Arena rock rattled the rafters in the seventies and eighties. These concerts were the reason teens such as myself were warned that we would go deaf “listening to that crap!”
Arena rock wasn’t so much about a genre but a style that sounded best in huge halls. Screaming guitars and power ballads along with the rump-shaking drum solos had a home.
Then, the commercialism of MTV beckoned and some of the highest selling arena rockers of all time lost their touch. These bands sold out to fit the mold instead of staying true to their roots, recording hit records that long-time fans didn’t recognize.
My first arena concert was REO Speedwagon at the Ohio Center in Columbus in March of 1983. I can still remember the encore of “Ridin’ the Storm Out” like it was yesterday. School dances and skating parties echoed with the sounds of Foreigner and Heart.
And each of these groups recorded an album in the eighties that would satisfy the MTV generation, but leave me asking “Is that really them?”
In 1980, Hi Infidelity was REO’s first number one album. Just a few years later, REO Speedwagon choked with “Can’t Fight This Feeling” from their 1984 album Wheel’s Are Turnin’. Was it the popularity of “Keep on Lovin’ You” from Hi Infidelity that turned REO Speedwagon into balladeers?
These songs don’t even come close to the power ballad status of “Time for Me to Fly” from 1978’s You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish. This classic power ballad came in the middle of sets including “Roll With the Changes” and “Keep Pushin'”. The obligatory Gary Richrath guitar solo in the middle of the new ballads seemed an afterthought.
If “Can’t Fight This Feeling” wasn’t enough evidence that REO Speedwagon had lost their seventies arena rock star status, 1987’s “In My Dreams” sealed their fate.
Foreigner eased into the MTV age with their gospel-tinged “I Want to Know What Love Is” from Agent Provocateur, released in late 1984. While the video was one of the biggest MTV hits of 1985 and the single was at the top of the charts, album sales were much lower than the previous 4 or even their debut album Foreigner.
There is a school of thought that 1981’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You” from the Mutt Lange-produced 4 could have been the downturn. Foreigner primarily stayed true to arena rock star form with the rest of the album, including “Urgent” and “Jukebox Hero”, so a single power balled was accepted and forgiven.
While there it is virtually impossible to not recognize Ann Wilson’s powerful vocals, Heart’s self-titled 1985 album was NOT Dreamboat Annie or Little Queen.
“What About Love”, “These Dreams” and “Never” all featured Nancy Wilson’s unequaled guitar skills and Ann’s inimitable voice, but they all sounded like the hits being pumped out by every eighties hair band.
In the arena rock era, Ann and Nancy Wilson were selling out arenas with the “big boys” with the power of hits such as “Barracuda”, “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You”.
On the Heart official website, Ann Wilson states “We were definitely making a devil’s bargain in the Eighties…it did allow us to transit over a period when we could have fallen into a black hole. But we wouldn’t want to go back there and make any more music we don’t feel totally connected to.”
I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels that way.
Sources: Starpulse.com ; Heart ; Foreigner ; REO Speedwagon