[Full disclosure: I worked on Cheap Trick’s box set and instigated the band’s Steve Albini-produced single on Sub Pop in 1997.–Ira Robbins]
At a time when heavy metal had lost its menace and was fading into side-show stupidity, Cheap Trick — a powerhouse that had long been dominating Midwest clubs and bars — blew out of Rockford, Illinois and set about proving that commercial rock writ large enough for football fields could also be wry, cavalier and sarcastic. Rick Nielsen stepped right through the guitar hero stereotype, wringing out glorious garbage while upholding the nascent punk ethos by refusing to take the pose seriously. Although the quartet for a time lost its way by buying into the expectations raised by large-scale success, Trick’s records and shows positively influenced several generations of future bands growing up American in the ’70s and ’80s. Post-punks from the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Das Damen and Redd Kross to Big Black (who went to the trouble of covering “He’s a Whore” on a 1987 single) took something from them; ’90s altern-icons like Smashing Pumpkins have paid their propers as well. While the brutally efficient Kiss also wielded major musical clout on impressionable youngsters, Cheap Trick managed to make rock stardom look like fun, providing a commendable archetype at a time when stardom was a near-certain guarantee of creative tedium and timidity.
Drawing its primary inspiration from the unexpected Anglo poles of the Move (weight and wit) and Beatles (melody and merriment), Cheap Trick came on hard, loud and smart, investing pure pop with thunder and playing gigs that, while formulaic and gimmicky in the extreme, had (and, in the 21st century, still have) all the punch and spirited good humor that older, tired arena bands lacked. The black-and-white Cheap Trick is an absolute stunner, immediately recognizable in the onslaught of Tom Petersson’s treble-ripping bass, Nielsen’s incisive guitar theatrics, Robin Zander’s nuclear assault voice and Bun E. Carlos’ Watts-like simple and steady drumming. Well-honed songs sizzle and explode under Jack Douglas’ all-electric production. Ultimately, though, it’s the depth of warped personality that comes through the songs that makes this album so potent. “Taxman” turns the George Harrison gripe upside down with a twist; “He’s a Whore” rocks with a ragingly melodic chorus; “The Ballad of TV Violence (I’m Not the Only Boy)” displays a healthy nasty streak in portraying Chicago mass murderer Richard Speck (albeit in the vaguest terms); the tautly tuneful “Oh Candy” laments a friend’s (true story) suicide in the band’s typically oblique fashion. Terry Reid’s “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” is indistinguishable from the Nielsen/Petersson originals, which is a credit to both their writing and playing. Rock doesn’t get any better than this. (But don’t put too much faith in the fabricated biography of the liner notes by future superstar novelist Eric Van Lustbader.) The CD edition that came out in 1998 adds five contemporaneous outtakes, all well worth hearing, including a brisk, rocking rendition of “I Want You to Want Me,” a song ultimately left off the album.
In Color (And in Black and White), produced by Tom Werman (who went on to score metal with Ted Nugent, Mötley Crüe and Poison), consolidates the band’s pop potential by reducing the buzzy guitar raunch in favor of a cleaner, more clearly articulated sound. Trick maintains its anti-establishment coolness with “Downed,” an undisguised paean to barbiturates, and the bitchy “You’re All Talk” while reiterating the genial leer of the debut’s “Hot Love” in “Southern Girls” and less pointed romantic intentions in “So Good to See You” and “I Want You to Want Me.” The song’s second studio version has an obviously commercial clean pop bounce that didn’t work. (The song did, however, a year later when a concert recording of it became the band’s first hit single.) The bonus tracks on the reissue include the goofy fun of the non-LP B-side “Oh Boy,” demos of “Southern Girls” and “Come On, Come On” and a rollicking pair of 1977 live cuts.
Adding keyboards to a generally more ambitious production effort, Heaven Tonight hits a new pinnacle with the brilliant “Surrender” and a new low with the gimmicky and self-serving “On the Radio.” In between, Trick covers the Move (a roaringly great “California Man,” thanks to Carlos’s accent-heavy pounding, a phenomenal Nielsen solo and a deft interpolation of the “Brontosaurus” riff), all but covers ELO (“On Top of the World”), revisits depressant use with the evocative “Heaven Tonight,” makes a witty Midwest pun with yet another “Oh” song (“Oh Claire”), turns farewells fatal in the cynical “Auf Wiedersehen” and paraphrases arena rock in the leering “Stiff Competition.” While not that far in style or intent from In Color, Heaven Tonight in retrospect shows where the band would go wrong, downplaying its sarky, sinister edge (and concomitant musical sensibility) for more obvious appeal. Demos of “Stiff Competition” and “Surrender” are included as bonuses on the reissue.
