingly uncomfortable onscreen. The video uses primitive special effects to tell a fake-profound story about a whole life cycle, a baby getting old and having kids and dying, and it looks like pure ass. Apparently, though, none of that hurt the song’s staying power.

The other members of REO Speedwagon complained publicly about “Can’t Fight This Feeling” and about how labels and radio stations wanted nothing but ballads from them afterward. But they still got to score a #1 single and play that single to a global viewing audience at Live Aid. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” also pushed the band’s 1984 album Wheels Are Turnin’ to double-platinum sales. You probably shouldn’t complain too much about that.

REO Speedwagon never had another top-10 single after “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” though a few more tracks made the top 20. Speedwagon had stopped making hits entirely by 1989, when guitarist Gary Richrath, who’d co-produced their two #1 singles with Cronin, left the band. (Richrath died in 2015.) Speedwagon’s membership has changed a lot of times, and they haven’t put out an album since their 2009 Christmas LP. But they still do a ton of touring, and who knows, maybe they’re making Mexican-cartel money on the side.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” soundtracking a catfight scene in the 2008 movie Sex Drive:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the moment from the 2008 Horton Hears A Who movie where the entire cast sings “Can’t Fight This Feeling”:

(Jesse McCartney, the voice of JoJo McDodd, peaked at #10 with his 2008 single “Leavin’.” It’s a 5. Selena Gomez, the voice of Helga McDodd, will eventually appear in this column with a power ballad of her own. The Horton Hears A Who movie looks terrible.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In the 2012 movie version of Rock Of Ages, Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin sing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to each other, and I honestly can’t tell if it’s supposed to be funny or touching or both. Here is that utterly baffling scene:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bastille covering “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in a 2019 visit to the BBC Live Lounge:

And here’s the Bastille version of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” soundtracking a 2019 ad for the UK department store John Lewis:

(As lead artists, Bastille’s highest-charting single is 2013’s “Pompeii,” which peaked at #5. It’s a 2. As guests, their highest-charting single is the 2018 Marshmello collab “Happier,” which peaked at #2. That one is a 6.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Madonna’s satirical/not-satirical new-wave mercenary anthem “Material Girl” peaked at #2 behind “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” It’s an 8.