In his 2012 memoir, NO SLEEP ‘TIL SUDBURY: Adventures in ‘80s Hard Rock and Metal Deconstruction, Canadian author Brent Jensen references a specific “white hot” moment when a music artist’s creative “spark” burns brightest. Although the Illinois-based band REO Speedwagon would launch into the stratosphere in 1980 with the release of their multi platinum-selling, pop-flavored, #1 monster, Hi Infidelity, I’ve always maintained that REO’s creative “white hot” moment is reflected best in the grooves of Hi Infidelity’s rock-fueled predecessor, Nine Lives. And for longtime fervent followers such as myself, it’s kinda hard to believe that this fat-free, wrinkle-free, fit as a fiddle LP will be celebrating its 40th birthday next week.
Produced by REO’s once-estranged frontman Kevin Cronin, co-founding guitarist Gary Richrath (d. 2015) and audio ace Kevin Beamish (Jefferson Starship, Y&T, Michael Schenker Group), Nine Lives is the slightly scrappier-sounding, stylistic twin sister to the band’s other sweetest set, 1978’s You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish.
Given the popular disco craze of the era, Nine Lives was considered a heavy rock slab at the time. Presented in black spandex, black leather and even a black gangsta suit, the band members’ appearance was sleeker and edgier-looking than on their previous eight album covers. Nine Lives soon reached #33 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status (500,000 copies) by December 1979.
Despite the band’s heavier sound and sexier look, what makes Nine Lives one of the two shiniest jewels of the REO catalog is the songs — nine well-crafted, all-new, signature-style, radio-friendly rock treasures from a still-hungry combo.
Crank up this song anytime you’re thinking of getting “Back On The Road.”
A Cronin / Richrath collaborative songwriting effort, “Heavy on Your Love” kicks off the record with a ferocious opening Richrath riff, glossed with Neal Doughty’s fat and moist classic organ styling — leading into Cronin’s libido-driven proclamation, I’m gettin’ heavy on your love, every night. Gettin’ ready for your love, with all of my might. Richrath’s wah-wah work on “Heavy” is simply bottom-blistering. And just when you feel the strength to offer up a half-hearted, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” he thwacks ya again with the blistering guitar intro of track #2, “Drop It (An Old Disguise)” — a magnificent cock-rocker, accented by Doughty’s super-crisp piano solo.
A pair of Richrath-penned compositions, “Only the Strong Survive” showcases all things beautiful and glorious about REO at the time and “Easy Money” depicts a presumed fictional experience of being busted while smuggling cocaine inside a guitar case into Peru — a compelling far cry from “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” that’s for sure.
“Pastor” Cronin “preaches” love and forgiveness convincingly in “Take Me,” while his engaging love song, “I Need You Tonight” arguably is the record’s most infectious earworm. Featuring an irresistible Doughty piano solo, it could have been a comfy fit on Hi Infidelity.
Another high-octane highlight, “Meet Me on the Mountain” segues seamlessly into bassist Bruce Hall’s lead vocal contribution, the hard-driving, record-closing, “Back on the Road Again.” Telling an authentic tale of being a rock dude on the road, Hall seemingly promises a “tour chick,” Maybe I’ll see you the next time that I’m around. Ha-ha — of course you will! This furious track remains a staple of both classic rock radio playlists and the band’s concert setlist.
A publicity photo of the group around the release of Nine Lives:
Before signing off, I should point to the musical “Krazy Glue” that holds Nine Lives together so famously — the no-nonsense, meat and potatoes work of co-founding drummer, Alan Gratzer. The band’s oft overlooked, unsung MVP, Gratzer was a major influence for many young aspiring drummers of the day — myself included.
By the mid ‘80s, they’d become the anointed “Princes of Pop Provolone.” However, in the late ‘70s, REO Speedwagon were the crowned “Kings of American Hard Rock.” And no other record found in their impressive catalog screams that point more profoundly than Nine Lives. A “white hot” moment, indeed.
Nine Lives Track Listing
01. Heavy on Your Love – 3:35
02. Drop It (An Old Disguise) – 3:14
03. Only the Strong Survive – 3:52
04. Easy Money – 4:02
05. Rock & Roll Music – 2:56
06. Take Me – 3:30
07. I Need You Tonight – 3:35
08. Meet Me on the Mountain – 4:04
09. Back on the Road Again – 5:39
Run Time: 34:24
Release Date: July 20, 1979
Record Label: Epic