As a result of Cheap Trick’s burgeoning Asian popularity, the band’s Japanese label recorded a pair of April 1978 Tokyo shows and released a live album, At Budokan, proof of the band’s supreme stage power and an opportunity to introduce several previously unreleased tunes (“Need Your Love,” recorded for the next studio disc, whose release was held up by the live album’s unexpected success, is amazing). The live version of “I Want You to Want Me” was picked up by American radio programmers, who turned it into a Top 10 hit. A dynamic rendition of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” also got play, and the platinum-bound album was finally released in the US the following year. (Years later, Epic dug into the vaults for a companion disc, Budokan II, using three ringer Tokyo tracks from 1979. In 1998, the label stitched together an entire 19-song show in the correct order and issued it as the two-disc Cheap Trick at Budokan: The Complete Concert.)
Dream Police, also produced by Werman, continues the band’s growing dedication to diversity. The wonderfully overstimulated title track is in the same class as “Surrender.” The ballad “Voices” and the paranoid mega-produced title track are pure pop; the nine-minute “Gonna Raise Hell,” meanwhile, builds a rock disco groove with a powerful bass riff and overlays melodramatic vocals about the massacre at Jonestown, fading out with Zander’s anguished shrieks. “I Know What I Want” is quintessential three-chord lumber with a delightfully goofy Petersson lead vocal; the magnificent “Need Your Love” starts out slow and restrained, but builds through seven-plus minutes to an intense boogie-based climax that closes the LP — and the most essential segment of Cheap Trick’s recording career.
As if to celebrate that juncture, a four-song 10-inch EP (later repackaged as a 12-inch and belatedly committed to CD) appeared, containing one previously unissued track from each year, between 1976 and 1979. “Take Me I’m Yours” is a worthwhile studio number; “Daytripper,” supposedly recorded live, lets the group display its affection (if not exactly reverence) for the Beatles.
From the opening “Stop This Game,” the George Martin-produced All Shook Up is a bewildering (and not particular good-sounding) array of Beatlesque production tricks, overburdened instrumentation, inferior material, halfbaked experiments and self-conscious mimicry of the Faces and the Rolling Stones. The band’s playing and singing is swell, and a few songs (the stuttering “Baby Loves to Rock,” “Can’t Stop It but I’m Gonna Try”) withstand the weirdness, but the LP — after which Petersson took an extended powder from the band — is too confused for its own good. “World’s Greatest Lover,” the sort of lyrical notion that might have been funny earlier in the band’s career, lacks the snap to make it sardonic and could almost (egad!) be serious. (It does, however, boast one of Nielsen’s most lyrical and memorable solos on record.)
One on One, produced by Roy Thomas Baker, is more realistic in its aspirations but also suffers from second-rate material. Only the lascivious “She’s Tight” and the obligatory soaring ballad (“If You Want My Love”) make strong impressions in this lackluster outing. New bassist Jon Brant adds nothing to the sound.
Nielsen had played with post-Rundgren remnants of Nazz around 1970, so the choice of Todd to produce the refreshing Next Position Please closed a circle of sorts. (Given Cheap Trick’s evident studio uncertainty the LP could have been titled Next Producer Please.) Returning in part to the straight rock-pop of In Color, but with Rundgren’s distinctive thumbprint, songs like “Borderline,” “I Can’t Take It,” “Won’t Take No for an Answer” and Rundgren’s own contribution, the stupendous “Heaven’s Falling,” make it a welcome return to form. On the downside, the LP also contains an atrocious self-produced version of the Motors’ “Dancing the Night Away” inserted at Epic’s insistence. The cassette and CD contain “You Talk Too Much” and the slide-guitar blues festival, “Don’t Make Our Love a Crime,” neither of which are on the original vinyl.
The next two LPs find Cheap Trick flailing about with skimpy ideas, going through the motions with impaired self-confidence and enthusiasm. Reuniting with Jack Douglas for Standing on the Edge yielded one likable ballad (“Tonight It’s You”), a charged and lewd riff-rocker (“She’s Got Motion”) and one really good pop tune (“This Time Around”), all co-written with professional song doctor Mark Radice, who is also the album’s keyboard player. The abrasive, dated production (complete with way too much echo and hideously gated drums) of The Doctor by metal-man Tony Platt (who mixed Standing on the Edge) renders the lesser material cheesy and obscures the value of solid tunes like “Rearview Mirror Romance,” “The Doctor,” “Good Girls Go to Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)” and “Take Me to the Top,” which deserve better treatment (as well as stronger lyrical personality).
