35 Years Ago: REO Speedwagon Release Second No. 1, ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’
It took 10 years for Kevin Cronin to complete the song that became one of REO Speedwagon’s most definitive power ballads. When he finally delivered it, he hated the title, but he couldn't fight it anymore.
The roots of “Can’t Fight This Feeling” went back, like many of Cronin's songs, to an old relationship. On the surface, the song is about a guy who's finally admitting he’s in love with someone he’s known for a long time; more directly, the singer and songwriter later explained, it was “about my inability to have the courage to express myself.”
“It's a little bit of an amalgamation,” Cronin told Songfacts in an interview. “A song usually is sparked by something that I have an emotional response to. But there is actually more than one person that that song was inspired by. … I was brought up in an Irish-Catholic family, and you were taught to always keep a bright face, always act like everything was okay, even if maybe everything on the inside wasn't so okay. So that's something I've struggled with and, over the years, have gotten better at.”
Cronin settled down to complete the track in 1984, while the members of REO Speedwagon were taking time off from what had become a challenging schedule. He was in Hawaii when he turned his attention once again to a piece he was calling “My Guiding Light.”
“When I wrote the verses for that song, I felt like I’d captured lightning in a bottle," he explained later. "It was just a very emotional night for me when I wrote ‘em. But I never wrote a chorus. One day I was set to co-write the chorus with Eric Carmen from the Raspberries, and I work up that morning and I was deathly sick. I called Eric, and I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t do it today.' But I was laying there in bed, and I was thinking, ‘You know, I really don’t wanna co-write this song. This song is so special for me, I gotta figure this out.’”
Cronin remembered being in bed, unable to fight the feeling of being ill, and asking himself what he was missing in the lyrics. He told himself, “The opening line of the song is, ‘I can’t fight this feeling any longer’ – I was like, ‘That’s what the song’s about. It’s about having a feeling and fighting it for so long until you finally have to surrender.‘ I gotta throw this out there. I might get shot down, I might not.’”
The next thing he couldn’t fight anymore was the track's name. “I’m like, ‘All right, I guess the title of the song is “I Can’t Fight This Feeling.” … That’s a terrible song title! I can’t believe I’m going to [name] this song I’m so proud of with this shitty song title!’ Well, I got to!”
The cut appeared on REO Speedwagon’s 11th album, Wheels Are Turnin’, in November 1984. “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was its second single, released in late January 1985; it held the No. 1 position for three consecutive weeks in March – only their second single to reach the top spot, following 1981’s “Keep on Loving You”.
Despite its success, Cronin also couldn’t fight the one line he knew would get him into trouble: “It’s time to bring this ship into the shore.” “I get so much crap for that line -- deservedly,” he said later. “I knew I was going to get shit for it. It’s almost bubblegum. I knew there would be a lot of people that would hate it, but I also had this feeling that it would stick in people’s heads so much that I couldn’t possibly not use it in the song.”
"Can't Fight This Feeling" landed REO Speedwagon a spot at that summer's Live Aid concert, where they performed the song as the first of their two numbers.
“They had a revolving stage where there was never a break between bands,” keyboardist Neil Doughty told NYS Music in 2015. “They said ‘Okay, as soon as the stage rotates into view, start playing.’ … As I began playing ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling,' nothing was coming out of the piano. So, I stopped. Come to find out it was coming out to the feed that was going on television, but we weren’t hearing it. … I looked over to our monitor guy and go, ‘You ready?’ [and] then I start playing it again, and then this time I could hear it. So, if you watch that old tape from Live Aid, you’ll see me play about two bars of ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling,’ then stop and go, ‘Are you ready?’”
He recalled that the band was told that "there were about 1 billion people watching us on television. Then when I hit the first note of our biggest song, and nothing comes out … . Guess that shows: Whether it’s 1 billion or a crowd of one person, you never know when something will go wrong.”
In a separate interview, Doughty told Something Else that the band had to stop fighting constant requests for more similar songs. “From that time on, radio only wanted that type of power ballad from us,” he recalled. “We spent the next three records releasing a rocker first, trying to get them to play that. They would always call us up and go, ‘Where’s the ballad? When can we play the ballad?’ So, that was a little frustrating, in that we couldn’t ever get, from that point on, a big hit that was anything other than a ballad. ... You can’t complain about the fact that it was power ballads that put us on the map. We wouldn’t be working today if it were not for those big ballads.”
He also talked up the value of songs like “Can’t Fight This Feeling." “A big ballad does not bring down the energy level at all," he noted. "These aren’t little acoustic folk songs. These are great, big screeching-guitar, big drums, even though the tempo is slower. So they don’t really bring down the energy level at all. ... I don’t think we’ve ever had people just show up, hear the hits and then leave. Our crowd pretty much likes all the stuff we had in the ‘70s. Even though they weren’t No. 1, they got enough airplay on the radio and on classic radio now. People know those as well as they do the ballads. They cheer a little louder when one of the ballads comes up.”
When John Lewis, the U.K. chain retailer, was looking for a song to anchor its annual celebrated holiday ad campaign in 2019, "Can't Fight This Feeling" came out the winner. Dan Smith, from the band Bastille, was chosen to record a cover of the song. It was a hit. Even Cronin couldn’t fight his positive feelings about the new version. “I’m an okay singer, I can sing the songs I wrote, but some people have a rare gift in their throat," he said. "Hearing your song sung by them is wonderful, and that’s how I feel about Dan’s version.”
Looking back, Cronin told Songfacts that, "at that time, the only way I knew to express those feelings was to write songs about them. I've learned over the years that it works better to talk to people. You can actually become closer to other human beings when you are vulnerable and express yourself and are free to tell the truth and to be honest and to be up front with your feelings. It does work. Back in those days, the best that I could do was write a song about it.”