Out of the bargain bin, into the limelight

The roots of the Arch Allies Tour — and the live CD that spontaneously sprang from it — can be traced all the way back to a redeye flight in 1974. The hand of pop ‘n’ roll fate put Kevin Cronin and Tommy Shaw together on a jet from Chicago to Miami, and the two got to talking. Wouldn’t it be great to play together, maybe even form a band?

But the winds of change blew again, and the band never happened — not in that decade, anyway. Or the next. Instead, Cronin promptly became the singer/songwriter for REO Speedwagon, and Tommy Shaw soon got a call asking if he wanted to leave Alabama to join a little old Midwestern band called Styx. Both men’s dreams of rock stardom came true almost overnight, and the bands went on to sell a collective total of more than 65 million records, playing thousands of arenas worldwide.

Cut to 1999, when Shaw and Cronin were chosen to face off in a VH-1 music-trivia game against fresher faces Rico Suave and Young MC. The two veterans were “smoked” in the lightning round — but as the smoke cleared, they hatched the idea for the Arch Allies Tour, eventually inviting fellow ’80s stars Survivor to come along. That Grammy-winning group, best known for such amp-straining anthems as “Eye of the Tiger” and “The Search is Over,” currently features Jimi Jamison on vocals, Frankie Sullivan on lead guitar, Marc Droubay on drums, Chris Grove on keyboards and Billy Ozzelow on bass. Sullivan and his bandmates have had careers that parallel those of REO and Styx. “We did two tours with [REO] in the ’80s,” explains Sullivan. “Tommy [Shaw] has sung background on two or three of our albums.”

“It’s a pretty strong package we’ve got going right now,” REO’s Cronin tells Mountain Xpress. “[These are] three bands that are really still playing at a really high level at this point in time. As a result, we’re packing these arenas and amphitheaters all over the country. In a lot of ways, it kind of reminds me of the early ’80s.”

Tommy Shaw and other musicians of that era built their reputations on tour, just as the new incarnation of Styx is now doing. “There was no MTV,” Shaw points out. “What you had to do was take your band out and play for the people — so when we finally did get a break at radio, we had millions of fans out there who were ready to stand up and salute.” Shaw has been a devotee of arena rock ever since 1976, when Kiss’ opening act had engine trouble and Shaw’s band MS Funk got the nod on a few hours’ notice. “We were [rehearsing] in a bowling-alley lounge, and this guy came over … and said, ‘Do you want to open for Kiss?’ … [We] played in front of Kiss’ audience in Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery, and I got a taste of it. And in my mind, it was like, I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but this is what I want to do.”

Time has given the band new perspective and inspiration, as Cronin attests. Despite being more than 20 years older, “I just feel better now,” he reports. “As far as my state of mind — back in those days, everything was pretty stressful.” Cronin recalls playing at Live Aid in front of a televised audience of “about a billion people, right between Crosby, Stills and Nash and Black Sabbath.” Now, he says, “We’re out here having a good time. Everyone’s rock ‘n’ roll fantasies have pretty much come true — and it’s just one big sing-along every night.”

Cronin developed the tour’s “Battle of the Bands” theme “with a wink.” Again, destiny played a part. Although REO and Styx never shared the stage, earlier incarnations squared off in Chicago high school competitions during the late ’60s. One night, at the Brother Rice High School Battle of the Bands, Cronin’s LDs lost out to TW4 (the pre-Shaw version of Styx) when that band’s girlfriends allegedly stuffed the ballot box.

Today, the competition is much friendlier. You’d think that this tour would’ve happened long ago, perhaps when REO’s Hi Infidelity (Epic Records, 1980) and Styx’ Paradise Theater (A&M, 1980) slugged it out for the top two positions on the Billboard Album Chart in the spring of ’81. But then, the potential chemical energy of Shaw, Cronin and their fellows would not have remained in perfect stasis. Once again, patient fate proves the wisest, and arena-rock fans eventually collect their just rewards.

The key to the tour’s sold-out shows — nostalgia factor notwithstanding — has been the way the bands strive to top each other’s performances (and their own) every night. The groups insist they’re having the time of their lives, and that’s why REO and Styx decided to record an unprecedented live CD together.

“We couldn’t possibly have foreseen how powerful this thing was going to be and just how much fun it was going to be,” Cronin gushes. “After the first couple weeks of the tour, we just had this feeling among the band and the crew and everyone that we could do anything.” New faces account for some of the difference. In addition to Cronin and keyboardist/founding member Neal Doughty, REO Speedwagon 2000 features bass guitarist Bruce Hall, former Ted Nugent lead guitarist Dave Amato and studio drummer Bryan Hitt. Styx now consists of Shaw, guitarist James “JY” Young, Glen Burtnik (who replaced Shaw for a few years in the mid-’80s) on bass, Lawrence Gowan on keyboards and vocals, and drummer Todd Sucherman (who joined the band a few years ago after the untimely death of original drummer John Panozzo). Most notably, Gowan, a Canadian star with three platinum and five gold albums, has replaced Dennis DeYoung.

“And when the idea of putting together a CD in the middle of the tour came up, it was like, ‘Wait a minute, we can’t do that, that’s impossible. No one has ever made a CD with two bands in the same CD before, much less tried to do it in the middle of the tour,’ ” says Cronin. “And it was just, like, ‘Too bad, we’re going to do it anyway.'”

So it seems, at this point, that both tour and CD — Arch Allies: Live at Riverport (CMC International Records, 2000) — were always meant to be. The CD’s song titles alone bring the ’80s rushing back with a vengeance: “Fooling Yourself,” “Too Much Time on My Hands,” “I Can’t Fight this Feeling,” “Keep on Loving You.” These songs were stirring (oh, just admit it) when they were big hits. Even now, as guilty pleasures, the new disc’s versions have a triumphant feel that both bands’ earlier cuts lack. Call it closure. Or, as Styx and REO portend (both are contemplating new albums), perhaps fate isn’t finished with them yet.

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One thought on “Out of the bargain bin, into the limelight

  1. Eliza

    Mt boss claimed to be in a band while a student at Brother Rice in the 70s. He said his band performed- as did the band Styx. Where can I get more informations regarding this?

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