REO Speedwagon’s Neal Doughty: Dancing on the Moon!

This interview first appeared in Goldmine Magazine in 2013.
The interview was conducted by Classic Rock Revisited’s Jeb Wright.
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By Jeb Wright

Neal Doughty gets the blame for REO Speedwagon.  While at the University of Illinois, he joined a band with his co-founder, drummer Alan Gratzer that needed a name.  “One day we decided to advertise in the campus paper to see if anyone would hire us,” says Doughty, “So we needed a name fast. The very next day I walked into an engineering class and saw ‘REO Speedwagon’ written on the board in giant letters. It was a milestone in the history of transportation: a high-speed, heavy-duty truck. I told the guys that night and they all loved it. It was the only name we ever considered.” 

As it turned out, people wanted to hear REO and they were hired to perform on-campus, as entertainment for the party….and a food fight!.  Neal recalls, “It was a frat house that had invited a sorority over for a dinner. We walked in and saw heavy paper covering all the walls. We kinda thought something was up, but it was too late. The evening ended with mashed potatoes everywhere. Alan spent the next whole day cleaning them off the drums. But we made forty dollars.” From those humble beginnings, REO Speedwagon eventually became a household name, yet massive success eluded them for over a decade. 

REO has recently released Live at the Moondance Jam, which features all of the band’s biggest hits recorded at America’s premier classic rock festival, The Moondance Jam in Walker, Minnesota.  In the interview that follows, Doughty speaks openly about the Moondance Magic, as well as the bands past, present and future. 

Jeb:  REO Speedwagon is releasing a live performance made at the Moondance Jam. 

Neal: I think that film is the best thing that we have ever released, other than Hi Infidelity, or a few of the other albums. 

I didn’t see the film for quite some time as it was exclusive to Direct TV and I don’t have Direct TV, I have cable.  Everyone was telling me how great it was and it wasn’t until Palladia started playing it that I was able to see it.  I finally got a copy of the Blu-Ray and there is not one thing that I didn’t like about it.  We really did a lot of preparation for that thing. The fellow that directed it came to one of our shows two weeks before that and had a meeting.  His company paid a bunch of money for staging and lights specifically for the shoot.  There were many cameras there and he just does not miss a cut.  The camera is on the right person at the right time throughout the entire thing.  It is all done in High Definition.  You see the screen behind us, which is something that I never get to see, and there are a lot of crowd shots, as well.  It is really a high quality product.  Palladia shows it constantly. 

Jeb: I remember that night, as I was physically there.  All BS aside, I know you have to say it is great and all, because it is your new product; but throwing all of that out the window, there is something magical that happens at The Moondance in Walker, Minnesota... 

Neal: It must be the reason I moved to Minnesota, other than to get married to my favorite person in the world. 

I am sitting at home right now just like a normal person.  Some friends of my wife opened a new bar and it would be rude if we didn’t go out tonight and try it out.

Jeb:  Well, of course, but be careful not to have too much fun!

Neal: Oh no, when you get to be in your 60s, the hangover lasts way longer than the party.  It is not worth it.  I try to use a little bit of common sense these days [laughter]. 

Jeb:  You’re going back to Moondance again in July, 2014… is that exciting? 

Neal: Moondance has always been my favorite.  I like Sturgis, and that thing they do in Wisconsin, but Moondance is special.  We lit the crowd up that night.  It was great to see that much of the crowd, so much so, that I think we should light the crowd every night. 

REO started as a bar band.  Now there are casinos and festivals like Moondance that are great.  A lot of the casinos are building stages and showrooms that are really nice.  We like to play those nice casinos because they remind us of being a bar band.  Once you’re a bar band then you will always like that type of crowd.  But, there is something to be said for looking out at an audience and you can’t see the end of the people…that is a really good feeling.  It is what this type of rock and roll started around.  Woodstock was like that and we are part of the Woodstock generation of music.  This type of music invented the idea of bringing huge numbers of people together to listen to music and that is what these big festivals still represent; they are like echoes of Woodstock.  So, that is always going to be the most fun.  For me, to see it from the crowd’s point of view, done this well, I will probably end up watching this thing again tonight now that you’ve got me going. 

