What a difference a singer makes.
Your father’s REO Speedwagon, or maybe your REO Speedwagon, has little in common with the REO Speedwagon that entered the music scene in 1971 with the eponymous debut album R.E.O. Speedwagon. (OK, seriously, what’s with all these self-titled debut albums!?)
No Kevin Cronin for REO Speedwagon’s first album instead Terry Luttrell helms the mic delivering a far different REO experience for those whose only experience with the iconic band comes from the music they slow-danced to at prom.
In many respects, R.E.O. Speedwagon the album sounds like a totally different act then REO Speedwagon the band. Today, only Neal Doughty, on keyboards, remains from the original lineup on REO Speedwagon’s first album, which includes Gary Richrath on guitar, Gregg Philbin on bass and Alan Gratzer on drums, all of whom worked together for at least a few more years except Luttrell.
Luttrell moved on to front Starcastle when personal differences with Richrath caused a separation. The differing accounts of who left who sounds like a real life Spinal Tap moment with Luttrell fully disputing Richrath’s account of the two returning home from a gig, getting into an argument in the car and Richrath wanting to stop on the side of the road and fight, only for Luttrell to run into a cornfield.
Cronin came in for R.E.O./Two, the band’s second album, left for three albums then returned in 1976. Ironically, Richrath was let go in 1989 after fighting with Cronin. Regardless, with or without Luttrell, REO Speedwagon was going places but with different styles on the rock music spectrum.
REO Speedwagon First Album Review
Released in October 1971, REO Speedwagon’s first album consists of eight-songs and lasts a respectable 38 minutes with the final cut a 10 minute saga. A more straight-up rock and roll sound permeates this record, with Richrath displaying guitar hero status while executing various solos and solid 70s hard rock chords, Doughty’s keyboards sometimes lead the charge which adds a different dimension, nary a filler among them and a few featuring some wild titles.
R.E.O. Speedwagon opens with “Gypsy Woman’s Passion” with Richrath getting it started on guitar but the real difference drops once Luttrell chimes with a lower octave and rocker grit to his vocals than the higher and smoother tone you get from Cronin. About two minutes in, Richrath goes on a tear that should have put early fans on notice this wasn’t a one and done band.
Doughty puts a fun step into “157 Riverside Avenue” on piano as Richrath shares in the spotlight with more slicing of the fretboard. “Anti-Establishment Man” works in a southern rock feel much thanks to Doughty and a bit of soul in Luttrell’s vocals. Richrath lays down a bunch of Rolling Stones inspired bars and measures. “Lay Me Down” keeps the recently departed 60s era alive and Philbin gets to rock out a bit on this one. “Sophisticated Lady” reestablishes the 70s vibe in this face-paced rocker that has both Richrath and Doughty shreeding their instruments on separate solos.
The intriguing “Five Men Were Killed Today” has Luttrell in fine vocal form in varying ranges that very well could have crossed over – with a bit of a different flavor – to the future mega hits REO Speedwagon would produce. Short on overall lyrics, just two brief paragraphs of written words including this which opens: “Five men were killed today / Leaving five wives as widows / Six men they tried to kill / Maybe one will live to raise his son /I’ve tried so hard” inside of a relaxed pace, featuring a country infused slide guitar peppered throughout on top of 80s ballad pop music. Comical and fun or sad and endearing? You make the call. Either way, a solid entry that would make waves if released today.
Finally, REO Speedwagon closes out their first album with “Prison Women” the shortest track in under three minutes that brings back toe-tapping 70s rock before ending with the 10 minute opus “Dead at Last” that fully brings REO Speedwagon into the prog rock fold. A slow introductory start gets Gratzer spilling out cymbals hits that builds into a loud heavy rock piece as the rest of the band breaks in and Richrath lays down a few screamers and Gratzer employs a short, simple but fun drum solo. Luttrell holds his own sounding like an iconic 60s frontman with some controlled howling and an overall command of the mic.
Some lost, and perhaps for some, unexplored gems on REO Speedwagon’s first album that shows a band ready for prime time. But an interesting unknown exists had Luttrell and Richrath got along. And an even bigger one had Cronin joined as co-singer, offering an interesting vocal contrast much like Fleetwood Mac’s female leads.
Debut Album Grade: A-
Overall Grade: B+
REO Speedwagon Debut Album Track List:
- Gypsy Woman’s Passion
- 157 Riverside Avenue
- Anti-Establishment Man
- Lay Me Down
- Sophisticated Lady
- Five Men Were Killed Today
- Prison Women
- Dead at Last