Petersson rejoined the group in time for the Faustian paradox of Lap of Luxury, the creative nadir which provided the group’s long-needed commercial renaissance. Produced by the bombastic Richie Zito, with songs from all sorts of hacks (Nielsen only co-wrote four; Petersson and Zander collaborated on two others), the album gets off to a fine start with “Let Go” and contains the durable “Never Had a Lot to Lose” and a hitbound cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” (a nice touch, but no great achievement), but is otherwise a writeoff. Billy Squier could scarcely have done worse. “The Flame,” a sentimental ballad which went all the way to number one, no longer sounds as yicky as it seemed at the time (the dignified, beseeching Zander vocal does wonders for the borrowed song), but it still feels like a forced Journey back from the values the band once embraced.
Reclaiming some of the songwriting responsibility on Busted, Cheap Trick demonstrates a facility for connecting the phrases that pay on the contemporary compositional template: “Can’t Stop Fallin’ Into Love” is a decent stab at improving on Lap of Luxury‘s store-bought hit that didn’t light up the charts. For all the labored commercial consciousness, several of the original rockers (“I Can’t Understand It,” “Busted”) are encouraging to the point of enjoyability, despite worthless lyrics and deep-seated insincerity. But Zito’s production, the appearance of two miserable demographic song-factory ballads, a guest role for Foreigner’s Mick Jones (as well as Chrissie Hynde and Russell Mael of Sparks), an uninspired Roy Wood cover (now that’s a surprising low) and a Hard Day’s Night-era Beatles knock-off make it another chapter worth skipping over.
Finally ending what had become a poisoned marriage of band and label, Cheap Trick moved on. Epic burped out The Greatest Hits, a shoddy compilation, adding a previously unreleased rendition of “Magical Mystery Tour” to seven Top 40 numbers and five more selections. A few years later, Trick returned to major-label action, making Woke Up With a Monster with renewed rock vigor and an audible sense of relief from the pressures that had cornered them throughout the ’80s. “My Gang” kicks the album into gear with a joyous rush of Gary Glitter fun; the fact that nothing else on the disc quite achieves that infectious ebullience (although the straightforward “You’re All I Wanna Do” and the heartfelt ballad “Never Run Out of Love” come close) in no way decreases the pleasure of hearing the long-running band rediscover itself.
After shedding its long-time manager and seeing to the release a four-disc rarities-packed box set, Sex America Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick released its second self-titled (but first self-produced, in collaboration with Ian Taylor) album, a heavyweight howl of freedom that could have been the follow-up to the original Cheap Trick, since it rocks like a mofo, sizzling and roaring with more focus and fire than anything else in the catalogue. “Eight Miles Low” proves they still have a sense of humor, and even the disc’s acoustic ballads, the heart-rending parental-loss ode “Shelter” and the loving “It All Comes Back to You” can’t be faulted for a lack of sincerity. Packed with accusatory breakup songs like “You Let a Lotta People Down,” “Hard to Tell,” “Baby No More,” and “Wrong All Along,” the album adds seriousness to the mature band’s arsenal and is all the more compelling for it.
Serving notice of their continued vitality, Cheap Trick recorded Music for Hangovers, with liner notes by fanboy Billy Corgan, live onstage at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago in mid-1998. A set of songs from the first four albums (with two exceptions, “If You Want My Love” and “I Can’t Take It”), it serves as an effective primer for late arrivals. Recorded at the band’s 25th anniversary show in Rockford the following year, Silver has a cavalcade of stars (Corgan, Art Alexakis of Everclear, Slash, Nielsen and Zander progeny, Jon Brant and others) and a real sense of history to justify its addition to the band’s concert catalogue.
Authorized Greatest Hits is a bigger and better selection than the 1991 compilation it supplants (going so far as to include “That 70’s Song,” a Big Star cover Trick did for a TV series theme), but the idiotic and sloppy liner notes are an embarrassment.
Special One, Cheap Trick’s first studio album in six years, gets off to a dismaying start with the energetic but irritating “Scent of a Woman.” Lyrics like “A man don’t add up to much, next to a woman / A man can’t ever forget the taste of a woman … A man’s just a day in the life of a woman / Just a few minutes a night to a woman” seem more appropriate to a bad country music artist than to a power-pop band. Even “The Flame” was better than this (and they wrote this one!) Fortunately, things pick up from there, even if the musicians rarely let it rip the way they did on their previous studio effort. Producer Chris Shaw (Redd Kross, Ween, Super Furry Animals) shows sonic restraint, blending in a few more acoustic guitars than Cheap Trick normally uses; the mix is clear but never over-polished. “My Obsession,” the Eastern-flavored “Pop Drone” and the darkly sinister “Sorry Boy” (produced by Steve Albini) are excellent rockers; “Too Much” and “Special One” (produced by returning veteran Jack Douglas) are graceful ballads; “Best Friend” splits the difference effectively, building up from a calm, mannered opening into a ferocious rock ‘n’ roll onslaught. “If I Could” opens with techno bleeps and beats to surprisingly good effect. The album reaches a lame conclusion: its last two tracks, “Low Life in High Heels” (another Albini production) and “Hummer” (handled by Gorillaz’ insider Dan the Automator), are minor variations on the same song, and not a particularly good one at that. Special One may not quite live up to the billing, but its best songs show that the creative rejuvenation displayed on the previous disc was no fluke.
