REO Speedwagon: The World’s Biggest What?!?

If you were to make a list of the biggest rock bands of the 1980s, REO Speedwagon would probably not land on your top 5 guesses.

Or top ten. Or top forty.

But, if you could take a trip back to 1981 and watch MTV for an hour, you would assume they were the Beatles of the era. We now forget how huge Champaign Illinois’ favorite sons were.

"REO Speedwagon" MTV "Live Aid"

And huge they were! 18 Million albums sold between 1980 and 1984 alone; a dozen top 40 singles in that same period; thousands of live concerts across the globe.

 MTV promoted the REO like crazy. REO was a natural fit with MTV’s initial AOR-type programming format. Also important for the new music channel: the band made video clips! In fact, in the first 24 hours of MTV, REO videos (mostly live concert clips) were played 16 times, which ties them with Rod Stewart as the most played artists on the first day. Much of the first week of broadcasts included promotion of MTV’s first Saturday night concert starring, yep – REO Speedwagon.


So even with all of this exposure REO had, we now barely remember them. Why?

Part of the problem is that they don’t really fit in with the stereotype of what we think bands of the 80s sounded like, and even more so, looked like. These guys had a pretty typical arena-rock / classic rock sound. They had big guitars, but not too crunchy like metal bands. They had keyboards, but basic pianos and organs without the synthesizers of other pop bands or new wavers. And most of all, they didn’t look like 80s pop stars at all. They wore jeans, sport coats, and sneakers – they looked more like stand up comics than rock stars.

"REO Speedwagon"
Rock Stars or Stand-Up Comics? REO, looking like they’re about to do some airline food jokes.

I have a theory that as time goes on, the masses will forget about mega rock stars who had bigger songs but a pedestrian look. Middle of the road rockers like Genesis, Phil Collins, Bruce Hornsby, Don Henley, and Huey Lewis sold tens of millions of records each, but when someone says “80s Music” most people think of outrageous-looking minor artists like A Flock of Seagulls.


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