Jeb: I appreciate the fact that REO does not go through the motions.  You could, as you’ve performed so many times, but you don’t. 

Neal: You know what?  We wouldn’t just go through the motions; that would be boring.  Every night we are still trying to play better than we did the night before.  Lots of times is may be little nuances that the crowd wouldn’t even notice…with the invention of the in-ear monitor, it made it so that we hear each other so well that we will notice something that someone does that is really nice and we will all turn around and look and smile at them.  On the reverse side, if you mess up and try to get away with it then somebody on stage always catches you and gives you a look that says, “I heard that.” 

We focus on the quality of our playing.  You can have all the production in the world…you have seen us when we go out on our big tours, we have a pretty big production…but there is nothing better than just trying to play better than you did the night before. 

You have some nights that are a little off.  As we are leaving the stage we’re already debriefing each other on what happened here or there.   We are talking about the level of performance as we leave the stage, before we even get back to the dressing room.  That is our little way of keeping it fun. 

Jeb: A lot of bands just don’t care that much.  A lot of bands are more into the ego and production show and not so much about the fans.  I have been with REO backstage, next to the stage and out front of house and I can tell you REO still loves to do this. 

Neal: When I see a band play, I can tell whether they still care or not.  I really think the audience can tell, too.  You can make little mistakes, here or there, and the audience either didn’t catch it, or they forgive you for it…we have a very forgiving audience, as they are always on our side.  You can have trouble due to the stage being bad, or somebody doesn’t feel good, or there are technical issues, but the crowd always gives us support.  We have a very supportive and encouraging set of fans, which is another reason why we can keep going and not just be sleepwalking through the whole thing. 

Jeb: You are the man who started REO Speedwagon; do you feel a great responsibility to   the band as the founder?

Neal: Of course.  These days it feels like I am just keeping things on an even keel.  Kevin has a lot of good ideas.  We spend sound checks making little transitions from one song to the next, or doing little musical things.  All of us will get into talking about what parts work and what parts do not work. 

There are a lot of bands that lose their singer and they keep going like nothing happens.  I wouldn’t allow that.  Right now, Kevin is the last guy that we would want to leave the band.  He’s our cheerleader and he’s our quarterback.  I wouldn’t go out onstage with any different singer.  He’s more than a singer to us. 

I think in my role, as the co-founder of the group, I just wouldn’t let that happen.  There are groups out there now without any original members and they are still calling it the same name.  That is not in any danger of happening to us, as we are all gung-ho about keeping this thing going on. 

Jeb:  I think the thing that could have ended REO was when Gary Richrath left.  If you had not chosen Dave Amato to replace him, then it could have gone bad. 

Neal:  That could have been a train wreck.  Dave is the first guy that we really tried.  Well, we had a show in Chile, at the Vina del Mar Festival, which is as big as Moondance.  We played two nights in a row and this was right after Gary left.  There was one guitar player in-between Gary and Dave.  Kevin had this little band in LA for fun and this guy was the guitar player for that band.  We took that band plus Bruce, Kevin and me and we played those shows down there.  The thing is televised in every Spanish speaking country in the world and we won the award for the Best Band at the Festival.  We only had the core of Bruce, Kevin and I and two other people, who had never played another show with us.  We got away with it because we were playing so far away from home.  They probably didn’t know what we looked like, as they had never seen us, so they didn’t know that there was a different guitar player, or drummer. 

Neither one of those guys really worked out.  It’s crazy, we went to South America and we won that award, but that was the only time that particular lineup ever played.  Right after that, we got home and started making the record and both of those guys weren’t right for the band, as it turned out.  They did a really good job of filling in, but we had to start looking for the right guys.  Pretty quickly, we found Dave and found Bryan Hitt. 

