Women in Music 2016

How REO Speedwagon Revolutionized Albums' Singles Releases, From Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' to Taylor Swift's '1989'

Paul Natkin/WireImage
REO Speedwagon performing on Feb. 5, 1981 in Chicago, Il.

The classic love song 'Keep on Loving You' helped lead to record labels releasing more singles from sets than previously in the rock era. A former Epic Records exec offers the inside story.

As previously reported, Taylor Swift's blockbuster 1989 has joined a select group of albums to yield five or more top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100. The set gained entrance to the exclusive club with its fifth single, and fifth top 10, "Wildest Dreams."

From Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' to Taylor Swift's '1989': Albums with Five Top 10 Hot 100 Hits

What's noticeable about the list of albums with at least five Hot 100 top 10s is how none earned the honor until Michael Jackson's Thriller, in 1982-84, and how, after no sets managed the achievement in the rock era's previous three decades, the feat quickly became a trend.

Following Thriller, a whopping 12 other albums yielded such hauls on the Hot 100 in the '80s, including Jackson's 1987 follow-up Bad. Of those 13 sets, two were released on Epic Records (Jackson's smashes) and three on then-CBS/now-Sony Music sister label Columbia Records: Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., George Michael's Faith and New Kids on the Block's Hangin' Tough.

That Epic and Columbia played such a key role in starting the movement toward albums boasting five or more top 10 Hot 100 hits isn't a coincidence. And, while Thriller was the first such hit-packed LP, seeds were sown with an earlier album: REO Speedwagon's Hi Fidelity, released on Epic in 1980. (The set topped the Billboard 200 for 15 weeks, beginning Feb. 21, 1981.)

How did the Kevin Cronin-fronted band cause waves that, 35 years later, are still helping Swift sail to rarely charted waters?

'ONE OF THOSE MAGIC RECORDS'

Ron McCarrell served as Epic vice president of marketing in 1979-87, thus, dating to when the label released Jackson's 1979 album Off the Wall, which generated four Hot 100 top 10s. Notably, two years earlier, Fleetwood Mac had released Rumours, on Reprise/Warner Bros., which became the first album to produce a quartet of top 10 Hot 100 hits.

McCarrell says that several factors converged to help instill a new template for singles releases in those years, with Hi Infidelity especially at the forefront of the shift (even if it produced two Hot 100 top 10s, not four). Key reasons why: changes in Epic's marketing department, as well as at radio.

"In 1980, I'd been at Epic a year and we had a new team, led by general manager Don Dempsey," McCarrell recalls. "REO Speedwagon represented [our team's] first No. 1 album [Hi Infidelity] and single ['Keep On Loving You,' on the March 21, 1981 Hot 100]."

The success bred bold thinking in order to play to the strengths of a changing radio landscape at the time.

"It was the band's moment, and we had [the then-burgeoning] album-oriented rock on FM radio and the top 40 format on AM, primarily. Sometimes they intersected," McCarrell says. "In this case, REO Speedwagon had good acceptance at album rock. They were a touring act and had been building leading up to Hi Infidelity.

"'Keep On Loving You' was one of those magic records, a 'power ballad.' It was still acceptable to rock and enough of a pop-sounding record that the top 40 guys really liked it, too."

With multiformat appeal, an element not quite as entrenched even a few years earlier when Rumours reigned, REO Speedwagon helped labels motor to a new model, thanks to its hit love song. "Bang, it took off," McCarrell says. More importantly: "Album sales went through the roof.

"When you have that base of album sales, that's the time to maximize that strength and take advantage of running singles up the charts."

To that thinking, Epic followed "Keep On Loving You" with midtempo classic "Take It On the Run," which reached No. 5 on the Hot 100. Third single, the rocky "Don't Let Him Go," rose to No. 24 and fourth release "In Your Letter," with its pop-friendly doo-wop undertones, became the LP's fourth top 40 Hot 100 hit, climbing to No. 20.

'LOOK AT WHAT THESE GUYS ARE DOING'

Thriller went three steps further than Hi Infidelity (and Rumours and Off the Wall), becoming the first album to go five, six and seven top 10s-deep on the Hot 100. The singles translated to record-breaking success, as Thriller is the most-certified studio album (29-times Platinum), according to the RIAA.

Thanks to REO Speedwagon and Jackson, views evolved outside Epic, too. "Warner Bros., Elektra Records and Atlantic Records were our big competition," McCarrell says. "People there might've said, 'Look at what these guys [Epic] are doing.'

"Still, you need integrity of an artist and strength of the music."

Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down, released on Motown, became the second album to harvest five Hot 100 top 10s, in 1983-84. After Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. (seven top 10s in 1984-86), on Columbia, four more sets boasting five top 10s apiece (and not released on Columbia or Epic) followed by 1987: Janet Jackson's Control (A&M); Madonna's True Blue (Sire/Warner Bros.); Genesis' Invisible Touch (Atlantic); and Huey Lewis & the News' Fore (Chrysalis).

Thus, by 1989, when Swift was born, the prototype for her eventual blockbuster pop album had become established.

Taylor Swift's '1989' One-Year Anniversary: 13 Impressive Chart Facts for the Blockbuster Album

For that matter, why didn't the pattern start sooner? McCarrell cites a few reasons: a relative lack of variety in radio formats before album rock; the accepted practice of acts releasing multiple albums a year, not allowing for generally more than two singles from each LP; and, the mindset that pop music was largely singles-based, as it was considered easier to hook new consumers with a single that sold for less than a dollar instead of a more costly album investment.

Says McCarrell, who worked at Capitol after joining Epic, "In the '60s, the Beatles were putting out two albums a year, so they didn't have time to have four, five, six singles from an album. Based on the music, they certainly could've had more hits …

"The biz, as a whole, just didn't have a template then for a group that would become that popular."

'SINGLES SELL ALBUMS'

Fleetwood Mac and Jackson broke boundaries, REO Speedwagon helped Epic roll further changes and Thriller put in motion practices that, most recently, have helped Katy Perry (six Hot 100 top 10s from Teenage Dream, including a record-tying five No. 1s, matching Jackson's Bad for the most toppers from a single set) and Swift reach new heights in their ascents to pop superstardom.

1989, Swift's first album with five Hot 100 top 10s, has sold 5.4 million copies, according to Nielsen Music. It has outsold each of her last two LPs, 2012's Red and 2010's Speak Now.

McCarrell (now mostly retired, although he advises his son, a composer, on contractual matters and still enjoys "digging around for new music ... even if on my computer instead of in dirty bins of a record store") says that while artist talent turns over, the formula for success that he helped helm in the early '80s clearly still works.

"Singles sell albums. We were selling albums, plus 45s, and singles sales never negatively affected album sales. It's a case of one-plus-one equals three."

Additional research assistance by former Sony Music executives Rich Appel and Dan Beck.