By Eleni P. Austin
It’s hard to believe that Cheap Trick has been rocking America for nearly 50 years. It seems like just yesterday that the singles “I Want You To Want Me” and “Surrender” were climbing the charts. Maybe that’s because those songs sound as fresh, innovative and exciting today as they did in the late ‘70s.
Guitarist Rick Nielsen has music in his blood. Both his parents were opera singers, later his dad opened his own music store in Rockford, Illinois. Something of a musical prodigy, Rick mastered drums, keyboards and guitar before he hit junior high. Born in 1948, he was high school age when the Beatles blew his mind, on the Ed Sullivan show. He made his bones in a number of bands, the last one, Phaetons morphed into the Grim Reapers and briefly included future Cheap Trick bassist, Tom Petersson.
At the dawn of the ‘70s, Rick and Tom reconnected in the Philadelphia band Sick Man Of Europe. Drummer Bun E. Carlos (ne’ Brad M. Carlson) joined the line-up just as the band imploded. But the trio returned to Rockford and recruited singer Randy “Xeno” Hogan, before permanent vocalist Robin Zander stepped behind the mic.
First known as The Fuse, by 1974, the four-piece became known as Cheap Trick. For the next three years they played over 200 shows. From dive bars and local clubs, they worked their way up to becoming the go-to openers for heavy-hitters like Kiss, Boston, Santana, Journey and the Kinks. After years of woodshedding, they honed a powerhouse set and adopted quirky stage personas that never reached the theatrical heights of Kiss, but were effective nonetheless.
Robin and Tom were the pretty/handsome frontmen. With a cigarette dangling from his lips, nerdy glasses, narrow tie and white dress shirt, Bun E. looked like a bored accountant moonlighting as a drummer in a strip club. Rick’s look, from the flipped bill of his baseball cap to his comical facial expressions, mirrored the bratty rebellion of Bowery Boy Huntz Hall.
Relentless gigging meant that Cheap Trick not only refined their live sets, but they also amassed at least 200 original songs. By 1976, they signed with Epic Records. Their self-titled debut arrived a year later. Their sound was a protean alchemy of Beatlesque Power Pop and Who-inspired Power chords. Unfortunately, nobody was really paying attention. Disco dominated the AM radio dial, FM was emersed in 17 minute Yes songs. Punk was catching on in England, but America seemed besotted by actor-singers like David Soul and John Travolta.
Less than a year later Cheap Trick was back with the candy-coated crunch of In Color and in the Spring of 1978, they released their third and best album, Heaven Tonight. Despite the fact that most of America paid them no mind, Japan welcomed them with open arms. All three of their albums went gold there. Their first Japanese tour was shockingly successful. Cheap Trick were treated like teen idols. It was their ‘70s version of Beatlemania. Capitalizing on their popularity, the band recorded two live shows at the Budokan arena in front of 1,200 screaming fans.
Cheap Trick At Budokan was released in Japan late 1978. A souvenir of sorts, it was really meant as a “thank you” for their passionate Japanese fans. Ironically, America finally took notice. Suddenly, import copies of ….Budokan were flying off the shelves. Radio caught on and put a live version of “I Want You To want Me” into heavy rotation along with “Surrender,” the strangely subversive opening cut from Heaven Tonight. Epic finally released a domestic version of the album in February, 1979. It steadily climbed the charts, hitting #4 on the Billboard Top 200. Ultimately it sold three million copies. Cheap Trick rode out the remainder of the ‘70s as unlikely superstars. Their fourth long-player, Dream Police” came out that fall. It peaked at number six on the charts and was certified platinum soon after. Unfortunately, the band seemed to lose their footing throughout the ‘80s. Following their fifth effort, 1982’s All Shook Up, Tom Petersson left the band intent on a solo career.
Even though All Shook… was produced by veteran Beatles producer George Martin, the results were lackluster. Tom was replaced first by Pete Comita and then John Brant. They released a series of dullsville albums like One On One, Next Position Please, Standing On The Edge and The Doctor. Each one seemed consigned to the cut-out bin five minutes after they appeared.
