Music critic Paul Williams once wrote of the Monkees that "after they've made their millions and gone, they will have left absolutely no lasting mark on American music." That remark proved prophetic. Today one can safely make the same prediction of R.E.O. Speedwagon and Styx.
The No. 1 album on last week's Record World charts was R.E.O. Speedwagon's "Hi-Infidelity" (Epic FE 36844). Styx's "Paradise Theater" (A&M SP-3719) was No. 2. These are the two hottest groups in pop music this month. Yet there is nothing on either album that will be worth remembering in a year or two.
Of course, it is a perfectly fair transaction to give a mass audience exactly what it wants and to take millions of dollars in return. In fact, it takes a certain skill to calculate what the market requires and to deliver the goods. Both R.E.O. Speedwagon and Styx are highly skilled in this regard. But art it's not. Every verse and chorus on both "Hi-Infidelity" and "Paradise Theater" seems contrived to appeal broadly without saying or playing anything that might upset anyone.
Like Bob Seger, R.E.O. Speedwagon spent 10 years as stars in the Midwest and unknowns on each coast before finally breaking through nationally. mSeger broke through because he was so distinctly original. R.E.O. Speedwagon, due to arrive at the Capital Centre this Saturday, broke through because they were so much like what was on the radio.
The new Speedwagon single, "Keep On Loving You," is typical of the jingly melodies, multi-tracked guitars, heavy echo and casual sexism that run throughout "Hi-Infidelity." Kevin Cronin's lead vocal follows the song's catchy melody with radio-commercial fidelity. He never allows any syncopation or inflection that might make it, sound personal. Similarly, Gary Richcraft's guitars stick doggedly to that attention-grabbing melody.
Cronin sings to his lover that he'll keep loving her even if she's an insensitive, unfaithful, "coiled up and hissin'" snake. Elsewhere on the album, Cronin advises a woman to stick with her boyfriend even if "he makes you so sore." He complains about women who "cut me down to size" and "bring [men] to their knees." If any doubts remained about the band's attitudes toward women, side two begins with a dialogue about the "He-Man Woman-Haters Club."
Both R.E.O. Speedwagon and Styx subscribe to the Queen/Pink Floyd theory of art-rock: Put enough echo on your album and most listeners will assume that it must be profound. The deafening echo on both albums makes each band seem larger than life in much the same way that big-budget escapist movies do.
Queen has become a top pop group by pulling off clever imitations of their betters: the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Carl Perkins, Funkadelic, etc. Styx, which will give a concert at the Capital Centre on April 13, has become a top pop group by pulling off clever imitations of Queen.
"Paradise Theater" is a concept album built on the shakiest of concepts. The Paradise Theater is supposedly a glamorous movie palace in Chicago that was built in 1928 and demolished in 1958. This framework allows chief songwriter Dennis DeYoung to make awkward analogies among "paradise," "time" and the "Paradise Theater."
The group's new single, "The Best of Times," is symptomatic of the overkill that ruins "Paradise Theater." It is an overproduced recording of an overwrought performance of an overwritten song. There are gimmicks like synthesized vocals and huge choirs that appear from nowhere. The lyrics dress up a trite idea ("We'll make this a world for two") with pretentions ("Rumor has it, it's the end of Paradise.") Styx tries to make the cliched lyrics and formula music with heavy echo, quivering singing and multi-tracked arrangements.
There's nothing wrong with commercial albums like these. What is wrong is the way radio stations devote so much of their restricted playlists to mediocrities like "Paradise Theater" and "Hi-Infidelity." Ironically, the last of Elvis Costello's "Get Happy!" album last year was "High Fidelity." In that song, Costello cries out desperately: "Can you hear me? Can you hear me?" With "Hi-Infidelity" clogging the airwaves, a great artist like Costello scarcely can be heard.