We set up a rehearsal at a major rehearsal hall and we auditioned eight drummers and I think Bryan was the first one to audition.  I came offstage and pulled Kevin aside and I said, “Do we really have to keep doing these auditions because Bryan is the right guy.”  He said, “I know what you mean, but we have these guys all coming in so we have to go through with it.”  

Dave was also the first guy.  He came over to Kevin's house and we went back in his studio and we just jammed for a half an hour.  There wasn’t much to it.  We stopped so fast that I think Dave thought that he didn’t get the job.  We just said, “We will go talk about this for a second, Dave.”  I am sure he thought it happened too fast and that we must not like him.  We got inside the house and said, “That guy is great.  He looks like rock star.  Let’s get him.”  We went back in the studio and said, “Okay, Dave, you’re in the band.”  It was the shortest audition in history. 

He is such a likeable guy that there is no way you wouldn’t give him a good chance.  Plus, he is a great guitar player.  If not for Dave and Bryan, both of them being the right guys, we may have quit ten years ago.  It was a lucky break, for the Gods of the Rock Band World were looking down on us. 

Jeb:  REO was huge in St. Louis before many other cities. 

Neal: That is because my parents were going to record stores and taking our albums out of the miscellaneous “R” and putting us at the front of the rack.  I credit them with our initial following in St. Louis.  We were miscellaneous “R” in record stores for years and my Mom and Dad really would go to the stores and blatantly put our albums in the very front of the rack. 

Jeb: You went ten years before you made it huge.  Before Hi Infidelity, you would come close with songs like “Golden Country,” “Keep Pushing’” and others.  You had the live album and then Tuna Fish, yet you were spending a lot of time almost-making-it.  What was it like when you finally did make it?

Neal: The only issue that I could sense was that throughout the ten years before we really had a hit record, everybody looked to Gary as the musical director of the band.  Gary would put 16 tracks of rhythm guitar on a record and then, maybe, a vocal; that is just the way he was.  He was the classic crunch guitar guy and that was our direction and we all liked it just fine. 

When the song that finally put us on the map was a power ballad called “Keep on Loving You” that was written by Kevin, then it switched; almost inconceivably, at first.  People started looking to Kevin for what direction we should go, including the record company.  Gary, who had been the de facto leader all of those years, sensed that he no longer was completely handling the direction of the group and that is eventually why he left.  I am not sure if ‘eventually’ is the right word, but it goes back that far, to Hi Infidelity and that subtle shift in power.  I don’t really like using the politics of rock and roll to explain something, but I think it did have an effect on him and he became less and less happy as the ‘80s unfolded.  That had a lot to do with why he finally just left.

Jeb: When you get to that point that you have been trying to get to for forever, what was it like when you finally got there? 

Neal: I hated it.  I am such a low profile person…when we play in a casino then everybody in the building knows who you are while you are onstage and I am trying to sneak back to my room before anybody sees me.  I am just the last person in the world who wants to be famous.  I like it onstage that people consider us a big band, but in my private life I am really just as low profile of a person as you can imagine.  I really didn’t like it.  Everywhere we went we had people coming at us from every direction and it seemed like they mainly wanted something from us.  They always say  that fame changes people but I think what it does is change everyone around you, as nobody treats you the same way any longer.  I am talking about people you’ve known for years.  It is like an out-of-body experience for me.  I am much happier now that things have toned down a little bit.  We still have plenty of people waiting outside the building for autographs, but it is not as crazy as it was.  Coming offstage used to look like an evacuation scene from a movie.  There was a crowd of people all trying to get out of the same door that we were.  People are often surprised when I say that I hated that part, but I did.  At the same time, I was extremely happy that after ten albums and fifteen years of work things finally paid off and that we were getting recognized for what we did.  Down in the trenches I preferred to stay away from the craziness a little bit.  I had my own form of craziness going on, as you probably know from many sources [laughter].  I was trying to keep my craziness on a personal level. 

Jeb:  Kansas, Styx, Boston and REO all got out of that rat race and you all basically took over control of your own destiny. 