Tom rejoined in 1988 and Cheap Trick recorded their best-selling ‘80s album, Lap Of Luxury. Their brief return to the spotlight was propelled by the hit song “The Flame.” Ironically, they didn’t even write the flaccid power ballad. Epic Records insisted they rely on hired guns, so four of the album’s 10 tracks came from outside songwriters.
As the 20th century wound down, it seemed as though the record industry had abandoned the band. Luckily, their fans still remembered. Kids who had memorized every lyric, guitar lick and drum fill of …Budokan, grew up to become successful musicians in their own right. Members of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins had all been weaned on Cheap Trick’s infectious sound. The Beastie Boys’ “Check Your Head” opened by mimicking Robin’s halting intro to “Surrender” on Budokan; (“this is the first song on our new album…”). Soon enough they were touring with Guided By Voices and playing select shows with super fans like Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam.
Despite shitty distribution, their second self-titled effort, released in 1997, was their best reviewed album since the late ‘70s. A couple years later, a whole new generation was introduced to the band when they recorded a version of Big Star’s “In The Street,” which was used as the theme song for the hit TV series, “That ‘70s Show.”
In the ensuing years Cheap Trick has toured consistently, occasionally releasing new records. Rockford arrived in 2006, The Latest, three years later. They celebrated the 40th anniversary of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper by recording a live version of the epochal album. Unfortunately, in 2010, Bun E. Carlos had a dispute with the guys over an upcoming tour. He ended up quitting the band. Rick Nielsen’s son Dax stepped behind the kit as the band’s touring drummer. Although he sued the band, all parties reached an amicable settlement. Bun E. is still an official member of Cheap Trick, but he no longer tours or records with them. A little later, they connected with super-fan Scott Borchatta, who is also the founder of Nashville’s Big Machine label (home to Toby Keith, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flats). He signed them to his label and through those auspices released their 17th studio album, Bang Zoom Crazy…Hello in 2016. The record garnered positive reviews and debuted at #31 on the charts. That same year, Cheap Trick was finally inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. (About fuckin’ time).
The band took a bit of a victory lap, releasing two studio albums in 2017, We’re All Alright and the holiday themed Christmas Christmas. Now they’ve returned with their 20th album, In Another World. It opens with the one-two punch of “The Summer Looks Good On You” and “Quit Waking Me Up.”
“….Summer” is a blast of sunshiny harmonies raucous and raunchy guitars, taut bass lines and a pile-driving beat. Longing for escape, the lyrics are a perfect antidote to post-Covid malaise; “A wasted moon in the afternoon, that’s no good for you/Thought I’d seen it all, from mankind to tan lines, I ain’t seen nothing like you.” Skittery guitars color the margins of the melody and majestic keys carom through the break.
The melody of “Quit…” shares some musical DNA with the Fab Four’s “Getting Better.” Knockabout percussion connects with angular bass, marauding guitars and a synth-horn fanfare. The hooky arrangement is made more appealing by Robin’s sing-song approach. Playful lyrics blur the lines between attraction and irritation; “Quit waking me up, I’ve had enough of you bringing me down, you’re winding me up and I’ve fallen in love with the way that you sound.” On the break, greasy guitars hopscotch through a stompy beat.
While they had a massive radio hit with that bilious “Flame” song (what? it’s not as if they it), ballads have never been Cheap Trick’s forte. They reverse that trend here on three tracks. “I’ll See You Again” is a fluttery lullaby that blends feathery guitars, bloopy keys and sweetly spacey strings. On “Passing Through” acoustic and electric guitars coalesce around thrumming bass and a hiccup-y beat. Urgent lyrics seem intent on jumpstarting an expired romance with “a casual girl like you.” Garrulous guitars phase and smolder on the break. Meanwhile, “So It Goes” is a warm and piquant tribute to a capricious love. Rippling guitar riffs wrap around Robin’s tender croon, Gauzy keys wash over, echoing the pillowy instrumentation on the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lyrics like “Amazed that time flies by so fast or so it seems if mountains pour into the sea, I thought there’d still be a you and me” mourn missed opportunities. The gossamer arrangement evinces a pleasing pastoral grace.
