May 29, 2012

An Interview with Neal Doughty of REO Speedwagon

REO Speedwagon is gearing up for a new round of dates as part of the ongoing Midwest Rock ‘N’ Roll Express tour, and founding keyboardist Neal Doughty couldn’t be happier. “The shows have been great,” he says. “The audiences have been great.”

Also great? The band is a bastion of hits—“Ridin’ The Storm Out,” “Take It On The Run,” “Keep On Loving You,” just to name a few—and they’re more than obliged to continue performing them for their fans. “It ain’t easy to get enough money to go to a rock show,” Doughty says. “You don’t want to get there and rip ’em off.”

A lot of bands resist playing their most familiar material, but you guys gladly accommodate what your fans want to hear. 

Well, yeah. They’re who is paying us, for one thing. If you’re going to charge money for people to come see you expecting a bunch of hits and then you just get self-indulgent and try to educate them to some other crazy thing you’re doing, you’re just stealing their money. We’re always, absolutely, playing what people are expecting to hear. The customer is always right, as they say. And we know they want to hear the biggest hits, the ones they can sing along with. Sometimes if we’re touring by ourselves and we have a really long show we’ve been known to throw in one new song, just to see what they think of it. But we do not leave out the ones they want to hear in order to do that.

Some artists see playing the hits as giving into some nostalgia trip.

First of all, we don’t really think of it as just nostalgia, because there are kids, 15-years old, there. To me nostalgia is when you take a form of music that is no longer popular at all — big band or something. For us it’s just a type of music that, to our benefit, has become timeless. … It’s not like, “Let’s put on poodle skirts and white bobby socks and listen to something from the ‘50s.” This is music that’s still on the radio and people still like it. I still hear our band on the radio every day.

And the music is new to the younger fans; they’re not nostalgic for anything.

There are people that are there to relive the first time they fell in love. You can always pick them out, ’cause they’re crying.

People do that at a Paul McCartney concert too. That’s what music does to people. 

Oh, my gosh, yeah. I went to one of his concerts quite a while ago and he played “Yesterday”—wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
In the ’80s, especially, with “Keep On Loving You” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” the band got lumped in under that “arena rock” label. Did that rub you guys the wrong way like it did with other bands at the time? 

I don’t think it did. There was only one frustrating thing that came from it, and that’s from that time on radio only wanted that type of power ballad from us. We spent the next the next three records releasing a rocker [as a single] first, trying to get them to play that. They would always call us up and go, “Where’s the ballad? When can we play the ballad?” So, that was a little frustrating in that we couldn’t ever get, from that point on, a big hit that was anything other than a ballad. We already had our classic rock stuff under our belts, and stations are still playing that. You can’t complain about the fact that it was power ballads that put us on the map. We wouldn’t be working today if it were not for those big ballads. So, it’s hard to complain about it. Most of our set is of the turntable hits from the ’70s, and the reason we get to still play those songs is because of the ballads from the ‘80s. 

And it’s not like after you play “Keep On Loving You,” the entire audience leaves. 

Oh, no. And another thing that we find is that a big ballad does not bring down the energy level at all. These aren’t little acoustic folk songs. These are great, big screeching-guitar, big drums, even though the tempo is slower. So they don’t really bring down the energy level at all. They just happen to be a slower tempo. I don’t think we’ve ever had people just show up, hear the hits, and then leave. Our crowd pretty much likes all the stuff we had in the ‘70s. Even though they weren’t No. 1 they got enough airplay on the radio and on classic radio now. People know those as well as they do the ballads. They cheer a little louder when one of the ballads comes up.

Well, people fall in love to those kinds of songs, and associate them with first dates and school proms. Those ballads occupy a different context in people’s lives. 

Yeah, I’ll never forget the song that was playing when I broke up with my high school girlfriend.

What was it?

“Rhythm of the Rain” [by the Cascades]. That was back in the middle ’60s. … It’s no secret we’ve all been around for a while. The important thing is we still feel young and are healthy and taking care of ourselves. And [we’re] high on this thing of still getting to do this. You’re like, “Boy, they just keep showing up. Bless their hearts.” And I’m talking about the audience when I say that.

To what do you attribute the band’s longevity?

Part of it is that we’ve never stopped touring. I mean, there hasn’t been a year that we took off as a vacation. I guess [also] parents were playing our albums as their kids were growing up… Classic rock music is called classic rock for a reason. It’s become a permanent genre, almost, like country music or something. There’s a lot of factors. I can’t analyze them all, but I’m glad they all come into play because we feel very lucky to still be able to do this.

(First published at Something Else! Reviews.)