Neal Doughty was just as surprised as anyone to hear his band, REO Speedwagon, mentioned in the hit film, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘How did we get in that company?’ and she reminded me that was when we had ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling,’ the No. 1 song for three weeks.”
The year was 1985 and every big act was invited to perform at Live Aid, a two-continent concert designed to raise funds for famine relief.
In the film, Queen needed convincing to perform. “Everybody’s in this. Paul McCartney, Elton John, REO Speedwagon,” an agent tells the musicians.
“It was such a shock when I was watching the movie I actually got a hot flash,” Doughty says with a laugh.
The concert, though, was a big deal in the 1980s. “Every band in the world wanted to play,” the keyboardist says. “We were friends with Bill Graham (one of the organizers) from way back. We were begging to be on the show.”
Because it was being broadcast around the world, American acts had to be in Philadelphia early in the morning to sync up with those in London.
“We had to get up at 7 a.m. and be at the stadium by 8,” Doughty recalls. “We saw our idols wandering around backstage. It was just nuts.”
To make sure there were no blips in the performance schedules, a revolving stage was used. “One band was setting up while the other was playing,” Doughty says. “We didn’t get a sound check – nothing. The next thing you know, I was playing the piano intro to ‘Can’t Fight’ and a billion people were watching.”
Nerve-racking? “It was the most amazing thing that ever happened,” Doughty says. “We only played two songs and they weren’t perfect. But at least Kevin (Cronin’s) vocal mic didn’t go out. All of our stuff was working.”
Later in the day, McCartney’s microphone failed for the first two minutes of “Let It Be,” prompting other artists to come out and join him for the finale.
“The fact that we were on the same show with people we practically worshipped was unbelievable,” Doughty says. “It was probably a bigger event than Woodstock…and there we were.”
While “Bohemian Rhapsody” made much of Freddie Mercury’s career, Doughty doubts there’d be enough grist for an REO Speedwagon feature.
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“I think it’d be hard to follow,” he says. “The first years of the band there were like 25 people who went in and out. Nothing we’ve done has been dramatic enough. Freddie Mercury had an unbelievable life and died way too young. You couldn’t write a better movie than what actually happened to that band.”
Although REO was featured on “Behind the Music” on VH-1, the episode didn’t cover a lot of the band’s 50-some years.
“There’s some fairly interesting stuff,” Doughty admits. “Kevin (Cronin) is writing a book, but I don’t know where he is with it. Every once in a while, he’ll ask us for a word – ‘I need a better word here’ – but I don’t know what it’s going to be about. I told him he could write anything he wanted about me. I’ve been with my wife for 10 years now and she knows about the ex-wives and every crazy thing I’ve ever done. All my secrets are out.”
Because he’s the only member who has been with the band throughout its life (others have had interruptions in their tenure), “I’m kind of the expert on what happened. Up until the making of our first record, there’s a whole story to tell. Once bands make it, most of their stories are the same from that point on. What’s very different is how they got together – which always involves a lot of accidents and crazy twists of fate.
“For us, that first five years was memorable – from forming a tiny band in a dormitory that only played at campus bars to finally getting a record deal. One book could cover 10 bands and how they got started.”
Although REO had nearly two dozen musicians over the course of time, the current lineup has been consistent for some 30 years.
“At first, Bryan (Hitt, the drummer) and Dave (Amato, the lead guitarist) were encouraged to stay true to what the other guys had played,” Doughty says. “But over time they added their own stamp big time. They’ve taken it to a better level. We’re a better live group now than we ever were.”
Live Aid aside, the band is proud of the Diamond Award it got in 2017 for selling 10 million copies of “Hi Infidelity.”
“There’ve only been some 100 albums in the history of recorded music that have sold that many,” Doughty says. The crystal trophy has a place of honor near his grand piano. “That was like a gold medal, for sure. It says we were regarded highly by the public – it didn’t come from the critics. It came from the people who bought the record.”
As much as the members of REO Speedwagon love performing, they don’t exactly enjoy the traveling.
“Every time I’m sitting on an airplane for five hours, I say I’m going to retire,” Doughty says. “But then we get out there, hear the reaction and realize why we do what we do.
“A few weeks off and we realize, ‘Yeah, I kind of miss that,’ and we’re ready to sign up for another tour.”