The band liked the title track so much that they offer up two different versions. First up is a thunking mid-tempo Rocker that lattices acoustic and electric riffs over tensile bass and willowy keys. Heartfelt lyrics seem to reflect the sturm und drang of the last few years; “Been so hard, just so hard of late. sooo tired that I can’t keep straight/With all this hate, just come inside out of the blues/I will be there for you, I will be by your side, we’ll find us a way to have shelter and say we believe in, in another world.”
If the first go round of Another World is comparable to and elegant ride in a Rolls Royce, the second iteration is a snappy spin behind the wheel of a souped-up muscle car. Feedback guitar riffs collide with tensile bass lines as Dax pounds a walloping triple-time tattoo on his drum kit. Most of the song is jittery and caffeinated, until they break out stacked, Beatlesque harmonies on the bridge, the final verse offers a glimmer of optimism; “Things will work and fate will have its way, nothing can bring us down come what may/I’ll love you now and ever after anyway, that is the answer for the world today.”
The best tracks unfurl one after the next. Stuttery power chords ricochet around boomerang bass lines, atop a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm on “Boys & Girls & Rock N Roll.” Lyrics limn the hedonistic pleasures of life on the road, caustically cautioning “Take it easy, it’s only Rock n Roll.” Guitars scorch and strafe on the break.
“The Party” hurtles headlong down the tracks at locomotive speed. Rapid-fire riff-age rides roughshod over knotty bass and a galumphing beat. Cryptic lyrics allude to an estrangement; “With the beat of your heart and the beat of my soul, we always re-arranged, let the melodies flow/It’s a shame we have this distance, it’s just too far away, I was lost in this dream, ok, well I woke up today.”Rick unleashes a stratospheric solo on the break that buzzes and howls with intensity.
Finally, “Final Days” is anchored by an anvil beat, low-slung bass, gutbucket guitar and a surprising sing-a-long chorus. Covid-contoured lyrics seem to point toward end times; “We’re living in the final days, remembering yesterday, seems so… been so long/Now that we’re in the final days, the road is filled with shadows.” Things get positively down and dirty on the break when Bluesy harmonica and cross-cut guitars lock into an intricate pas des deux.
Other interesting songs include the search-and-destroy throb of “Light Up The Fire” and the manic “Here’s Looking At You,” which employs shang-a-lang guitars and icy keys that recall the title track from “Dream Police.” As the record winds down to a close. Cheap Trick revisits a tradition they began with The Move’s “California Man” and continued with Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That A Shame” and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” the band put’s their Rockford stank all over John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.”
John’s gritty diatribe decrying duplicity, misogyny and avarice feels as perspicacious today, as it did 50 years ago. Muscular guitars are bookended by sinewy bass and a kick-drum backbeat. Robin spits verses like “I’m sick and tired of hearing things from uptight short-sighted narrow-minded hypocrites, all I want is the truth, just give me the truth/I’ve had of reading things by neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians, all I want is the truth, just give me the truth,” as though he’s aiming at the former Prevaricator-in-chief and the mendacious, media-whores that still give him a platform. It’s a powerful finish to a rollicking good record.
Cheap Trick was augmented by longtime producer Julian Raymond (Glen Campbell, Fleetwood Mac, Fastball), as well as Jimmy Hall on harmonica, Tim Lauer and Bennett Salvay on keys and ex-Sex Pistol, Steve Jones on guitar. It became even more of a family affair when Robin’s son, Robin Taylor Zander, chimed in on guitar and additional vocals.
In Another World is a worthy addition to the Cheap Trick canon. Even though the guys have been at it for nearly half a century, their music feels ageless.