Neal: That is very true.  Irving Azoff off was basically our first manager.  He was a student at U of I along with the rest of us.  He and John Baruck teamed up and, then, Tom Consolo, who had been our tour manager during the Hi Infidelity years…he kept us from getting kicked out of several countries.  He is really good at talking to hotel managers and police.  He became part of that management team.  Irving went on to do all kinds of other things and we are still pals but Tom Consolo has taken over the day-to-day nuts and bolts management of the band.  He’s the guy we look to now as our manager.  We keep things on a family business level.  Tom is the manager, but any one of us can say anything to him.  When major decisions are made, all of us are in the same room; often on the bus.  He will come on the road because we’re too busy to all go to Los Angeles for a meeting, so our long bus rides become big strategy meetings about what to do next and stuff.  I call it a family business because that’s what it is. 

Jeb: REO has made some great music over the years, yet, you have been unable to make a great album for a while.  Please don’t take it that I am being rude, I like all of your work, I really like Building the Bridge, but a classic like Hi Infidelity has eluded REO.  Are albums not a high priority anymore?

Neal: It is a priority…you know me, I am happy to go up there every night and play the hits because I like them all.  We are doing a lot of songs that were turntable hits and I love that. 

Kevin is still a songwriter at heart.  He is a little folk singer kind of guy and he keeps coming up with songs.  It is frustrating because he doesn’t know what to do with them.  We’ve done two albums since Alan [Gratzer] and Gary left and neither one of them did the kind of sales that we would have liked. That was discouraging.

I have a theory that the public is kind of heading back to singles, the way it was before the Beatles popularized the idea of a full length work. With so many people downloading…I think the business is sort of to blame.  When it went from an album to a CD, I think the CD was too long.  You can’t name too many classics that are not from the vinyl day.  Hi Infidelity was less than 40 minutes long.  You were able to fill up a record without any blank spots and you could make an album where people would not want to skip a song. 

CDs gave you another thirty minutes and people just started filling that up with anything they had lying around.  I think people didn’t want to buy 70 minutes of music when they only liked three, or four, songs and I think that is why people started going to Napster.  I know it was illegal, but I don’t really blame people for doing it.  With iTunes and other legal places for downloading that is fine, as artists and songwriters get paid for that, and that is working out. 

Today, I think people just like a few songs and they like to make their own playlists and they like to mix up several bands and put in their favorite songs of off every record.  I think that has made it really hard for anybody to do a full length CD. 

If we were to have another record like Hi Infidelity, then I think it would have to be 38 minutes long with ten songs that are all nice, radio friendly and they would have almost no space in-between cuts.  With Hi Infidelity, it was just that.  Within one second the next song started.  The album just flowed almost like side two of Abbey Road, where one song went right into the next and everything seemed to just constantly flow. 

This may be a longer answer than you expected.  We will definitely make new music.  It may be that we go in and make one song and send it straight to the big download sites, or we may put it on our own website.  Making a full length record can take a full year of your life, and when it is all over within two weeks after the release date, then it is just too hard.  Don’t get me wrong, you haven’t heard the last of REO Speedwagon.  We will do new stuff, but it will be released in the new 21st Century way of doing things.  I think that makes more sense. 

You also have to consider that a lot of our hit music came from the friction between Kevin and Gary.  Kevin’s softer side would go up against Gary’s harder side.  When Kevin first played “Keep on Loving You” for us, we didn’t like it.  He was playing it on piano.  Gary said, “Play that again” and he added these big power chords on guitar and it suddenly became a different song.  Whereas I love Dave as a guitar player, he is not really a songwriter.  Even though Kevin wrote the biggest hits on Hi Infidelity, a lot of that was the relationship between him and Gary, which was not always friendly.  When it had friction involved, then that is what made our best songs.  I will have to say that Gary was a big part of our success, just being a foil to Kevin.  Kevin will admit this too, that the relationship between he and Gary, which wasn’t always good, led to our best songs.  That is what our live show is now…half the songs Gary wrote, sometimes with Kevin’s input and sometimes not. 

