I'm a VIP. I'm saying this primarily because it's true, and also because I feel rather smug. I've never been a VIP before, but the sticker that was handed to me at the box office tonight bears the legend. I am, it confirms, a Very Important Person. All the other people in her are, well, persons. “Here”, just so you know, is the Hammersmith Apollo in London, and on the stage REO Speedwagon have just played a gig that blew the cobwebs out of the corners. I'm here to see lead singer Kevin Cronin, hence the sticker, and have been reliably informed that my interview will take place at the after show party type thing. You know, one of those things for VIPs...
Fifteen minutes on, and it's apparent that the Apollo aren't all that hot on after show hospitality, as myself and several other Very Important People are huddled in a rather small room backstage with no food or drink. We are all, I feel, less important that we thought. Oh well, such is life. Things brighten up when Kevin Cronin appears, as perturbed as we are at the lack of beverages. Even though the show finished by 10.20pm, the Apollo just wants everyone to piss of sharpish, and so there is to be no revelry, although Cronin does invite all here to come back to the bands hotel bar and share a few with the boys. This brings a few smiles to faces, and after hands have been shaken and autigraphs signed, I depart with Cronin to his dressing room for a short interview.
Kevin Cronin first joined REO Speedwagon in 1972, when he sung on their second album, the craply titled “R.E.O/T.W.O”. He wandered off after that due to disagreements, but returned in 1976 and has been singing and writing songs ever since. He's as friendly off stage as he is on, and although he's getting on a bit now he's just filled with energy and vitality. I'm not sure what to call him, so I ask if people call hiim Kevin, or even Kev. “People call me KC,” he replies with a smile. Cool. KC it is then.
Although the band first released a record in 1971, REO Speedwagon the band were formed way back in 1967 by keyboard player Neil Doughty and a college mate to play cover songs. Doughty is still in the band, so 2007 is technically the bands's 40 th anniversary. When I broach the subject KC seems a little perturbed, as if I'm trying to add years on him. “I don't really feel like it's our 40 th anniversary,” he explains defensively. “In 1967 there was a band called REO Speedwagon, but it doesn't resemble this band in any shape or form. As far as we're concered we're starting over again.” Can a band that's been around for over 30 years start fresh?. “We're fortunate to have past hits that get our foot in the door and bring people into the venues. My goal this year is to shoot for the Best New Artist Grammy in 2008! Could be difficult, but you've gotta set your goals high!”
From the evidence tonight, they certainly seem like a freash band, more hungry and alive than ever before. It's been the fourth show and they seem to be having an absolute ball out there. “We've done four shows, all beautiful theatres, and I must say I had a feeling that I haven't had in a long time. In the States people know us so well, we play larger venues and people are coming to party, they've heard us before. It's like 'Let's go and see REO'. Coming back to the UK after 23 years and playing these beautifully accoustic theatres, there's no place to hide. You go out there and you'd better be on your best behaviour. You feel like you'd better hit every note on pitch, because people are gonna hear it, especially after all this time. I just really feel revitalised.” I ask why the band threw in an extra song (“Gloria”) at the end of the set after the lights had gone up. Was it a preplanned showmans trick or genuine exunerance, I wonder. “We sometimes surprise our crew! We like to just go by the flow – see how it feels, see what the audience is doing, and we just felt like playing a Van Morrison song!” Fair enough, I suppose.
Part of the reason for this new energy is the bands first album for 11 years, the excellent “Find Your Own Way Home”. It's a classic REO Speedwagon album, full of differing styles and catchy hooks, not to mention the always reliable vocals of one Kevin Cronin. The band have actually released two single from it, a ballad and a rocker. “We released 'I Needed To Fall' to the softer stations, and 'Smilin In The End' to the rock stations,” KC confirms, a happy look on his face. “'Smilin In the End' has been top 5 on some of the rock stations.” And the album? “We had zero expectations for this. We literally made this record with no record company. I started writingsongs and we started playing them live, then we had some time off in the winter and made some demos and then just kinda... there was no plan, there was no expectations. It just kind of evolved.” So when did they realise that something was actually working? “It was really Smilin In The End. When we cut Smilin In The End we cut it with a live vocal and we went 'This is fun... we're kind of having a good time!'. For us, making the record was a success in of itself, which is a refreshing feeling because we had no A & R guys breathing down our backs, no contracts to fulfill – no one really gave a shit whether we made a record or not. We just did it because the songs demanded to be recorded. You can't compare it to the old days, but I think it's sold about 75,000 copies, and that's 75,000 more than I thought!”
Personally, I was never a fan of the band. Like many people, I saw them as a band who had hits with a couple of soppy ballads in the Eighties and disappeared. It wasn't until the 2001 release “Live Plus” that I realised that REO Speedwagon were a pretty good band. KC tells me that it was recorded during a tour with Styx gave the band a massive lift. “It was that tour where things kind of turned around. I remember we were out with Styx and it just felt powerful. We went out there and it was the combination of our two bands – we kind of fed off each other. We'd sit down and look at the citieas and fight over the ones we'd both want. Sometimes we'd fight over who gets to go on first!”
We're interrupted by the bands lighting technician, who says that one of the girls out front said to him “This is the best concert I've ever worked here for”. He then mentions a couple in Birmingham who got more and more amorous as the set went on, and were almost shagging by “Keep On Loving You”, then says he noticed the same thing tonight, climaxing with the same song. “ I think from now on we should guarantee that if you bring a woman to one of our shows, by the end of the concert you'll be getting some!” laughs KC. “The REO Guarantee – you will get laid!”
Talk of their infamous power ballad brings me to the point that Mr Cronin has been credited as the inventor of the power ballad with that very song. He doesn't deny this, and I think is justifiably proud of the fact. “Every one of our songs starts as a folk song. I just bring it in to rehearsal on an accoustic guitar and vocal. I like to give people a little clue as to where the song is going, especially with new songs. The first power ballad was 'Keep On Loving You', and the only difference was I wrote that on the piano.”
Our time is drawing to a close, as various roadies hustle in and out collecting gear and whisking it away. Kudos to KC, he doesn't make me feel rushed, but I sense that I'm nearly done. I wonder what sort of music the uncrowned King Of Power Ballads listens to on the road. “There's so many good bands out there,” he says, stalling for time. “Well the Foo Fighters are one of my favourite bands. They're friends of ours. I like the Fray, I've got their album. My Chemical Romance I think have got some interesting throwback stuff. I heard a song by The Scissor Sisters – I don't even know who they are but I love the song!” Bizarrly, if you mix up all those bands and add a sprinkle of pixie dust you'd probably get REO Speedwagon!
Finally, I ask KC for an anecdote that will appeal to our many readers in Europe, as the band are heading off tomorrow to do a festival in Sweden. “I stayed up all night one night with Klaus Meine back in 1981 in Boulder, Colorado,” he says, smiling his oh so white smile at the memory. “We co headlined the Boulder stadium and 80,000 people came. Klaus spoke not a word of English, I spoke not a word of German, but some how we stayed up all night rapping. I'm not sure how...There might have been some sort of substance involved that I'd rather not mention!”
With this, my time comes to an end. I shake hands with a man who has been a genuine pleasure to talk to and promptly get lost backstage ina horrendous Spinal Tap moment. 36 years after he first joined, Kevin “KC” Cronin is still the pulsing heart of REO Speedwagon, and I hope he continues to be so, 'cause life just won't be as much fun without them.
Interview & Photos by Alan Holloway