The Essential Cheap Trick draws mostly from the Epic years. Disc One hits the high points from the ’70s albums, although it uses the live version of “Mandocello” from Music for Hangovers. Disc Two culls the obvious standouts from the next quarter-century of releases, including a few post-Epic songs: “Woke Up With a Monster,” “Say Goodbye” (from the second Cheap Trick), a live rendition of “Hard to Tell” (from Silver) and “Scent of a Woman.” This is a good comprehensive overview of Cheap Trick, but fans looking for rarities will prefer the box set.
If the 1997 Cheap Trick measures up to the band’s debut for sheer rocking energy and drive, then Rockford can be compared favorably to Heaven Tonight: an album where the band piles on keyboards, vocal harmonies and as many other pop-wise touches as it can and still comes up with a winning album that’s unmistakably Cheap Trick. The opening “Welcome to the World” is a gleeful uptempo greeting to a newborn child. “Dream the Night Away,” “This Time You Got It,” “Every Night and Every Day” and the marvelous “If It Takes a Lifetime” are mid-tempo rock ‘n’ roll with instantly memorable melodies and intricately layered vocal harmonies. “All Those Years” is a terrific ballad that showcases Zander from the soaring verses to the tender chorus. “One More” joins helium-stoked vocal fillips to a stripped-down groove with a hint of funk. Even the single “Perfect Stranger,” co-written and produced by Linda Perry, fits well with the rest of the album. It could’ve come off as just another Cheap Trick single-for-hire; instead, the band’s personality infuses the song. (Apart from that track, the quartet handles its own production, with assistance from the same worthies who lent a hand on the last album — Chris Shaw, Steve Albini and Jack Douglas.) Curiously, a couple of older song titles get recycled for new songs that don’t resemble their namesakes at all: “O Claire” is an elegant baroque ballad and “Come On, Come On, Come On” is a careening rock number. “Decaf,” a snarky rocker sung by Nielsen, closes this superb album on a triumphant note. (The year after Rockford‘s release, the city of Rockford paid tribute to its beloved musical sons by using the album’s cartoon cover art for its vehicle registration stickers.)
In 2007, Cheap Trick landed what must have been a dream gig: a two-night performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of its release. (Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick served as musical director for the show.) Encouraged by the acclaim it received, the group repeated this performance in several other cities with other orchestras over the next two years, finally releasing its New York show on CD and DVD in 2009. The sound quality on Sgt. Pepper Live is consistently first-rate — so much so that it’s hard not to suspect a significant amount of post-production doctoring. Still, this is more than just a tribute-band copy job. Cheap Trick’s performance is every bit as enthusiastic and passionate as one would expect. Even with an orchestra playing George Martin’s original charts, the group’s own personality shines through. By the encore (a medley of tracks from Abbey Road), it’s hard to believe that the Fab Four themselves could have done a better job with this material had they ever performed it for an audience.
The Latest starts out weakly with the solemn ballad “Sleep Forever” — seriously, why open an album with the lyric “Sleep forever / Sweet dreams in heaven”? But it kicks into gear less than two minutes later with a joyous cover of Slade’s “When the Lights Are Out.” (The band really didn’t need to add an audience track of screaming girls at the end of this tune to convince anyone it rocks.) From there, the disc see-saws between top-drawer rockers like “California Girl,” “Alive” (whose synth riff echoes “Dream Police”), “Everyday You Make Me Crazy” and the squalling “Sick Man of Europe” (the name of Carlos, Nielsen and Petersson’s pre-Trick band) and ballads like “These Days,” “Everyone Knows,” “Times of Our Lives,” the Lennonesque numbers “Miracle” and “Closer, the Ballad of Burt and Linda” (“The love you don’t find / Brings you one step closer to mine”) and the album-closing “Smile.” Co-producer Julian Raymond, who handled a few tracks on Rockford, follows much the same pop-friendly approach of that album. But the over-abundance of ballads lowers the energy level considerably (even though the ballads themselves are pretty good), and Chris Lord-Alge’s mix steers dangerously close to the sort of over-produced excess that the band should’ve left behind when it parted ways with Epic. The Latest is worth a listen, but overall, it’s not the greatest. (The Latest was released on compact disc, vinyl, digital download and 8-track cartridge! That last format may be a nostalgic joke, but it still has to be an improvement over the CD’s cumbersome packaging.)