Quite frankly, now we have one songwriter in the band.  Bruce writes songs too, but he does not really collaborate with Kevin.  That dynamic duo is one thing that we lost when Gary left.  We had two guys bouncing from completely two different sides of every song.  They would bounce it off each other, hit it back and forth and argue about it, but that is what created our best stuff.  One of the other four guys in the band is going to have to step up and start throwing stuff at Kevin and see what he does with it.  That would be the only way that we could come up with those kinds of songs again. 

Kevin can come up with great songs by himself, but maybe not ten of them at one time.  To make a very long story short, I think we will stick with the new 21st Century download method of releasing our best new song and releasing them one at a time.  If that works then we can do another one.  I think that is what the new groups are doing. 

Minneapolis has a great music scene and I am friends with one of the guys who works with Prince as an engineer.  When he is not doing that, he is producing some of these great Minneapolis groups.  I have played on a couple of their records and they don’t ever try to put out ten songs at one time.  They may record ten songs, but they will release them slowly, because they know that not many people have the attention span to listen to seventy minutes of new music at one sitting.  Now we expect that we can plug our iPod, or iPhone or i-whatever, into the car and hear nothing but our favorite songs for three hours.  I think we have become spoiled that way. 

Unless you’re one of the top five acts in the country and have a ton of the best songwriters writing songs for you, it is tough to come up with something like that.   

Jeb:  I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

Neal: Well, we’re not working on something at this moment.  We did spend a few days down in Nashville, as Kevin has a publishing company there and they sometimes team us up with country writers.  We’re not that far from country.  Some of our early songs could have been country songs.  We run into country musicians all the time and they tell us we were an influence on them.  Sometimes, that makes for an interesting power ballad kind of thing.  We spent several days in Nashville recording a song and we listened to it and it just wasn’t us.  It is still floating around somewhere, but that wasn’t for us.  We’ve been in the studio, and when the right thing comes up, then our fans will hear it. 

Jeb: Last one:  I think there was a great chemistry between Kevin and Gary and I think that is seen so much in the live version of “157 Riverside Avenue.” 

Neal:  That started very gradually.  Kevin, to this day, his rapport with the audience is a big part of our show.  It kind of started from that.  Here was a song that he wasn’t on in the original recording, but he wanted to turn it into something with his stamp on it.  It just grew very slowly. 

After most of the song was over he would start adlibbing things back and forth with Gary.  It took a long time to get it to where it is today.  We still do it, and we still never know what he is going to do.

Kevin is really good at reading a crowd.  He can tell three songs ahead of time if they are going to like this or that.  The crew is trying to run around and trying to change all of our set lists on the fly depending on which way Kevin thinks the crowd wants to go.  We should really get iPads for our set lists because it changes all the time.  There are some nights when it changes all night.  We will play an event where the crowd isn’t our usual crowd and we know they are going to hate this one or that one.  We are flying by the seat of our pants many nights out there, which is another thing that keeps it fun. 

During “157” we are not quite sure what he is going to do.  Dave is even taking a bigger role in that song as well.  Dave felt an obligation to stay true to Gary’s most famous solos.  Dave wasn’t able to really show what he could do as a guitar player and it turns out he’s amazing.  Sometimes, now, he will really get going on something in “157” and he really shows people what he can do.  That is the best thing about that song.  Some nights we don’t even do it because we know that people are getting tired as we play late sometimes. 

We will always do it in St. Louis and Kansas City.  Another thing is that we are never allowed to rehearse that song.  We have never rehearsed that song.  It is just three chords and a bunch of solos.  The verses and lyrics have become the least important thing about the song.  We wrote that as five people sitting in the control room of the studio and it turned into our jam thing, and we honestly don’t know what is going to happen.  That is our Grateful Dead song.  The audience doesn’t know what is happening next because we don’t know what’s happening next.

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