By Tom Semioli
This feature appeared in Amplifier Magazine, May 2006
"The way I learned how to play guitar was by playing along to TV shows such as Have Gun Will Travel. Da-da-da-da. Diddle-de-dum-de-dum. Gunsmoke and Bonanza too. Dum diddy dum diddy dum dum. Peter Gunn was another good one. Who needed lessons when you had a TV set and nothing else to do all day?"
In late 1970s four guys from the Midwest rescued the pop music world from Tales of Topographic Oceans, Rumors, and conceptual diatribes of how and why a metaphorical Lamb Lied Down on Broadway. "There was a lot of that wasn't there?" laughs Cheap Trick founder, songwriter, and iconic guitarist Rick Nielsen, safe at home in Rockford, Illinois. "Actually there were other things we wanted to get rid of too. Return to Forever? I think it was them and Dance Fever as well!"
Cheap Trick's hearty embrace of Beatle-esqe British rock, bubble-gum, heavy metal and the almighty power chord seems quaint nowadays. However back then, as nihilistic punk, jazz fusion and politically tinged reggae resounded in the major cities and on college radio, Neilsen, bassist Tom Petersson, drummer Bun E. Carlos, and vocalist Robin Zander effectively stamped out the “me” decade with a healthy dose of irreverent eccentricity and impossibly catchy melodies that everyone could sing. Humor was also an integral part of the Check Trick equation, “rock ‘n’ roll needed to be fun again” Neilson reminds us!
It didn't come easy. In the late 1960s Nielsen and Petterson started out as Fuse in their hometown; their first and only record bombed. After migrating to Philadelphia and rechristening the group as Sick Man of Europe they sought fame and fortune to absolutely no avail. Enter Carlos and former folk-singer Zander. Incessant touring in support of 70s super-groups Kiss, Santana, AC/DC, and Queen, among others afforded the newly named Cheap Trick ample opportunity to hone their song-craft and high-energy stage persona for the masses.
Cheap Trick's self-titled debut and sophomore effort In Color were moderate movers in the USA. However the foursome laid claim to the now tongue-in-cheek term "big in Japan" as Cheap Trick records routinely hit gold status in the land of the Rising Sun where their concerts were instant sell-outs. After 1978's Heaven Tonight which yielded their first domestic hit "Surrender," the band released their magnum opus live collection At Budokan. A certified smash in America, the double album was a chart mainstay for over a year with "I Want You To Want Me" emerging as their first Top Ten entry. From then on the band's back catalog began to move and they rocketed to headliners in their homeland. Expectations were high for Dream Police, the band's fourth studio disc, and it did not disappoint with the title track and "Voices" topping the charts.
By 1980 all was not well within the ranks. Petersson left the band, missing out on the legendary John Lennon / Yoko Ono Double Fantasy sessions which did not see the light of day until the 1990s when ex-Beatle's alleged conflict with Cheap Trick producer Jack Douglas was resolved. Beatles producer George Martin came on board to produce All Shook Up but as the tsunami of new wave and hard rock artists latched on to the Cheap Trick formula (infectious riffs plus well crafted pop) the band's commercial appeal began to wane. One On One (1982), Next Position Please (1983), Standing On The Edge (1985), and The Doctor (1986) were workman-like at best. Petersson returned to the fold in '88 and Lap Of Luxury pushed the band back into the Top 20. However that second taste of success was tempered by the failure of Busted (1990) and gaps in recording.
Their first record for Warner Bros., 1994's Woke Up With A Monster went unnoticed. Epic put out Budokan II culled from the same gigs that gave the band international status. Then the tide began to turn in a most unexpected manner.
Cheap Trick finally received what Rodney Dangerfield had pined for all those years ago: respect! The grunge and alt-rock generation, most notably Kurt Cobain, openly praised a band which had uniformly received backhanded compliments from the rock press throughout their storied career. In 1995 Cheap Trick was a special guest on a Smashing Pumpkins tour and the group was a featured artist on the all important Lollapalooza Tour the following year. Box sets, celebrated tours reviving the band's first four albums in their entirety, live albums, a 25th Anniversary DVD/CD set (Silver) and a few more studio efforts (their second self-titled album and 2003's Special One) all proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Cheap Trick has plenty of gas left in the tank.
So what do you do when you've done it all?
You bring it all back home. Boasts Petersson "it's by far our best work yet…this new record has all the best elements of our entire catalogue.” Kicking off with the anthemic "Welcome To The World" the band sounds comfortable in their own skin for the first time in ages. Neilsen opines "Whatever we do will always be compared to what we've done in the past, all the big records. I don't feel like we're competing with ourselves anymore. I think of it more as adding to the list of our inventory."
Unlike some of their earlier efforts Rockford was written communally and self-produced. "We just went in and did it" Neilson says matter-of-factly. We knew we were bound to make a few mistakes. But we have to look at it like we kind of know what we're doing, so we're bound to do something right as well."
However they did enlist a little help from their friends. Legendary knob twiddler Steve Albini came in and mixed Rockford to afford the project a uniform veneer. "We did this record in Chicago, Rockford, New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, we were all over the place with this thing" recalls Neilson. "Steve made it all stick for us."
For the first single "Perfect Stranger" the band deferred to a fan with a pretty decent track record: Linda Perry, who also co-wrote the track. "She actually asked us if she could work with the band" notes Neilson. We love her, she's diverse like us. Linda is a fabulous singer. I don't know if she can dance, but she's an engineer, a musician, a producer, writes songs… she can do it all. If people like Linda like us, we know that's a pretty good indication that we're still viable."
Hooks abound on the syrupy ballad "O Claire." The blues get a work-out on "One More Day." Romantic self-reflection underpins "All Those Years." Fab-Four fueled melodies define "Dream The Night Away" and "Come On Come On Come On." Paranoia peppers "Decaf" (a potential anti-Star Bucks call to arms if there ever was one). "On every record we've made – probably 95% - we've always gone with the first few takes" explains Neilson as to why this record sounds as if the band is in the room.
Neilson is also proud of the band's newfound elder statesman status though he has strong opinions on modern rockers. "It seems as if everybody thinks they're a star. More people know how to dance than play music." As for Cheap Trick's legacy “everything we do is a body of work. We never went on a whim of 'I feel like recording today' or 'we have to put a new single out.' If that were the case we'd have one out every month. We make records because that's what's important to us. Our music is diverse enough where one song certainly does not define us. If it did we wouldn't be around today."
Yes, there will be more Cheap Trick albums in the future. "It's still difficult but it's still fun," cackles Nielsen. "Isn't it cool that we picked a hobby that others would classify as our job?"